What makes fiction real? How can a character cross over from page to reality? Discussing what makes something “human” is nothing new. Philosophers spends lifetimes contemplating the countless different pieces of our lives that connect us together through experiences, emotions, actions, and thoughts, traversing cultures, languages, and countless other barriers. It’s an almost universal theme that makes a book accessible to readers of a variety of backgrounds. Yet, fleshing out a character to be “human” can be one of the most difficult challenges for any writer to accomplish.
The challenge in writing a “real” character is in the details. You can have a solid outline for who your character is, what their purpose will be in the story, and what they will become, but that alone does not make a fictional person tangible. As a writer, you want to go beyond the simple structure of a character, beyond tropes, beyond the plot, beyond your own words, to give them flesh and blood of their own, and to make these characters as real to your reader as any good friend or bitter enemy. And one of the easiest way to approach “humanification” is to give your character Familial Ties.
But before I elaborate, let me stop to ask: What does family mean to you?
I’m certain your answer would vary, depending on your background and experiences, but if we break down our concept of family, there is one core component that stands out: Family is our connection to others.
No matter where you grew up or what experiences shaped your life, it’s the people that you have met along the way that changed how you view the world, how you act, and how you react. Whether the experience was negative and left a scar, or positive and healed your broken heart, it’s these different little connections that helped you to grow and develop into the person you are today.
The same can be said of the most beloved characters in fiction. What makes them relatable and real is not necessarily just their choices, experiences, and emotions, but how the people past, present, and future have had an impact on them. And these ties to others in their own fictional universe is what gives life to an otherwise lifeless character. You celebrate a protagonist who makes a noble sacrifice, because they remember how much their single mom sacrificed to raise them. You loathe an antagonist who snatches away everything from their only friend, because their past was handed to them by coddling parents and they never learned the value of relationships. Grandparents, parents, friends, mentors, significant others, teachers, peers, siblings: all of these relationships can help you to make a character feel more real and complex. And showing what a character has learned from a past or present relationship, whether good or bad, and how that impacts their choices, adds a whole new dimension to them.
It’s the relationships between characters that touches us and leaves the biggest mark on our lives. As you write, ask yourself who in your characters’ lives influenced them to behave the way they do. Decide whether your character is upholding or rebelling against what their “family” has taught them. And let them decide what their values and beliefs will be, based on the people they have known, hated, lost, and loved. For these familial ties are what form a sense of human identity.
What are some types of familial relationships you enjoy seeing in fiction?