Part of the How They Do It Series
Janice Hardy recently penned a post on crafting flaws and how the imperfections in our characters are what make them real, interesting and compelling enough to turn the page. Reflecting upon that, and drawing from my role as a counselor—where I employ a systems theory approach* within both my counseling room and my written work—I considered how to use the roles we often see in dysfunctional families to amplify the flaws we are crafting in our characters; to give those flaws a realistic impetus and an authentic genesis which in turn allows our readers to really embrace these folks as living, breathing beings.
Consider the following typical roles in dysfunctional families—you will recognize where your characters fit and this may even help you craft backstory and other contextual issues that will in turn drive both your character arc and your plot forward.
The Family Hero
When this child was 12 it seemed like he was 45. He is an over-achiever, ultra responsible, anal retentive, and is most likely to be driven, ruthless, and a workaholic. Growing up he gave his family its self-worth because he was such a star, and as a result he feels the need to not only hold himself to a perfect standard all of the time, but he can also be relentlessly critical and judgmental of others. The Family Hero is uptight and rigid—and often internally feels deeply insecure and that he’s loved only on the condition of being ‘perfect’.
In the novel I am about to pitch, The Summit’s Shadow, my hero, Andrew, is a literal ‘Family Hero’—and the trajectory of this role is what amplifies his peril and poor choices.
The Scapegoat / Badass
The family member that the others are ashamed of, the scapegoat is the one who is promiscuous, a drinker, a druggie, or all three. They are our kids who either exhibit Oppositional Defiant Disorder (meaning they challenge authority consistently) or they have out-and-out conduct disorder (fire setting, bullying, animal cruelty and the like). Ironically, these lost souls are usually deeply sensitive and the most emotionally attuned to the messy family dynamics—but they cannot manage, contain, or mitigate their pain, and so there is spillage all over the place in terms of their behavior. The scapegoat is usually the first one to lift the curtain on the family secrets and often has very few family members willing to support her.
Warner, in Teherah Mafi’s Shatter Me series is an excellent, contemporary example of a Scapegoat. Terrier Rand in The Last Kind Words is another.
Here we have the ‘Little Mama’. Kind hearted, loving, generous—this troubled soul is the person in the family who everyone (including the parents) came to (and still come to) with their problems. They are the parentified children who grow up to be adults whose friendships are tragically one-sided as they play the role of counselor/nurse/confidant/priest to all who ‘need’ them. They are the adults who one day stop short in their tracks and say “Wait. Who am I?” because they have never played a role outside of caregiver and, now middle aged, feel depleted, empty, and without an identity of their own. It is not unusual for the Caregiver to go through life feeling intensely lonely—despite being surrounded by literally dozens of friends who ‘need’ them. They are also often depressed and may lose themselves in ‘mindless’ addictions like gambling and shopping.
Sarah Addison Allen is a master at crafting Caregivers; Josey in The Sugar Queen and Claire in Garden Spells are spot-on examples of the intensely flawed Caregiver.
The Lost Child
Here we have the loner. The person who learned she could escape the dysfunctional family by being ‘invisible’ and so she slipped into her imagination and read books, wrote stories, and acted out elaborate vignettes with dolls or toys, etc (if some of you find this role familiar it should be no surprise; Lost Children often evolve into writers / actors / creative type people who take solace in the ‘worlds’ they create—because they never quite learned how to do anything other than withdraw from the real world).
Lost children struggle with friendships, romance and intimacy because they never learned how to trust enough to feel safe in any sort of relationship, and so they fear intimacy and connectedness with other people. Unsurprisingly, Lost Children are often shy and awkward in social situations, and while they may be brilliant in terms of conveying emotion through a character, they often won’t have the first clue how to do it for themselves.
Cress, in Marissa Meyer’s magnificent Lunar Chronicles is one of the best examples of a Lost Child I’ve seen; so socially awkward and isolated, Cress even goes so far as to create a computer-generated younger version of herself in order so that she can have a friend—poignant and totally on par for a character of this archetype.
Family roles can be a fascinating dynamic to weave into your character’s personality and as the basis for their flaws. Please feel free to add any other examples from literature you’ve read which typify some of these archetypes—or share areas within your works in progress (et al) where you’d like to perhaps amplify or deepen one of the aforementioned Family Roles and we’ll discuss.
*Systems Theory is a social work term which essentially means that a person is a mosaic of genetics, family structure, birth order, geography, community, employment, education, gender, faith, culture, ethnicity, etc. Systems Theory contends that we could have two persons with identical DNA, yet depending on all the aforementioned (and additional) factors, despite the DNA sameness we would have two extraordinarily different and distinct individuals.
Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.
Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.
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