Family is…complicated, to say the least. This is perhaps best articulated by Leo Tolstoy, who said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Of all the famous first lines of fiction, there are few that ring as true as Tolstoy’s in Anna Karenina.
Apart from being a great first line (in fact, such a good line that it forms the basis for Muriel Barbery’s family drama The Elegance of the Hedgehog), this maxim is accessible to every reader’s lived experience. Family—good, bad, or entirely absent—is something that resonates universally, sure to provoke strong and distinctive feelings in readers. Because of that, writing a family drama is something that has to be handled with care and nuance.
Family relationships portrayed in fiction can give your reader a view into a deeper truth, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious. But in order to do so, the writer must draw and articulate family relationships in a manner that is both poignant and relatable.
With that in mind, here are four tips to get you started:
1. Characterization is Everything
This is not a genre that skimps on detail. Be fully aware of your characters’ backstories, what they want/ need, and the dynamics of the characters’ relationships to each other.
For a solid example of in-depth character development, check out D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, a multi-generational family drama that follows many of the characters from their births to their deaths, with a rich understanding of their motivations and developments.
2. Variations on a Theme
Crafting a theme for a novel may seem secondary to other things, such as plot and character development. However, in family dramas, themes are vital. Whether the writer intends to expound on the necessity of friendship, the way loss affects life, or the sting of betrayal—this is the genre to fully develop a theme, the subtext of the story. What is all the fuss about? What is this drama highlighting?
Remember, the point of drama is to explore an idea, flesh it out to its logical conclusion, and achieve catharsis.
If there is no underlying point to what’s happening in the drama, then all you’ve really got is a lot of characters yelling at each other while doing and saying hurtful things.
To be fair, that does happen a lot in real life, but this isn’t real life. It’s drama. It’s storytelling, and in stories, all the parts should work together to create and explore a unifying theme that emotionally resonates with the reader while giving them something to think about.
An excellent example of this is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which deals with grief, loss, and healing following the violent death of a child. The point of the book is to explore how people deal with tragedy and move on with their lives, a theme that is relatable because it’s one everyone either has dealt with or will have to deal with at some point.
3. Add Conflict and Then Some
Relationships, especially familial relationships, are all about conflict. Conflict in a family drama helps us understand what the characters want, what is at heart between petty disagreements, and what needs to be healed or solved in order for the characters to go through their full character arc.
By presenting conflict, writers have the ability to give insight into every relationship in the novel.
Take, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s chilling family drama and character study We Need to Talk About Kevin, a story that explores the depths of grief and the destruction of a family both before and in the wake of a school shooting, with the added horror of the protagonist’s son being the shooter.
There is a special kind of heartbreak explored in this work in which a mother must cope with her feelings of failure as a parent, the death of her husband and daughter, and the guilt over the harm her son has caused.
There is plenty of conflict within the family, within the protagonist herself, and in the post-shooting world in which the protagonist finds herself.
4. Emotion is Your Friend
Dramas are, by their very nature, full of real human emotion. The very invention of the drama was meant to provoke emotion and provide an emotional release for the audience.
To do that, it is essential to make the characters act and behave in a believable, universally relatable manner. If your characters don’t act like real people, they will not elicit real feelings.
One of the best ways to do this is through the use of emotion—both by giving the reader a view of the rich emotional interior life of the character and by evoking an empathetic response or emotion in the reader.
For an excellent example of this, check Kazuo Ishigoro’s The Artist of the Floating World, a novel that explores family connection and survivor’s guilt in post-war Japan.
Depending on the reader’s point of view, the reader may feel empathy, pity, contempt, anger, sadness, or some combination of all the above.
But the point is that the story will provoke an emotional response.
So Much Drama
Apart from the family dramas cited above, there is a wealth of dramatic family literature as old as writing itself, from Sophocles’s antiquarian Antigone to Brit Bennet’s contemporary The Vanishing Half.
Family dramas have the potential to move your reader in a profound way by exploring themes that are resonant and, often, uncomfortable in a way that provides closure rather than avoidance or repulsion.
Dig deep, tap into what you really want to communicate through your characters and their relationships, and then make it come alive on the page. Chances are, your readers will be captivated by the extra effort.
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