Mine Family Gold for Fiction

Many novels are based on dysfunctional families, especially those of Anne Tyler, who is a favorite of mine. When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked: “Are there any other kind?” reminding me of Tolstoy’s famous first line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Of course there are some truly happy families, but in a short story or novel you are writing, it’s easy to weave a plot from mother-daughter conflict , especially sibling rivalry or marital conflict. The old adage, write what you know, is never truer than when family relationships come into play. Everything we know, feel, think or believe is colored by how we were brought up. Most of our angst centers on unresolved family conflicts. Unrequited love always looms large in the imagination. And somewhere amid this labyrinth of memories, experiences and conflicts lies a unique blend of fact and fiction that makes a story come to life.

Here are some roadblocks and the way to navigate them. “My life is boring!” Wrong. Everyone’s story is potentially interesting. You don’t have to be a mountain climber or a lion tamer or even a doctor, to tell a fascinating story. Sometimes the most harrowing conflicts arise from extraordinary events in the lives of very ordinary people.

“I really wanted to be an astronaut!” Yes, but in reality you are a dentist, a housewife or an insurance broker. And when you imagine that someone else has had a more exciting life, it’s often a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. You can sprinkle your tale with elements of wishful thinking, but at the heart of the story there must be real emotions that derive from real-life experiences.

Sibling rivalry is something most people can relate to. The best example is the Biblical Cain and Abel. (Which reminds me of a childhood joke: How long did Cain hate his brother? As long as he was Abel” – sorry, I couldn’t resist that). John Steinbeck used it effectively in “East of Eden”; Shakespeare used it in “The Tempest” and “Hamlet”. And remember in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” when Amy, in a fit of jealous pique, destroys her sister Jo’s manuscript? No one will ever know you as well as a sister or brother who remembers all the intimate details of your childhood.

“How can I look family members in the eye after they’ve read what I’ve written?” This is the most common fear that plagues writers. While writing, you must be very strict in booting from your mind any fantasies of the horrified reaction of friends and families. I believe that no-one ever recognizes himself in a novel unless the portrait is very flattering … then everyone lays claim to it.

I have always tried to follow Shakespeare’s advice: “This above all – to thine own self be true…” In order to create memorable characters and stories, you must be willing to travel deeply into the mineshaft of your own memories. Endow your characters with the best of what you yourself hope for – and the worst of what you fear. In the end, you will be rewarded by the knowledge that redemption, in fiction as in life, is almost always possible and the human spirit is indeed indomitable.


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