The word I’d like to discuss for this month is “family.” It might seem an odd choice for April, seeing as how we’re heading into spring (hah!) and renewal, rebirth, and all that jazz. April is also the month when many “ladies’” magazines start running features on baby shower planning, bridal shower planning, and all the things you’re not doing to prepare for Mother’s Day. So we’ve got the punitive side of “family” right there.
As I sit here typing this, I’m preparing for the annual family Easter trip. By the time you read this, I’ll be sitting around a very crowded table in New York City. I married into a Greek Orthodox family, and we celebrate Easter on a different calendar. There are all kinds of traditions and rituals associated with the holiday, which I won’t go into here because I’m not writing a feature on how to decorate for Easter. The big thing is community, and celebrating together with your family.
Well, and resurrection. But we won’t be resurrecting anything at the table besides a few grudges, which is part of family too.
Our families are part of what make every one of us who we are, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, whether we emulate a family member or whether we make a conscious choice never to become that person looking on from the family portrait gallery. We can’t help it. Even those of us who grew up without families are still affected by that circumstance. Our families don’t define our entire existence, but they do form a significant part of our life experience and in many cases our genetic background. They are part of us.
You would never know I was part of my mother’s family to look at me. I look like my father’s mother, enough that her own sister called me by her name. (She was pretty confused by that point, but still.) My blood type, my skeletal structure, my mannerisms, the way I speak, and even the way I cut food when I cook – these all come to me directly from my mother’s family. They mark me so strongly as one of them that people from the Old Country – from which we’ve been cut off for a hundred years now – recognize them. I can’t control any of those – well I might be able to change my speech mannerisms if I tried very hard.
So – they’re part of me, whether I want them to be or not. And when we create characters, or we read characters, that character’s family is part of that character too. That family might never show up on the page. The character might be an orphan, who didn’t know their family at all, but their family will still be part of their story. The author, at least, needs to know who they were and how they affected that character.
We’re all here because we like queer romance. It’s really hard for me to imagine life as an LGBTQ+ individual without imagining the role family has to play on the character. Do they accept this character for who they are? Do they reject them? Have they stuck their heads into the sand, like an ostrich, and are they still trying to set the character up with the neighborhood roofing guy because “he’s such a good catch, Sharon! He’s been to college, so you’ll have something to talk about!”
I have an upcoming release in which different family members, for both main characters, react differently to their family members’ sexualities. Family was one of the big themes of Whirlwind.
I recently read a book by Clancy Nacht and Thursday Euclid, called The Congressman’s Whore. It’s a good book, I recommend it if you’re into contemporary m/m, but what I want to point out here is the use of family as it relates to the two main characters. Upton’s mother is a major supporting character and it’s easy to see the effect she had on her son’s life, and continues to have.
It’s not hard to see the effect the father has on his son’s life either, even though he ever appears on the page as a living person.
Sloan’s family only show up sporadically, and never in direct contact with Sloan. We can see, however, how they’ve affected his life in every step he takes. He’s nothing like his family, but they’re still part of his makeup. Even the (reasonable) choice to not be like them is still a response to the family.
Now of course, families take a lot of the blame for society’s ills. Mothers bear the brunt of that, because misogyny, but one of the first responses people have to, say, a school shooting is, “What’s wrong with how these mothers are raising their kids? These kids aren’t raised right!” Not everything a character does is the result of some aberration or sin on the part of the family. All kinds of life events can lead to different behaviors or patterns on a character’s part later on. So, of course, can how a family responds to them.
When I was a kid, I developed a fascination with genealogy. I was hoping to find where I, personally, fit into our family tree. I found a whole lot of what I wasn’t looking for, to include one charmer from the Colonial period who buried 8 wives before anyone figured out something was amiss. People who go looking for things won’t always like what they find, and this is especially true when you can’t exactly pick and choose the people who share strands of DNA with you. Has your character time for all or part of his family? Why? What will he do when (if) he finds them?
Family is complicated. They help to form all of our first ideas of the world. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out which of those ideas are the right ones to tear down, and if they’re awful enough to tear the rest down with it. We build new families, whether it’s by blood or by choice. We make them places to belong, but they still help to define us one way or another. Knowing our characters’ families can help us to understand the characters a little better, add depth, and even help with plot.