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Writing Complex Family (Part 2)

If you missed last Thursday, I posted Part 1 of writing complex families. It is part of a series I'm writing in the month of April about authentic relationships in our writing (intro post, here). We're going to hit the ground running with the second installment of families.

Spouses/Significant Others

So, these are the ones you actually pick to spend significant time with and invest significant emotional energy into it, so you'd better make sure it’s the right person. But no long-term relationship is perfect. I hate romcoms (but mostly love them) and anything that depicts a committed relationship as super easy and cloud 9 forever and always. If you find the right person to stick with long term, you are bound to have some ups and downs and some severe rough patches. It’s normal. You’re even going to have moments where you don’t like the person.

These are also the people who know the ugly and the beautiful about you. Your habits, good and bad. You’re usually comfortable enough to really be yourself: stuff all the food in your face during dinner. Go a couple of days between brushing your teeth. Going to the bathroom with the door open. Things like that. You don’t get made up every day to see the person. You accept each other for who the other is.

  • Every relationship has cycles, but especially relationships like these. And those cycles govern a large part of how that relationship functions:

  • How they work together and communicate

  • The role and actions that one does and how the other reacts to it

  • What the relationship looks like during that phase and how it “resolves” itself

  • The period of quiet until it all happens again

But it’s not necessarily the same actions or events that happen, but the different actions fit into the same “theme”.

Decisions people make while in these types of relationships tend to be a little more gray and involved. It’s not as simple as dumping a boyfriend or cutting of a friendship. When you’re married or in a seriously committed relationship, you have a home together. Your finances are intertwined. You have investment in the opposite family. There may be kids and/or pets that need to be considered. The lifestyle you’ve built together and the finances it takes to support it. So, when bad things happen, it tends to be that you’re willing to put up with or learn to cope with things you wouldn’t normally because the alternative isn’t something you don't want to live with.


I love my in-laws, but not everyone is as blessed as me. There’s the stereotypical “Monster-in-law”. You have nephews and nieces. You have sister- and brothers-in-laws. These are all people, whether you like them or not, that you can’t get rid of. They’re your significant other’s family. And sometimes, they’re chosen over you. Which is a bad thing, most of the time. Even separation from your SO won’t necessarily cut ties if there are kids involved. Sometimes, you are able to see the disfunction in their family but they can’t or won’t see it. You have to choose what to address and try to change and what to accept, realizing the waves that will be caused by both.

The Family Unit as a whole

So you have the individual family pieces and their dynamics and characteristics. But what happens when you slam them all together? A new rhythm is formed, and it’s not always the sum of all the parts. It’s usually something new and different and your characters will need to adapt. Old patterns and parts are played, especially if it’s a spouse entering their family. They often will revert back to their old part in that family instead of carrying on their new part as a spouse. It can be frustrating or it can be good. You need to decide what those roles are and how your characters will react.

Disfunction in family relationships

Here’s where it can get really interesting and emotional. There is dysfunction in every single relationship, and it can be a real opportunity for your characters to shine and show who they are, how they interact with others, and what their deep and true personalities are. It’s also a great way to show how outside characters view your hero and their close knit group of friends or family.

Many times, outsiders can see the issues that insiders have become blind to. They are more ready to take action and put a stop to said behavior than the insiders are because they don't have the emotional connection of familial obligation that the other individuals have. Also, as family, we are more willing to recognize and put up with abusive and dysfunctional behavior because….it’s family, and it’s not so easy to just cut them out. We are more apt to believe their promises of, “This time is different. I’ll stop drinking. I’ll stop doing drugs. I’ll stop taking my anger out on you. I’ll stop [insert empty promise, here].

Speaking from personal experience, we want to believe that promise. We don’t want to give up on that family member. We want to be able to comfort ourselves with the fact that we did everything we could—helped in every way, each time—to help them out of their dysfunction. And within this cycle, there is a different experience if you are the parent versus the sibling. As parents, we always want to save and help our kids from pain.

And as ones that are accepting the abuse, sometimes we think that we have to because, they're our kids. We take on a lot more than we would otherwise under the name of family. It’s a very interesting dynamic to play around with.

So as you look at each of these relationships within your story and your characters, here are some things to consider:

  • Seriously consider reading human psychology books (books on birth order, love languages, emotional cycles, etc)

  • Was your character raised in a two-parent household or a single parent household (Part 1)? What are some key behavior or patterns they've picked up from that?

  • How do they handle conflict with their parents, siblings, SO, friends?

  • What is a typical pattern of behavior within their family? Between them and their SO? Between them and their best friend?

  • With their SO: What is something they’re still uncomfortable to do around them? What is the most relaxed thing they do? What is an issue they will always have together?

  • With the family unit: What is something that other people see but that the family is blind to? Why are they blind to it? Would your Hero ever confront that dysfunction? Why or why not?

It’s all about getting down to the nitty-gritty of what makes your family relationships tick. Good and bad. Tune in next week where I'm going to dive into friendships--some of my favorite relationships to write.

See you at The Writer Community!


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