How many of us live in the perfect family? Show of hands?

always looking back to a past that never was...

Yeah, didn’t think so. Your family’s a bunch of circus freaks, just like mine. While every teenager thinks this, there are some of us who know…the kid’s got a point. Even after our teen years, when we’ve moved forward on the long (sometimes really long), hard (sometimes close to impossible), painful (ohgodI’mbleeding!) journey of coming to accept our relatives for who they are (the delightful freaks with whom you share DNA, with both good and bad traits of their own, sometimes downright hateful and sometimes not as bad as you think), rather than who they should be (the supporting cast in your “I Rule The World” show).

Here’s the critical question. Nobody lives in the perfect family, but how many of you live in the stereotypical family? Are you sure about that? Even your 2.3 kids and a dog and a minivan in white-bread suburbia (and what’s the deal with the point-three anyway? Is he a part-time kid like the neighbor kid who just won’t go home, or what?)–would you say you were stereotypical? Of course not. At least I hope not, because stereotypes are a bitch to live up to. So why do that to your characters?

They'll breed. And you'll die.

Your characters are not stereotypes. We all use archetypes to help define our characters–those broad-stroke sketches that act as the framework on which you hang your individual character. An archetype is a model, the same way those creepy little manikins are for artists looking to learn to draw the human form. A stereotype is an oversimplification, a stick-figure the artist insists is the Mona Lisa.

Whenever somebody goes on a crazy bender in real life, what’s the first thing people start to speculate on? That’s right–what went wrong in that family? Where’s his mother? What did her dad do? What kind of family lets this happen? Not to make light of tragic situations, but very rarely is the family history not a factor when something terrible went down.

Ideally, in your story, one or more of your characters is going to find their breaking points on something. Whether it’s a relationship, the level of violence they are willing to put up with, the sacrifice of one choice too many, they will find a breaking point. That’s the idea–to drive our characters to find and test those limits, because in the testing, they are driven to action. The best way to start your search for those breakpoints is by looking into their families.

Family is a rich vein of conflict to mine. You may not manifest it in your final draft, but it’s still important to know where those family-oriented pressure-points are in any character. And they may reveal themselves in weird ways (that’s the fun of writing). Learn something about your characters by looking at their families.

My short contemporary romantic comedy, Forever Material, has two main characters who have to confront pressure points that originated with their families. Barbara grew up with older brothers and a father who were the worst sort of bad boys, and swore never to get involved with one. Jake’s dad was a cop, but that didn’t stop Jake (or him) from having a bad-boy streak. Barbara knows better than to try to change a bad boy, but is Jake really as bad as she thinks?

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She’s absolutely sure he’s not the marrying kind…

He’s absolutely sure she’s right…

But he’s still going to prove her wrong.

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