I want you all to take a minute and imagine life without your siblings. Would you be the same person? For better or worse, I’m guessing that no, you wouldn’t. What if your birth order were reversed?
Whether we want to admit it or not, our relationships with our siblings shape our personalities, goals, desires, and motivations. Don’t believe me? Read this article from Psychology Today
Still don’t believe me? Watch this video from TED Talks. It’s fascinating: Jeffrey Kluger: The Sibling Bond
I apologize to all my “only children” readers out there, because I’m about to get real about sisterly (and brotherly) love—that is, in both life and in literature.
I’ve written posts in the past that detail rather unconventional methods of characterization. Sibling relationships are my latest illustration.
I can think of many examples where these kinds of dynamics are the basis of the story. Other times they are simply part of the backdrop. As a writer there some methods you can use to establish the sibling bond. The following, I think, are among the most typical. Of course being the talented scribes you are, you can fill in all the unique details later on.
1. Sister Spiteful: The classic case of the jealous sibling. I believe it works better when the protagonist him or herself is the spiteful one. That way, as readers, we see the larger-than-life genealogical specimen from the underdog’s eyes. Often in these cases we find that the protagonist is struggling with her own identity. Her perceived perception of her perfect sibling only worsens this. Generally these relationships work out, as the envious sibling discovers her sister or brother has insecurities of his/her own.
My favorite literary examples: The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkenan & True Colors by Kristin Hannah
My favorite non-literary examples: A League of Their Own & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
2. Brother Burden: This is a sibling bond that often carries sad undertones. In these cases we see a brother or sister who must care for his/her sibling. Perhaps the sibling is sick, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, etc. The caretaker is burdened by his brother or sister. His own life is greatly affected. He deals with such debilitating emotions as guilt, blame, remorse, and responsibility. But despite the drain, he can’t leave his sibling behind. If the writer is merciful, he relieves this character at the end.
My favorite literary examples: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
My favorite non-literary examples: Love Actually
3. Pals of Progeny: Maybe they bit each other’s heads off when they were kids. Fought to the death over who got more ice cream, or who was next in line to take a shower. But now they’re grown up and they appreciate each other. In fact, they’re pals, friends, buddies. Brothers who take fishing trips together. Sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. Brothers who protect their sisters, and vice versa. It’s a bond that’s tough to break. In literature these types of sibling dynamics can go both ways—horribly right or horribly wrong depending on the nature of the story.
My favorite literary example: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & Ramona and Beezus by Beverly Cleary
My favorite non-literary example: Friends (Monica and Ross) & The Parent Trap
4. Opposing Offspring: These are competitive types. Or perhaps distant types. In these relationships there was always something that wasn’t quite right. It could be based on jealously, but often in the ‘opposing offspring’ dynamo the culprits consider themselves equals. Maybe they’re simply too different from one another. Perhaps at one time, one backstabbed the other. Either way, the conflict is deep and rich; the path to finding solace in one another is an arduous journey.
My favorite literary example: In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner & Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My favorite non-literary example: Practical Magic
A word on birth order:
To take this further, I’ve compiled a list of commonly accepted characteristics based on birth order. This knowledge may further aid your characterization:
Oldest child-people pleasing, bossy, organized, punctual, natural leader, controlling, ambitious, expected to uphold family values, caretakers, financially intelligent, responsible
Middle child-flexible, easy going, independent, sometimes feels like life is unfair, sometimes will engage in attention-seeking behavior, competitive.
Youngest child-silly or funny, risk-taking, creative, sometimes feels inferior, easily bores, friendly, outgoing, idealistic
Only child-close to parents, demanding, leaders, spoiled, self-absorbed, private in nature, may relate better to adults to kids their own age, independent, responsible
Where do you fit in with your siblings? How about your characters? Who is your favorite sibling pair in either literature or pop culture? As usual—looking forward to your responses!
18 responses to “Straight from the Gene Pool: How Sibling Relationships Mold Your Characters.”
I’m a middle child, which explains my avoidance of conflict. Except in my writing. There must be conflict there. 🙂
I just realized many of my main characters are only children. Perhaps I’m taking the easy way out by doing this. I’ll have to pay more attention to this detail. As always, great post!
Thanks Carrie–yes, definitely need me some conflict in my writing! Interesting you mention your characters as only children–in my current novel, the protagonist is an only child. Maybe I ought to practice what I preach, huh?? 🙂
The thing is though, the only-child thing works for him (my character), because he grows up involved in a lot of adult drama, which actually shapes his character as he grows. Siblings might have gotten in the way of that.
Siblings can get in the way of a lot of things. 😉
I am the oldest daughter and I am everything you listed except bossy and a natural leader 🙂 I just can’t bring myself to boss people around. Now that I think about it my life would be different if I did not have a little brother. You always have great and thought-provoking post (I think I have said this before…).
Hey Lottie–I’m the oldest too, and I actually agree with you–I’m not bossy. In fact, like my description says, I’m quite the “people pleaser.” I’m glad my posts provide some good old fashion thought!
Whelp! You definitely described my oldest sister….bossy bossy bossy! LOL
LOL! I felt like I was describing my own sister (middle child) when I wrote about the whole “life isn’t fair” bit. 🙂
Very interesting honey, thanks….I’m taking notes as I’m just about to start the rewrite of my novel about 2 brothers 🙂
I’m so glad I could help! I love hearing that! What’s your novel about?
As an oldest child I definitely recognize the characteristics you describe in myself! I am always trying to get people organized because it seems I’ve been herding my younger siblings around for their entire lives. (For their own good of course– 😉 ) I wish I could stop myself from doing that, and it gives me something to think about!
I love writing in a sibling or two for my characters. It gives them someone to talk to, and immediately introduces conflict as they try to resolve their differences.
What a great post! It does, however, bring to mind the question of what it might be like to be a twin …
I know all about siblings in your work! I’m the oldest as well…and I do see myself in those characteristics. I had a hard time finding twin characteristics when I did my research on birth order…but as you know maybe I should do more research on “twins” 🙂
Under birth order, you missed me entirely. I’m a twin. I think twins have a dynamic all their own! It’s sort of a mix of the various sibling dynamics you listed above.
When I researched birth order I had a hard time finding info about twins! That’s interesting to note though, about twins having a strange blend of all the characteristics! Thanks for stopping by!
I’m a little behind on my blog visits. Can you tell? LOL
Gah! I’m definitely the anal, responsible firstborn. hahaha
One thing birth order doesn’t take into account is disabilities, etc. One of my twins has (high-functioning) autism, and, although he is technically the ‘middle’ child by 2 hours and 15 minutes, he fits the role of ‘youngest’ because of his personality and lower level of social functioning. The real ‘youngest’ often feels -and acts- like the middle child because his brother gets pampered a bit more and treated much like the baby of the family.
I hear you, Melissa. I’m behind as well. I’m surprised I’ve managed to post as much as I have been. The month of December always throws everyone off.
Interesting information you have there. You’re right–the research often doesn’t take disabilities into account. It’s interesting that though you children are reversed, they personality traits still add up.
I’m an only, and we shouldn’t really be left out in the cold. It’s something to consider when developing us as characters, too!
As characters, onlies are often stereotyped as spoiled (getting “all the things”) but consider a sibling relationship in an unhealthy household – where older sibs might deflect attention from younger ones, or somehow protect the other kids. What if an only has to go through hell at home all alone? Then that person has no validation for fears and angers, he or she has no one to ask “am I crazy or is this really happening?” – Consider how a character would come out of that situation – constantly needing affirmation, not trusting his or her own senses.
Developmentally, onlies also lack someone at a peer level to help regulate anger responses. Only schoolchildren are more likely to get angry more often, and to a larger extent, because they don’t have anyone to sock them in the arm and tell them enough is enough. I’ve talked to a lot of onlies, and with the exceptions of those raised closely alongside cousins, we all had to learn healthy anger management in our 20s rather than as children.
This anger problem might be part of the perception about only children – that they need to get their way all the time, that they always have to win arguments. Because they are more volatile among their siblinged peers.
Introvert / Extrovert lines matter to how only children perceive their lack of sibs. I’m an introvert (not shy at all, but prefer to be alone to recharge). The idea of siblings wears me out. I’m glad I didn’t have any. My stepson is an only-Extrovert. He is constantly lonely, hates playing by himself, demands a lot of attention from the adults in his life. He begs for siblings.
The last thing I would point out about an only character vs one with a sibling is that only children tend to be more comfortable in adult conversation at an earlier age, and tend to be very expressive. We rarely sat at the kid’s table. We were there at the coffee klatch beside our mothers because we were the only kid there. Even if we were quiet most of the time, we were listening, and we knew how to interact on an adult level. It’s easy for adults to forget that only children are children at all.
It’s funny you mention this…my protagonist is an only child! He does have a cousin his age though. Nonetheless, it’s pretty uncanny what you are saying, because he does have issues with anger and in many ways, goes through hell at home by himself.
I did mention the common traits (though I know it’s more complex) of only children in my post. But it’s true that when researching the theory of birth order the only-children seem to get left out. You certainly have a lot of knowledge on the topic though!
I did a lot of research because of the stepson 🙂