Tag Archives: ” “I Know This Much is True

Straight from the Gene Pool: How Sibling Relationships Mold Your Characters.

tom vogt → in People “Lollipops”

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!

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Writing Process, Writing Tips

In Defense of Flashbacks

Rachel Towne in Wood Textures http://www.stockvault.net/c/wood-textures

I’m not sure when I first realized it, but I’m obsessed with “the past.” I’m not talking about my own past per se, although in some ways I am. I have the occasional—OK, frequent—bouts of nostalgia.

It’s not just my life though. It’s my characters’ lives. Their pasts. Their struggles. Their transformations. That’s why I’m such a fan of the coming-of-age novel; by the time the story reaches the end, the protagonist already has a past.

I once had a writing professor who railroaded one of my short stories because it had too many “flashbacks.” Great professor, great class, learned a lot…but the man DESPISED flashbacks! In fact, he discouraged it, saying something along the lines of, “There’s nothing worse than the middle aged-man-on-the-front-porch-reflection story.” Gasp! How about the woman-in-the-bathtub-with-glass-of-red-reflection story? No? Oh…

In hindsight, I see what he was doing. He was encouraging us to write forward-moving stories. Page turners. Narrative arcs that built up conflict, climbed to their pinnacles without interruption. And in some ways, it’s true—particularly in short stories—that a story’s action must constantly be accelerating, driving towards something. And certainly meaningless, random, and miscellaneous flashbacks that do nothing to advance the plot have no place in literature.

But the well-crafted breed? To me, there’s nothing better in fiction. Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story says this of flashbacks:

“…one very rich source of characterization-driven plotting can found in flashbacks, giving the reader information about what is traditionally called “backstory,” or the past of the story. Flashbacks are very important to plot—which, you may remember, is those events arranged in the proper order the writer thinks best, not necessarily chronological order” (334).

Not only are flashbacks important to plot, but they’re critical to characterization. Take the show Lost for instance. A plane crashes on an island, and its new inhabitants are forced to forge a new lifestyle. What I love about that show…drum roll, please…are the character flashbacks. In every episode, we see glimpses of the characters’ life pre-freaky island adventure. Each ‘back story’ gives the audience insight into why the character took the dreaded flight from Australia to LA, and what he or she went through before taking the voyage. It helps put each character’s motivations, actions, and personalities into perspective. Without the flashbacks, it would just be the singular setting of the island, and thus, the characters would be strangers—to both the audience and each other.

Some of the best books I’ve ever read contain flashbacks. In Kristin Hannah’s novel Winter Garden, the prologue itself is a flashback that sets the tone—an incident that causes a lifelong riff between a mother and her two daughters—for the remainder of the story. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, a chance encounter with an old roommate delves the protagonist into memories of the late 1960s that lasts nearly one-third of the book, and of course, serves the foundation for the overall plot. In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the narrator, who is dealing with a schizophrenic twin brother, goes back and forth from present day (the early 1990s in the story) to the late ‘60s when his brother was first showing signs of the disease, as well as deeply developed family histories of the characters.

Luckily, there is no one recipe for flashbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a substantial portion of the book, they can come and go like musical riffs, they can be stretched out over the length of novel, building on each other as they go along. They can be scenes, blurbs or simply a quick, character reflection (such as on the front porch or in the bathtub).

In any event, flashbacks, when done correctly, breathe more life onto the page. They should be used as an opportunity to develop characters, expand the plot, heighten readers’ awareness, and most importantly, make the story unforgettable.

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Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure