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!