If a character has well-defined family members — that never-satisfied mother, that demanding great-aunt, that silent father — then we authors don’t have to create that character. The family does it for us.
The family of Mary Stuart in Daughter Am I truly helped create her. When Mary found out that she was the heir of grandparents she never knew existed, she had to find out who they were so she could find out who she was. Once I set the family dynamic, that determined the character of Mary. Her father was close-mouthed, wouldn’t talk about why he disowned his parents or why he told his daughter they were dead. He also bonded more with his daughter’s fiancé than with her. The mother seemed to be mostly a shadow of the father. Because of this, it was inevitable that Mary got engaged to the guy they liked, and it was also inevitable that she dumped him when she became her own person. And even that “own person” was created by family — turns out she was just like her dead grandfather, with his set of values, a desire to build his own life despite social conventions, and an intense loyalty. Even her “adopted” family helped create her. As she followed her quest to learn about her grandparents, she accumulated a crew of travel companions — all friends of her grandparents — who become a new family of sorts.
Rubicon Ranch, the collaborative novel I’m doing with some other Second Wind authors, is all about family. The birth family who’s been searching for the girl and who fall prey to con artists, the couple who wanted a child so bad that they kidnapped one, the old man who suspects his son of the crime, the woman who suspects her father, the boy who is being abused by his father, the sleepwalker who is still haunted by his dead sister, the woman who is grieving for her dead philandering husband. It’s interesting how the theme of family has evolved in such an extemporaneous project. We never planned this theme, but each of us separately chose to deal somehow with family skeletons.
The family of Bob in More Deaths Than One certainly helped create him, especially since that was the basis of the story. He comes home from an 18-year sojourn in Southeast Asia to discover that the mother be buried before he left is dead again. He goes to her funeral and sees his brother, but they had never been close, so he doesn’t make contact. Bob also sees himself, but a doppelganger isn’t really family, so it doesn’t have any part of this discussion.
Lack of family also helps define characters.
In my just-published novel Light Bringer, two of my main characters found each other when they were searching for their birth parents. Those characters were truly a product of their upbringing and their birth. That is the whole crux of the story — who the characters are and why they were birthed.
How does your character’s family make her who she is? (Or make him who he is.) How do they bind her? How do they set her free? Do they add to her conflicts, either internal or external, or do they help her on her life’s journey?