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On Writing Dysfunctional Families

Author Stephanie Wrobel explains how you can use the natural tension of familial relationships to upgrade your story.
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“The debt between a child and her mother could never be repaid, like running a foot race against someone fifteen miles ahead of you. What hope did you have of catching up? It didn’t matter how many Mother’s Day cards you drew, how many clichés and vows of devotion you put inside them. You could tell her she was your favorite parent, wink like you were coconspirators, fill her in on every trivial detail of your life. None of it was enough. It had taken me years to figure this out: you would never love your mother as much as she loved you.”

—Excerpt from Darling Rose Gold

What is it about our mothers? Their opinions matter more. We let them get away with more. Their words send us soaring—and sometimes crashing. We don’t hold them to the same standards as other people. Because they’re not other people.

(Stephanie Wrobel: On Writing an Unusual Hero)

Maybe it’s because we once lived inside of her. She was our first home. From here, we learned to breathe, to blink, to eat. When we separated from one being into two, she showed us how to be. She taught us right from wrong—and, in some cases, failed to. She’s supposed to keep us safe. She’s supposed to be on our side. The mother/child bond is supposed to be sacred, a place of peace.

But every writer knows that without conflict, you have no story.

This is why in the case of my debut novel, Darling Rose Gold, the mother is the child’s affliction. Patty is both the disease and the cure. When Rose Gold realizes Patty has ruined her childhood, she swings between a thirst for revenge and an aching need for the most formative relationship in her life. Without her mother, she loses her way.

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With their cat-and-mouse games, Patty and Rose Gold Watts may seem like anything but the average mother and daughter. But if you remove the deceit and dysfunction, you’re left with a relationship like any other. Rose Gold wants independence from her mother while holding onto Patty’s love and approval. Most of us can relate to that, can remember our own struggles to exert ourselves as we left behind childhood’s innocent certainty for the shaky ground of adulthood. As for Patty, she wants to be needed, appreciated, even adored once in a while. She put her entire life on hold to care for her daughter, and now she feels tossed aside, insignificant. That, I think, is the key to writing dysfunctional families: no matter how much crazy you have them commit, their motivations should always come from a place of human truth. Keep digging until you know what those motivations are. You don’t have to condone a character’s behavior but you should empathize with their feelings. No one thinks they’re the villain of the story—in real life or fiction.

(10 Tips For Writing a Family Drama Novel)

Our characters, even the truly heinous ones, are not so unlike you and me. Just like us, they’re desperate for happiness and freedom and connection. They’d prefer to have their cake and eat it too. The difference, in Patty and Rose Gold’s case, is they’re willing to poison the cake to get what they want. It’s the human experience dialed up a notch (or two).

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