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Branching Out

When your characters lack depth, creating their family tree can really fill out your fiction.

I tried brainstorming, webbing, cubing, triangulating and even pulling my hair. Still, that one character in my mystery novel remained stubbornly skeletal. The details of his life continued to elude me—until I decided to explore his family tree to see what his siblings had to say.

Creating a family tree is a great method for organizing names, birth dates, birth places and deaths in your novel, but even more important, it's a tangible way to add layers to your characters' sketchy form. You may discover, for example, that he was the youngest boy of 10 older kids, or that she was an only child after the death of her identical twin. Even the smallest details add depth to your character's motivation and perspective. Usually in characterization, you concentrate solely on the character, but with this exercise, you also bring into focus those forces that shaped your character's childhood—parents, grandparents, siblings, the family financial status and cultural traditions.

The physical structure of the family tree provides a home base for all the traveling your imagination wants to do. You can wander off on a freewriting tangent and have a stable place to return. If you have trouble staying on task or lose details in a sea of notes, with a structure in place, you'll find you're free to roam and explore.

Don't worry about coming up with ideas. You'll have all the answers to the questions you pose—just listen to your creative instincts and write whatever pops into your head. You can change or add at will later, but at first, just go with your instincts. One of the reasons I like this exercise so much is that it's a completely safe way to let your imagination play. You can't do it wrong. You don't have to be accurate, clever or even politically correct.

Your Turn:A CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIREAdd to your fiction by carefully considering the ancestors and descendants who influenced your character's life and motivations. Use these questions as a springboard for your own ideas.

AT HOME • Was there equality between the mother and father, or was there a definite head of the household? • Were children expected to follow in the family occupation—farmers, doctors, police officers, bankers? • What was the role of education in the family? Were children expected to go to college? • What were the favorite family activities—sailing, hunting, playing basketball in the driveway? • Were there any divorces, resulting in stepparents and stepchildren? MILITARY SERVICE • During World War II, did any women in the family go out into the workforce for the first time? How did that affect their families? • Did anyone find a way to avoid service—dodging the draft or pledging conscientious objection? • Was there a family member who never made it back from a war? What were the circumstances? • Were any of the women of the family war brides and, if so, how did the groom's family greet them? • Did your character's family have any ties to the enemy? POLITICS AND RELIGION • What were the family's religious practices? • What were the family's political affiliations? • Was there anyone who rebelled against the family's religious or political affiliations? • Did any family member ever run for political office or join the clergy or a cult? EXTENDED FAMILY • Who was your character's most eccentric relative? • Which aunt or uncle is the one every cousin avoids? • What heirlooms have been passed down? • Who's the most famous family member? • Who's the black sheep? HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS • What were the family's holiday traditions? • Were there any made-up holidays? • Was alcohol part of family celebrations? • Which grandmother's house was more fun to visit at Christmas? • Which relative had the most unique wedding?

Start with a name

Start with your character's full name. For example, I chose the name Whistler. It suggested to me a charming rascal who liked and was liked by women. I decided he needed a pretentious-sounding middle name, courtesy of a mother who believed she'd married beneath her, and a common last name of the hardworking father who was never quite good enough for his preening wife. Thus was born Whistler Roth Johns.

What does your character's name suggest? Has he been saddled with a horrible family name, a middle name he'll keep secret to the day he dies or a name with a reputation to uphold? Hugh Francis Culhane, one of the characters in my mystery novel, was born late in the family, several years after an older brother, Hugh Edward, died in infancy. Hugh Francis felt the burden of living for two people, and that influenced how he responded to the world.

The next task is assigning a birth date. Whistler was born May 3, 1841. I chose May because I felt he lived life as if it were always spring, and 1841 because I thought it'd be interesting to see how he'd react to the Civil War as a 20-year-old man.

Think about your character. Was she born in the worst blizzard in 50 years? Was she a Christmas baby? Did her pregnant mother suffer through a tortuously hot summer before giving birth?

One of my characters was a particularly unlovable woman, so I assigned her a birth date of February 14 for a touch of irony. Another character shared a birthday with the father-in-law she was particularly fond of.

Adding parents

Now, work backward and add parents to your character's family tree, assigning them birth dates and a wedding date, if applicable. Whistler's doting mother was Louise Elizabeth Whittaker, born January 6, 1808, because January fitted her icy personality. She was 32 when she married—a desperate old maid who was three months pregnant at the ceremony. She died on January 4, 1864, at age 55, two days before her birthday and soon after her son's elopement with a woman whom she considered unsuitable for her son. Whistler's father was Sylvester Joseph Johns, born September 26, 1810, two years Louise's junior. He died from overwork on December 24, 1852, when Whistler was 9.

How old were your character's parents when they married? Was it a simple, civil ceremony or a lavish event? How quickly did the first child arrive after the wedding? Did their parents approve? All of these details would affect your character's childhood.

Fill in the sibling details, as well. Consider birth order. Whistler Johns was a spoiled only child, doted on by his mother. It was she who shaped his opinion of women and how they should be treated.

Is your character the oldest of a family of girls or the proverbial middle child? What's her relationship with those siblings? What stories would her siblings tell about her?

Time and place

Don't forget to decide where your character was born. Whistler was born in Baltimore on the edge of the North/South dispute. Knowing Whistler, which I did more thoroughly by this time, I knew he'd opt for self-interest ahead of national loyalty.

If, like Whistler, your character is born in an interesting historical period, you can expand this exercise to create historical context for the story. Was your character's father born in 1922? Then he probably fought in World War II. Was a child born in 1919? Did she survive the Great Flu Epidemic? Did his ancestors fight for the North in the Civil War or the South? Did they travel west in a covered wagon? Did his grandparents speak only German or Polish or Russian?

Regional disparities have a distinct influence. Rural experiences are vastly different from urban ones. Growing up in the South is very different than growing up in the North: different weather, foods, hobbies and ethnic groups. If your character grew up in Detroit and you drop him into the middle of an Iowa farm, he's going to flounder, and vice versa.

Once you've used the exercise to organize your ideas and discover what influenced your character as a child, go beyond characterization and discover more about your character's family connections and the conflict, tension and motivation. Turn your imagination loose by freewriting. Choose what intrigues you the most and go with it. I began with Whistler's attitude toward the Civil War and discovered that he escaped from the rebel military police, eloping with 16-year-old Celia Lorraine Bannerman. Whistler takes Celia up North and joins the Northern forces to fight against the army he just deserted. She's out of her element and soon regrets her hasty marriage. Years later, Whistler abandons her and their three small children.

In 1897, at age 56, Whistler meets 15-year-old beauty Renata Belletore in France. Though they never marry, they have a child, Isabella Rosa Johns, born that same year. Her mother dies in London in World War I working for the Red Cross. Isabella is a combination of her parents. During World War I, working alongside her mother, she uses the Red Cross as a front for her black-market operation. She also tries blackmail to force the father of her baby into marriage, but he succumbs to his wounds before the little girl, Perry Anastasia Finch, is born on July 19, 1919.

So you see, from one freewriting stint, I found an intriguing rogue, a young woman stranded in a world she doesn't understand, and a conflict between an altruistic mother and a greedy daughter. You can stretch this exercise like Silly Putty in any familial direction.

This is an exercise that keeps building on itself, layer after layer. Sketch your character's family tree as briefly or as completely as you see fit. Maybe you require just a basic background, but maybe you've hit on family secrets or connections that you want to explore more thoroughly.

Whether you use official genealogical format or just scratch a few connecting lines on paper, you'll enrich your writing with a family tree of well-defined characters, where the only skeletons will be those tucked away in closets.

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