Friday, December 16, 2011

Posted by Laurel Garver on 7:08 AM 33 comments
Today is D.L. Hammons's Deja Vu blogfest, when we were invited to repost something we wish had gotten a little more attention. Swing by DL's blog Cruising Altitude to check out the other participants. (And if you want to know why the possessive of D.L.'s name looks like this, check out THIS POST to get up to speed about creating singular possessives correctly.)

My repost, "Gene pool: fun with secondary characters" went up in August 2010, arguably a bad time of year for garnering comments, when everyone is on vacation.

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Creating a fully realized cast of characters is for me one of the most fun aspects of writing. Part of what makes fictional characters seem real is their webs of relationships--including relatives.

Unless your main character is adopted, she will share certain characteristics with other members of the family. And this is where some of the fun comes in. As Bill Cosby joked in a comedy sketch, having children is like conducting a chemistry experiment--you mix a little of each parent and see what you get. Some kids are strongly like one parent, while others are an amalgam.

Now imagine working backwards. You have a main character. What do his parents look like? Is he a younger version of his dad? A male version of his mother? Or have the sets of genes combined in an interesting way? The genetic combo is, of course, the most fun to extrapolate ancestors for.

One thing to keep in mind when dreaming up your character's genetic heritage: you need a grasp of heredity basics (remember high school bio?). Certain traits are dominant and will most frequently reappear in offspring. Others are recessive and won't appear at all unless someone in the line has the trait. Tone deafness, for example, is a dominant trait. Your piano prodigy character must have ancestors who can carry a tune (a recessive trait).

Here's a good refresher on the basic science of heredity.
And here's a list of traits (and also here) known to be dominant and recessive.

How might heredity shape your character building? Have any characters you might alter to make your protagonist more plausible?

33 comments:

  1. This is a really great point! Definitely something to keep in mind when writing about our characters. Of course there are those books in which one kid doesn't look like anyone in his family and thinks he's adopted. :)

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  2. That's good to remember. I find I make my characters a little too different from their parents. I need to find some more similarities.

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  3. This is a brilliant post. Usually I don't dwell too much on what the relatives look like, but you are so right about genetics. You have to take them into consideration.

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  4. I never even thought about this. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Now I just need a character that actually has family so I can think about ways to show the genetic link.

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  5. I enjoyed this post, and I'm a professor's wife/writer too!

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  6. Funny, I think in all my characters, I've developed this kind of wacky attribution effect, where I give my MC's one or two of their parent's. ie, Robert has his mother's eyes, and his father's chin, whereas his sister is the exact opposite. Penny takes after her aunt with her relentless demanding personna. It's fun to "build" a family.

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  7. Hi Laurel! It's tough to hit up everybody in Deja Vu, but I've found some great blogs! Yours being one of them.

    You know, I never really gave it that much thought. Heredity. Other than when I had a Puerto Rican MC. But it is rather interesting, and definitely a lot of fun!

    That's what I love about this community. I'm learning so many different ways to write and to research and to all-around THINK!

    Great post!

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  8. Nice to meet you too Laurel! I love the look and colors of your site--very nice.
    The idea of genetics and heredity in characters is definitely something to think about--thanks for sharing. :)

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  9. NOOOOO!!!! I got a C in Genetics. I cannot bring myself to revisit that :)

    Okay, now that I'm over my little fit, you are right this is a good idea. And seems like it would be a great way to indirectly describe a first person point of view character too. "My mom is so and so and so, I got the x but not the y"

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  10. Genetics is so important, and you could even delve deeper by discussing hereditary medical conditions. I'm glad to have met you thru the blogfest, and thanks for following me! Julie

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  11. Great post. The MS I'm querying is packed with genetics as my MC is adopted by her mom's sister. Part of the tension comes as the MC discovers where her past really lies. There's so much potential in genetic mysteries...

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  12. What a great post! In my WiP I have certain physical descriptions that matched parent to child, but this encourages me to think of it on a whole different level. Thank you!

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  13. Huh, I never thought about looking up hereditary traits to see if they are dominant or recessive, but it's interesting. I have blue eyes, for example, which I know are recessive, but I hadn't thought about non-physical traits too.

    Cool post!

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  14. Your posts are always so thoughtful. I love the links. I think heredity plays a great role in shaping a character. It can create very compelling motivation.

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  15. Interesting post. I do tend to keep these things in mind when it comes to family traits. At least I did with my first novel. I'll do the same with my next which I'm starting now.

    Thanks for the follow! I got right back!!

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  16. Oooh really like this post! My MCs are usually rebelling against their family (Chinese much?) so I'm always focused on the differences.

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  17. I love to think about genetics when it comes to characters too...it's the geek in me, I think.

    Thanks so much for joining the Blogfest!

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  18. Nice to meet you through the Blogfest. I like your writing!

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  19. I've never really looked at some of my characters that way...and I should. Thank you for choosing this post to re-share! :)

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  20. What a great post. I'm going to check those links - I'm building characters now :)

    I came by from the blogfest. Nice to meet you.

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  21. Oh, now that's really interesting. The only time I came close to that is the scene where my character, after she's united with her real father, learns from him that she has the same circle of freckles on her arm as her mother had...

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  22. Great points! I hadn't thought about that before but it's a really great way to build your surrounding cast of characters!

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  23. oh, this is so true and such a great point for building authenticity into relationships. I sometimes do this without realizing it, and then other times I go back and add a thing or two... Good stuff~ <3

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  24. Laura: I've met some folks like that--where the kids picked up all the recessive traits and had all this anxiety they were adopted.

    Jennifer: Research shows that offspring resemble parents due to both nurture AND nature. Even if there's some conscious rebellion, the underlying genetics can't be undone.

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  25. Stina: In YA books, I often see genetics come into play in sibling relationships.

    Charity: It might come out in one of your rootless characters seeing a family and envying their blood ties and sense of fitting together genetically.

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  26. Heather: Nice to meet you, too!

    Anne: It is fun. Glad you enjoy the "chemistry experiment" of family traits too.

    April: Welcome and thanks for the follow. I see these fests as an opportunity to meet new people, so I decided to skip posts of existing friends this time (they know I still <3 them). It is cool to be learning and growing together!

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  27. Colleen: Thanks so much. Great meeting you too. I love bringing other fields to bear on fiction--science, history, psychology. Makes writing so much richer.

    Margo: Sorry to hit a sore spot. But as you say, a little genetics play can be useful in characterization and even sly description technique.

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  28. Julie: Thanks for your follow, too. That's a great suggestion--about how heredity can cause plot complications.

    Melodie: Absolutely! Genetic mysteries are fascinating.

    Amy: Research keeps uncovering new traits beyond just our looks that are influenced by genetics. Musical ability is one of many such things.

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  29. Julie H.: I guess it's the science geek in me that always want to delve deeper. Nice meeting you through the fest!

    Nisa: Thanks! The nature/nurture question will continue to be debated not only by science but also in fiction.

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  30. Nancy: Great meeting you through the fest. Have fun building your latest fictional family!

    Sophia: As I'd said to Jennifer, even if a character consciously rebels against the nurture aspects of family, the genetics can't be undone (though things like eye color and hair color/texture can be temporarily manipulated).

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  31. Lydia: As a physician, you probably have a clearer idea of how it all works in the real world--especially with disease.

    BIP: great to meet you, too!

    DL: Thanks for hosting this great fest. Glad I was able to contribute something that spurred you on to deepen your writing.

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  32. Carol: Thanks for coming by and following. Hope the links are helpful and that you have fun dabbling in genetic science.

    Deniz: Those blood ties seen in visible traits can help a rootless character feel rooted again.

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  33. Katie: Because this fascinates me so much, I get really annoyed by what seem bad casting decisions in Hollywood--where families look nothing like one another. But in fiction, we have more control than casting agents, who also have to take acting ability into account, too.

    Leigh: I find it helpful when I only know one character in a family. You can extrapolate from there! It makes the task of creating your cast less daunting and more authentic.

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