Tuesday, February 2

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, February 02, 2010 15 comments
For many characters, motivations are driven by family of origin issues. This includes far more than one's relationship with parents. Sibling relationships and one's place in the family pecking order can be strong influences on characters.

Dr. Kevin Lehman's The Birth Order Book looks at the particular pressures of being first born, middle, last born or only child. He goes on to discuss how the family dynamic tends to shape relational styles and personality development for each birth order position. He concludes that these early relationships shape not only the family dynamic but also how each individual relates to people outside the family.

He observes that first-borns and only children tend to be achievement oriented, natural leaders who desire affirmation from authority figures. Middle-borns, he says, are laid back, excel at mediating and developing consensus and tend to be more open with friends than with family. He observes that last-borns are creative, rebellious and often rely on humor and charm to get along in the world.

I'm not in any position to critique the science here, though more recent studies, like the ones reported in this Time article, do seem to back up his observations. I've simply found the book helpful in the character development process.

When I think through the back story of any character, birth order has a place and can subtly bring verisimilitude to the story. In Bring to Light, when I needed a likable guy friend character who would respond with gentleness and humor to my protagonist's plight, I made him a last born with older sisters. My protagonist's workaholic mom is, of course, a first born. Her laid-back dad, the youngest of two.

What do you think about family pecking order? Have you explored it in your work? How has your birth order shaped you as a writer?

*this is a re-post from my low-follower early blogging days, 'cause doggone it, I'm busy revising!
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  1. I think his observations are a good guidepost, but not absolute. I have my own children to observe and my oldest in no way follows this description for firstborn traits, but I'm sure there are a lot of firstborns who do.

  2. This is a really awesome post. I never considered family order before. Now, I think it's something I might need to look at again.

  3. I'm always impressed by how much thought you put into your characterization, Laurel. I'm always pantsing my way through characters, but you really know how to ask questions that get to how people tick. Thanks for sharing another great tip.

  4. This is really something to think about. I know that birth order is something that really tends to play through in my own family dynamic. I'm the oldest of five and in many ways I'm a "typical" oldest child.

    I tend to think middle children can go one of two ways. Either they can be the laid back, go with the flow types or they can be extreme attention seekers. We have both types in our family. ;)

    And the baby? Well, she's definitely the baby of the family and even though we're all adults we all tend to think of her as the "baby" and we baby her more than we should (and probably more than she wants us too).

    It's interesting to think of this as it applies to the characterization in our writing though. Hmmm....

  5. I'm so annoyed -- I just left a lengthy comment and then closed the box before completing the verification! Argh!

    What I said was, basically, that I'm the oldest and I identify with the "stereotypes" as a daughter and a sister.

    Also, I said that I considered birth order with my major characters but never really with the minor cast -- however, I'm going to do that moving forward.

    I really enjoyed this post, Laurel!

  6. I love that book! It's so insightful and always help me develop my characters. Great post!

  7. Elle: I agree--rough guide, not formula. Lehman does some interesting backpedalling when it comes to big age gaps in families.

    Bethany: It's a pretty fun book if you can get a hold of it, for characterizaton, or just for better understanding yourself and people around you.

  8. Simon: Honestly, I read books like this for fun, and always find some application for writing. The beauty of deep characterization is I can be a psychologist of sorts without having the drain of listening to people's problems all day.

    Rhonda: Lehman has these complex formulas about the dynamic of being an upper middle, middle-middle and lower middle, with variations depending on the gender mix. Fascinating stuff.

    I'm a baby of five and definitely have a rebellious streak of the passive agressive variety. You learn the power of NO when you're constantly told, "no, you're too little." LOL.

  9. Amber: I hate when that happens! I'm now in the habit of copying my comments before hitting preview or post.

    Secondary characters deserve some love, too. Have fun making them complex and full of life!

    Courtney: Reading psychology books always has a great payoff, doesn't it?

  10. I've never really thought about how birth order might affect my characters. But I think these characteristics you've mentioned here do seem to apply in a general sense. I can certainly see them in my own family. You've definitely made me think!

  11. This is such an interesting topic. I was intrigued when I first heard about it (I think I may have seen the author on a talk show). I have three siblings, and it shocked me to think that something about our birth order might have influenced our personalities. But I think I'm equally impressed that you're putting so much thought into the creation of your characters. I have a strong feeling that it will pay off--at the very least, I think it will make your characters feel more realistic.

    Thus far, none of my MCs have had siblings (the plots just didn't lend themselves to the possibility, I guess), but I think I'll definitely consider investigating this further if I do bring siblings into future books. Thanks for addressing the issue.

  12. Candice: Webs of relationships are always a great thing to explore when looking for ways to build conflict and tension.

    Carol: some might argue I have an overly analytical, hyper-psychologized approach. I feel every decision we make about who is or isn't in our story should affect our character. The "lonely only" has her own set of issues, some of which might include awkward peer relationships, a pleaser personality, obsession with achievement, and/or depressed parents suffering from secondary infertility.

  13. Laurel, first, so happy we've connected through Mary as well! I just became your 64th follower, and you became my 62nd today. Cool! :) And I'm starting my first YA novel so this will be a great connection. Yay! Anyway, I have been really interested in birth order; I read a book about it years ago, in high school, and really appreciated the insight. It seemed to match how I felt as a second-born baby. Lots of things made sense. But I'd never thought about it in terms of characterization. Wow! What a great way to apply this. I'm definitely going to think of this as I form my characters for my book. Thanks!

  14. Roxane: You're welcome. thanks for coming by--it was great to find you!

    I love reading psychology books for fun. In some ways, writing is my way to explore all these interesting ideas about human behavior and the deep issues of what it is to be human. I know this passion began in my teen years, from reading great fiction.

  15. My novel is about sisters. So, Yep! Totally thinking of birth order and behavior traits. Good to the keep the psychology of it in mind, too, while developing the story and really think about how that personality would react to a situation.