Tuesday, August 3

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, August 03, 2010 11 comments
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?


  1. You always give me good thoughts to think, laurel! Also, I'm kind of a nerd for genetics, so I'm excited about all of this hereditary linkage (no pun intended)!

  2. Good thoughts! In a previous ms I had siblings who worked together. I needed to have simliar traits from their upbringing, but their own personalities too.

  3. Great points:) I know that each of my characters was created with a list traits that orginated from their parents, it works well for the goal creating tension in the family! It's hard to get along with someone who is just as stubborn as you are~ but it makes for interesting reading.

  4. Great tips! My seocndary characters could do with a bit more rounding out.

  5. Wow, this is a great tool and fascinating to think about. Thanks!

  6. My brain is smoking now, Laurel. What an amazing post. I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight, and it's going to be your fault. LOL. :-)

  7. Great traits to bring up! Thanks for the links, too. I didn't know that about tone deaf. That would explain why a child of two musicians might not be able to match pitch or read music very well. Thanks!

  8. Sometimes it's the little things that make a good story a great story. Thanks for the reminder that we need to pay attention to this kind of stuff.

  9. JEM: I can be a bit of a science nerd, too. I thought this post might bring a few more out of the woodwork. I've never gone so far as making Punnett squares or anything, though. But if you feel inspired, go for it! :-)

    Jemi: the jury is still out on the nature/nurture controversy about temperament. I imagine the nature component isn't a single gene either, but like eye color, a complex mix of many genes interacting. If you're interested in looking at how nurture shapes sibling relationships, you might want to look at Kevin Lehman's books on birth order.

    Tamika: Indeed! And don't you find in families we have the most conflict with the relatives we are most like?

    Talli: exploring family relationships and background is a great place to find rounding-out details. Have fun!

  10. Tricia: I've found it really helpful when I need to create family members--some of who they are is already right there in my MC.

    Shannon: Didn't mean to be the cause of insomnia, but I'm glad the idea sparked your imagination.

    Mary: Wild, huh? In my family the mystery is why all five of us kids have musical ability of varying degrees (four of us sing well, all of us have played instruments), while my parents aren't musical. Probably we're throwbacks to prior generations who were musical.

    Candice: families that feel real in books always have the family resemblances in them. I also think this exercise is helpful when you're starting from scratch and need to create characters. Those development decisions get easier once you have one family member dreamed up.

  11. Good points, and thanks for the links! One thing I know to be careful about is that two blue-eyed people can't have a brown-eyed child (which always bummed me out because I love brown eyes, but my husband and I both have blue).