Peter Murphy: Writing about Siblings
In previous posts I have discussed various aspects of writing about family, and I hope they have been of value to readers. In this post, I will share my observations on what I consider to be the trickiest task of the group: writing about siblings.
Now, maybe you grew up in a family where all the siblings lived in glorious harmony every single day. If you did, well . . . good for you. Most of us have had very different experiences. Yes, siblings can love each other, but when thinking on that I always remember the line from Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: “Women only call each other sister after they have called each other a lot of other things first.” Having grown up as the youngest of six boys, I can say with surety that this applies equally to men.
Family life is different for everybody and especially for siblings who you would think would have so much in common. In my experience, they don’t. In fact, I believe that we are far more likely to find common ground with friends before we find it with siblings.
Now there is an aspect of family that, at times, can resemble cultish behavior. Many people I know cannot admit that the family they grew up in was deranged, dysfunctional, or downright wacky. It is understandable. If we were ever to become truly honest about human existence, we might all cease to reproduce and our race would die out in a matter of a few generations.
In Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER, one did not take sides with anyone against the family. “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” – Michael Corleone
Now, while that might be considered an extreme case, most families observe some form of “omerta,” even when family problems are plain and obvious to the whole world.
In the more mundane and everyday world most of us live in, sibling rivalries are the norm. Snatching the limelight, borrowing favorite items of clothing without permission, eating the last of the cookies, competing for the attention of a sibling’s new paramour—things that friends might never be forgiven for—are all part of growing up with siblings.
While most people find a way through all of that and arrive at a place where a certain type of détente can exist, I would think that raising the matter years later might just be opening old wounds. As Johnny in my family-centric novel, THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMER, remarked: “Yeah, there’s nothing like being back with your parents to bring out the kid in everyone again.”
Yes, I have written about family in a number of my books, but let me stress one thing: I have never published anything about my own family. (Never published being the key term, as I am waiting for them all to die off before venturing there!)
Sibling interactions are rich fields for writers to work in with the obvious caveat. Readers identify with characters, and if that is the case with a character you depict as less than likeable, expect a less than positive response. Something along the lines of, “I hated this book,” or something to that effect.
Whenever I publish, one of my wife’s sisters always asks: “Am I in it?” It has become a joke between us and I have taken to answering: “Yes, all the characters are based on you—and your multiple personalities.” Fortunately, the lady has a good sense of humor, but that is not always the case.
For some writers, the temptation to settle old scores is too great, but I always urge restraint. Writing well about characters demands a level of love and respect from the author—even for the more despicable, villainy types.
Many readers, who are human, will seek some redeeming values in everybody to get to know in the pages. Yes, they can still be flawed, even to the point of evil, but they most still have enough about them to keep the reader’s interest. The plain, one-dimensional targets of revenge writing will not do that and before long the reader might turn their attention on the avenger. It is not unlike the real-life reaction to the child who is always the victim.
It is usually the brighter, happier children who find the most acceptance, and that is also true of written characters. They do not have to “bubble” through everything the story throws at them—that would be far too annoying—but they do have to have enough positives for the reader to care. If they do, a reader will follow them through trails and tribulations always rooting for their deliverance. On that point, killing off a bright, likeable character can have a very negative impact on the book’s acceptance.
So, my opinions on writing about siblings is, if you must, write under a pen name, because simply changing your characters names will not be enough. Or, write and put it on the shelf with a note that it can only be published after you are dead.
Of course, there is another option and that is to be kind because not all of us were the ideal children we would like to pretend we were. And, being kind might spare you some blushes when your siblings write their own stories.
Peter Murphy is the author of five novels, including Lagan Love, The Life & Times Trilogy, and The Last Weekend of the Summer, all published by The Story Plant.