I take issue with the opening line from “Anna Karenina”: All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” I think happy family can be happy in their own, unique way. But I understand Mr. Tolstoy’s point. Writers think they have more to work with when they create unhappy characters within a family. But as long as the kind members of a family aren’t perfect, and writers don’t shield them from unhappy events, nice families can prove just as interesting and more challenging as lead characters in a story. But how to write about a nice family without it turning to mush was a problem I confronted when writing my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow.
My main character, nineteen-year-old Rae, has just discovered who her father is and is getting to know him, her half-brothers, her grandmother, and extended family. Her father is thrilled to have her because he thought she died before she was born. I wanted readers to see that this is a warm, loving family without miring them in a lot of sentimental goo. To accomplish this, I relied on three keys ingredients: humor, matter-of-fact, and no loitering in emotional moments.
I don’t think I could write main characters who are likable without a sense of humor. Giving Rae a sense of humor about some of the members of her new family keeps my writing from turning all mushy. For example, Rae’s two younger half brothers Aaron and Micah are crazy about her. They’re nine and seven and like having a big sister with whom they can share their interests, like they’re latest invention.
Now I could have had Rae melt every time these little boys wanted to show her something. But that would soon get boring and tiresome. Instead I have her somewhat stunned that they want to spend time with her. And having been an only child, she has a hard time deaingl with little boys who have no appreciation for personal space. So while she’s trying to learn how to be a good big sister, she’s also fighting the temptation to order them out of her face. The warmth of the relationship is evident without being cloying.
Matter of Fact
Another way to handle emotional family moments is to state them and move on. Rae’s father is very close to his sons. I show this through all the physical contact between them–Aaron likes to attack his dad when he gets home from work, Micah likes to scare him, their dad hugs them. The oldest brother Rusty likes to read with his dad on the couch after his younger brothers are in bed. Rae, as the POV character, mentions the actions but doesn’t add things like, “As Dad released Aaron from a hug, the kitchen overflowed with his love for his family.” (Wow is that awful. I hated writing it even as a bad example.)
Rae does think about Rusty and their father reading together but in a questioning tone because she’s not sure why Rusty values this time.
Let the reader understand the close relationships through actions and dialogue without underlining it. They’ll be able to figure it out.
But Don’t Be Afraid of Big Emotions
My novel is a story about a teen learning about her father for the first time in her life. If I didn’t include some emotional scenes, the story would seem false, even trivial. But a few raw emotions can go a long way. So when I have an emotional scene, I …
Or maybe a better way to put is to use the line from The Court Jester (1956)–“get in, get on with it, get it over with and get out.” As I mentioned in my post “Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly”, Rae has an emotional scene with her father in the middle of A Shadow on the Snow. I loved writing about it. But if I lingered too long, basking in all the good vibrations, I might bore readers or give them a sugar rush. So I only let the scene last as long as I felt necessary for readers to enjoy the emotions and to make the scene seem genuine. Then I got out.
To know when to depart a warm, fuzzy family scene takes relying on your instinct of how the scene is unfolding and your memories of similar scenes you’ve read or watched and what worked and what didn’t. But humor does allow you to stay longer because it knocks down the mush. For more on that, read my post “Adding Humor to Enhance Drama.”
What happy family in fiction is your favorite?