Family in Fantasy

Tinkerbell and Friends

Tinkerbell and Friends


It’s a strange topic that doesn’t get brought a lot in Fantasy discussions.  Sure, you talk about the family of characters in a book that deals with political intrigue and revenge killings.  Yet, you still talk about them as a character and not the actual dynamic of that family.  Sibling rivalry gets brought up as a plot device, but you rarely see the rest of the family and the rivalry tends to be in full swing by the time the reader arrives.  So, what do you do if you want to include family without it being a rivalry or all politics?

For some authors, you go with incest.  I’ll get that out of the way and leave it here where it won’t be touched on again.

You can make two characters related and have them act like family members.  Siblings will squabble, but back each other up.  Older family members will be protective and some arguing about being overprotective can occur.  Realize that the sibling rivalry and hatred between family members that can be used a major conflict is an exaggeration of the normal versions.  Tone it down to a point where the characters aren’t out to kill each other and it can work for character development.

One can realize that there are other types of families too, especially in fantasy.  Here are some examples:

  1. Friends as Family–  A common one is having your main characters bond to a point where they are practically family.  They can even call each other brother and sister while showcasing the interactions typically found in families.  Teasing, arguing, friendly rivalries, and other small side events can cement the bond between your characters.
  2. The Clan or Tribe–  Used a lot with gypsies and barbarian and non-human species, this is really the idea of a close extended family.  People are blood related in these groups, but there are other characters that are not related by blood.  Those non-blood related are still treated like family, which is key for this.  Now, this is easier to use when the clan or tribe are the focal point.  If they are merely the grouping that the character came from then you use it to color that character’s social aptitude.  They may be scared of outsiders or amazingly accepting of everyone.  It depends on the culture you make for the clan or tribe.
  3. Build Your Own–  This is for you necromancers and mad scientists.  It isn’t unheard of for a villain to work with a ‘family’ of resurrected ancestors or constructs.  An anti-hero can use this too, but we’ll focus on villain.  Remember that villains can have families and some might be inclined to kill and rebuild their actual family.  It’s straightforward and the main villain can show any level of insanity that he or she wants toward their non-quite-living relations.
  4. Orphan–  Honorable mention since it’s been done a lot and you don’t need me to explain it.

A key point in writing with family involved, but not central is that you let them act naturally.  Don’t force the family thing down the throat of the reader.  They’ll figure it out when you have the characters call each other by familial names (mom, dad, sis, bro, etc.) and if they act naturally.  You don’t have to be over the top with this.  An occasional overprotective act or defiance can get you further than ‘I hate you, brother, and I’ll kill you with this magic sword’ scenes.

Some examples that just came to me:  Fullmetal Alchemist (us against the world bond), The Ranger’s Apprentice (Halt & Will are not related, but their bond is amazingly well-written), and The Wiggin children of Ender’s Game (rivalry and love).

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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43 Responses to Family in Fantasy

  1. mrsgillies says:

    My husband loves Fullmetal Alchemist.


  2. Jade Reyner says:

    Really interesting. I suppose we are all used to just thinking about our main characters and sub-characters and it is definitely worth considering their family and the link. Great post thank you. 🙂


  3. Seán Cooke says:

    A lot of my fantasy series is based around family ties/bonds. Hell, the first novel in it is called Bloodlines!
    By far my favourite “family” connection though is between two demigods who have a sibling rivalry that matches that of my own with my sister. We verbally abuse each other endlessly, often going a bit beyond our light-hearted intentions, but ultimately we have each other’s backs more than anyone else. The like it even more with these two demigods because their actual lives as humans were separated by centuries.


  4. L. Marie says:

    Love Fullmetal Alchemist!! I also think of Avatar. “Team Avatar” is like a family (and involves actual siblings). I like to write about characters who become like family to each other, because this aspect is true in my life. Though I have a family, I don’t see them often. My friends are like family.


  5. twixie13 says:

    Most of the major characters in my series are a family. A few related by blood, some by adoption, there’s at least one marital bond in there…Actually, if one relationship in the series had gone a bit further, there might have been a second marital bond, as well: one between an antagonist’s father and a main character’s mother. Which come to think of it, is something that can come about in the editing stage…


  6. I love the family structures/camaraderie in fantasy and ‘ensemble’ type stories. I’m the youngest of 5, but I’m the youngest by quite a few years, so the sibling rivalry thing never resonated with me.

    In my own work, I have orphans creating their own family and then finding themselves in the middle of a clan, and how that alters the dynamics of already-established relationships. It’s a bright point for their overall ‘history.’


  7. MishaBurnett says:

    I have a scene in Cannibal Hearts in which James, who always believed that he has no living relatives, discovers that he has a sister. Rather than have it be a huge, life-changing event, it really doesn’t make any difference to him. He’s always been a loner, he’s comfortable that way, and the fact that someone shares his DNA is pretty much irrelevant to his life. (His comment is, “I hope she doesn’t lose a kidney–she’ll come after mine.”)

    His reaction really bothers Godiva, who grew up in a close family and still deeply regrets that she can no longer see them since her body has changed to the point that they would no longer recognize her. She was expecting him to make a big deal about having a sister and when he shrugs it off she doesn’t quite know what to make of it.

    Family means different things to different people. When you add in characters who aren’t human, it gets even more complex. I have always imagined goblins, for example, tending towards litters rather than single births, like cats and dogs. (There’s got to be some reason there are always hordes of them, right?) So a goblin character might have a dozen siblings, which could make the family unit the most important relationship in his life, but could just as easily make it easy for him to turn his back on his family and leave the tribe. (“There were so many of us kids I don’t think my folks ever noticed I was gone.”)

    Then there are non-human methods of reproduction. In Heinlein’s “Double Star” there’s a through-away line about Martians being “conjugate-brother, a relationship so close that we can’t imagine it, since we don’t reproduce by fission.” The idea is that instead of giving birth, Martians split, like amoebas, and the two halves of the original Martian retain all the same memories up until the time of the split. Family lines, lines of descent, are therefore of supreme importance in the Martian culture.

    On the other hand, we have Edger Rice Burroughs’ Martians, the green ones, at least, that come from eggs and are all hatched together in communal hatcheries so that the young have no idea who their parents are–the family loyalty is transferred to the tribe as a whole. (Which is why the bit about Tars Tarkas identifying his daughter as his is such a huge drama.)

    Anyway, the point is that speculative fiction gives us the chance to change the rules of the world and see what happens. We can play “what if” with human relationships, and family is a big part of what makes us who we are. The relationship between a necromancer and her undead creations is similar to a mother and her children, but not exactly, and it’s that “not exactly” part where the fun is, in my opinion.


    • It is fun to twist the importance of family in the non-human cultures. Using goblins, I wondered about the horde thing, but also noticed that they were getting slaughtered in every fantasy book. So, I thought they reproduced like rabbits and had a strong family bound because they’re so fragile. They need to stick together to survive.

      I like the clash of family focus that you mention for your book. Not every person has the same attachment to their family, so it can be a great plot conflict for character development.


  8. VarVau says:

    One thing I haven’t seen too much in Fantasy is solo children. As I am an only child, I’m not able to relate with the experiences that people who have siblings had growing up. And in reverse, those who have siblings are not able to relate, generally, with those who grew up as an only child.

    One thing I have noticed: the mentality of only child vs. sibling children. I’ve compared this between those I know who were the only child to those I know who are sibling’d. Those with siblings tend to have a more community-oriented mind, whereas the only child becomes the sole focus of parents, thus are more likely to care for and fend for themselves to a greater degree than those who have siblings.


  9. sknicholls says:

    I was an orphan and being so caused me to not be very close to my five sisters. Yet, I have a very strong sense of family ties where my cousins, children and grandparents are concerned. I think the fantasy genre is a good one to explore those sorts of bonds (or lack of them), as there is adventure which takes them out of the realm of reality.


  10. MishaBurnett says:

    BTW, do you read The Order Of The Stick? The current storyline is about a father and his two sons, and is surprisingly deep for a webcomic.


  11. wonderful article, Charles, some good points to consider. thanks for sharing 🙂


  12. Pingback: On Families in my stories | The Write Stuff

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