Monday, September 8, 2014


by Margaret Birth

Mary Queen of Scots was descended from both the English and Scottish monarchies—lest I forget the exact line of succession, two genealogical charts fill the opening pages of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, which I reread recently.

Of course, that’s a real-life family tree. But some of my favorite novels also include a family tree in the book, to help readers keep multiple characters and their relationships straight.

Even if there’s no need for a genealogical chart for readers’ sake, though, should authors make a character family tree in the process of writing a book? I think it’s something worth considering.

During my twenty-five-plus years as a writer, I’ve deepened my interests in genealogy, and in given names and surnames, to the point where I’ve joined the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and the American Name Society (ANS). With these overlapping interests, I’ve learned certain things that have the potential to aid the process of character development:
● Everyone is related to someone—or, more specifically, to at least two someones: mother and father. Simply seeing these three names on a chart (person, person’s mother, person’s father) can give a visual reminder of the biological and emotional background and relationships among these characters.

● Our names reflect how our parents desired to identify us. This has several implications:

      ■ The “junior effect” can have a profound impact on a person. If your character has the letters “Jr.” or a Roman numeral like IV after his name, why? Does he come from a family that values tradition or takes pride in its names? How does your character feel about sharing a name? Does he resent it because he believes the duplicate name makes it difficult for him to feel unique, or does he share the family pride? Does he struggle, as an adult, with still being called “Tommy” or “Little Tom,” rather than “Tom” or “Thomas”?

      ■ Consider other variations of the “junior effect”: the woman named after her mother, the woman given some version of her father’s name (Andi, daughter of Andrew), the man or woman given elements of both parents’ names (Harper Clay Johnson, named after mother, Mary Harper, and father, Ronald Clay Johnson), the man or woman named after a grandparent, or the woman (often Southern) whose first name is a very traditional female name but whose middle name (and the name by which she’s known) is her mother’s maiden name (Catherine Campbell Smith, who goes by Campbell Smith). Family history, pride and tradition frequently go into naming choices like these, and such things can influence how a person reacts to and reflects his or her name (i.e., characterization in fiction).

      ■ Cultural background may also play a role. Different nationalities and religions have different naming customs. This is where a family tree that goes back a couple of generations (character, parents, grandparents) may help to visualize possible cultural naming patterns.

      ■ Parents sometimes choose names for their children because of positive associations they hope other people will make with those names—or in rebellion for negative associations they fear people may have had with their own names. Imagine a little girl named Destiny (a name implying anticipation for a great future) or Blake (even though Blake isn’t among the family surnames—but sounds distinguished); think of a little boy named Brad (after a parent’s favorite celebrity) or Gage (because the parents believe it sounds macho and cool). Do your characters live up to their names, or not? Did you name your characters, or did you consider why their parents might have named them what they did? Could anything in the parents’ choice of name be in rebellion to their own background (a mother named Sunshine Daffodil Jones by her hippie parents, who traditionally names her own daughter Elizabeth Jean Jones)?

● There’s blood family (biologically related), legal family (related by marriage or adoption) and family-by-choice (neither biologically nor legally related, but people we consider to be part of our family, nevertheless—such as those we call “Aunt” or “Uncle” even though they’re just close family friends). Even in the field of professional genealogy, a real-life family tree may include any or all of those relationships—because it’s the relationships people consider to be the most meaningful in their lives that shape who they are and who they become; and certainly the same could be true for a character’s family tree.

The next time you work on a story, think about branching out—and take some time to consider what your characters’ family trees may say about them and their characterization.♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. Please follow her—and give her page a “like”—at


  1. Interesting article. Yes I'll create a family tree.

  2. Glad you like my suggestion--I hope it helps!


  3. I share your deep affinity with genealogy, Margaret. I never thought of using family trees for my characters. Brilliant! - Jenna Victoria