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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 www.facebook.com/MaggieAdamsRhettShepard.