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Mom Always Liked You Best: Siblings in Fantasy

In the world of relationships, there may be no more complex, teeth-gnashing, frustrating, and glorious relationship than the one between siblings. If you have at least one sibling, you probably remember the thousands of “yes-you-did-no-I-didn’t” fights you had growing up. You also most likely remember the times you ganged up on your parents and pulled off a heist of unparalleled proportions. Well, for a couple of 8- and 6-year-olds, maybe. If you don’t have at least one sibling, you’ve surely seen some complex relationships played out in your extended families.

Siblings can be the best of friends or the worst of enemies—sometimes even in the same day. I’ve seen sibling relationships that have been adversarial for decades, and I’ve seen sibling relationships where the two adults barely made a decision about supper without calling the other person first.

I wrote several weeks ago about dead parents in fantasy, and I think fantasy authors run a similar risk with siblings. It’s fairly common to see main characters who are either only children or who have dead siblings. I see why authors do this. A hero feels more heroic when he’s all alone in the world without any family to help him achieve his goals. Plus, the more characters you have, the tougher the story is to write, and limiting your cast does help keep the story in control.

But there are also some great opportunities for conflict and character building with sibling relationships. A few of my favorites:

• Parental Favoritism. It’s a conflict as old as time: Mom and Dad favor one child over the others, and boom! Conflict everywhere. Look at the story of Jacob and his twelve sons in the Bible. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite by his favorite wife, Rachel. What do the brothers do? Sell Joseph into slavery. Or consider my favorite dysfunctional family, the Lannisters. TywinLannister makes no secret of the fact that he favors Jaime over Tyrion. But what I love about these two brothers is how rather than become adversaries, they almost become allies despite their father’s favoritism. Jaime and Tyrion help each other when necessary. Tyrion doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against Jaime, and Jaime seems to genuinely care for his baby brother. That’s strong character building and good conflict.

• Inheritance Challenges. Another ancient conflict, this one involves a struggle for title, property, money, or power that will one day be passed down from the parents. Perhaps a second son is more capable than the first, but the first has the legal right to inherit. Perhaps the second son is power-hungry and desperate and threatens to take what he wants. Perhaps the oldest son dies, forcing the second son to inherit, even if it’s not what he wants. Or perhaps one sibling is a woman. How does gender influence inheritance in your world? Does it make a difference?

• Jealousy, Incompatibility, and General Irritation. Put any two strangers in a room together and see what happens. They could end up being best friends or the worst of enemies, right? There are a million little factors involved, and most people recognize that you can’t love everyone all the time. But, make those two people siblings, and all of a sudden, all kinds of parental and societal expectations rear their ugly heads. The truth is that even two siblings may just be incompatible people. They may have wildly different worldviews, interests, desires, beliefs, etc. How does that play out in your story? Maybe your siblings just tolerate each other. Maybe they fight against each other. Maybe one runs away from home to avoid the others. It’s okay for your siblings to neither hate nor adore each other. Ambivalence can cause conflict, too.

Those are some basic jumping off points for conflict in your sibling relationships. Now, how do you show those on the page?

• Physical responses. Twisting stomachs, clenched fists, tight chests, watery eyes, gnashed teeth—those are all some great ways to show how your characters react to siblings. Don’t say your character hated his brother—show us his glare or put his hand on his sword or make him storm out of a room.

• Character choices. Does your character enter a tournament to impress dad? Leave town to get away from the favoritism or escape the shadow of another sibling? Overwork herself to prove that she’s a better daughter? How do your characters compete with siblings on the page?

• Flashbacks and memories. Our earliest memories are often tied to our siblings. Let your characters experience those memories and flashbacks on the page, especially when those memories shed light on sibling conflict.

• Dialogue. So much of dialogue involves what isn’t said. What do your siblings know about each other that doesn’t need to be communicated between quotes? Those can be good things or bad things. Sometimes, you can give just a brushstroke or two of family by using a phrase or idiom that’s unique to your siblings and their families. Tyrion and Jaime Lannister always say, “A Lannister pays his debts.” When they say it, we hear layers and layers of family dysfunction that outsiders in the world of Westeros won’t necessarily hear.

Remember, aside from parental relationships, sibling relationships are very often the most long-lasting and intense relationships we have in our lives. Siblings know where the bodies are buried. It’s up to you to dig them up on the page.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this relationship series. I’ve had a lot of fun writing it. And I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season! See you next week!

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6 Comments

  1. Good points Amy, though I dare not venture into sibling writing too much since I am an only child myself. Sure, I see how others react and I have claimed “You are my brother/sister”, but it certainly isn’t the same. I will have to keep some of this in mind if I decide to venture that direction with my writing.

    I think you left off the rolling of the eyes and throwing the hands in the air as well, though if you went through EVERY action I have seen siblings do while having discussions with one another, you might have to put some parental advisement on it.

    Thanks for sharing, much appreciated!

    • LOL, Leif. Anything goes in fiction. Roll eyes and throw hands all you want. And as far as “every action” goes, I’m pretty sure Jaime and Cersei Lannister have broken every sibling boundary there is, so we’re all pretty safe now… 😉

  2. Avatar AE Marling says:

    Sibling interactions is definitely underused in fantasy, except for perhaps rivalry between two brother archmages. Everything besides that I am eager to hear about.

    In my current manuscript, my protagonist is responsible for taking care of his young sister and his annoying brother. It adds added tension to the fights when he’s trying to keep his sister safe and his inept younger brother from hurting himself. Of course, I did have to kill off his parents. If there’s one thing I cannot stand it’s character clutter.

    • AE, yes, character clutter is awful. My own MC in Ravenmarked has a dead father and three dead sisters, and two of the other major characters are only children. And most of the other siblings of characters are off-screen as well. If I put too many people on the page, it’s like trying to maneuver at an over-attended cocktail party, and I hate that. 🙂

  3. Avatar Jo says:

    The last three books I’ve written have ended up having a slightly dysfunctional brother / sister relationship at the heart of them. I might be making up for the fact that I had two sisters and I always wanted a brother….

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