I'm back from my foray abroad, which mostly consisted of sitting on a bloody big boat and playing card games while eating loads of carbs, but no need to go into that. I successfully maneuvered sharing a tiny stateroom with two other people without anyone losing life, limb or marbles, attended fancy dinners and cocktail parties, enjoyed a wonderful museum as well as some authentic mole sauce while in Mexico and managed to get a tan line. All in all, a great trip!
But here is one of the things that made it especially great:
Smile! We're on iCamera!
Untouched, uncut and travel-worn (so please forgive me for that), this is my sister and me at the airport before returning to our lives of husbands, children & other responsibilities du jour (yes, yes, like writing -- I know, I'm getting to that...). We don't see each other very often and almost never spend time together outside the pack of our family get-togethers, so this little break of ours was a first: my mother, my sister, and I. Girl-Time.
We are both incredibly close with our parents and our family in general and specific. I know of some lucky women who are close with their sisters, being best friends growing up, but in our case we...weren't. This is not to say we didn't love each other, both of us having a deep family loyalty and protective-Mama-Bear-instinct even as little girls, but the truth of the matter is that we didn't like each other all that much, mostly based on the fact that we didn't understand one another all that much. While I lounged around in faded blue jeans and comic book shirts hanging with my guy friends in the basement watching geeky movies, my sister was often dressed to the nines hanging out at the mall or going into the city for a night of fun. Growing up, we didn't get along and unless we were at the kitchen table, our paths rarely crossed. We were years apart and then miles apart, going to different colleges and then graduate schools and eventually ending up across the country.
As we grew up, we grew closer (although not in distance, we're still in different time zones). We could share things like our past and memories but also the growing adult lives of having husbands and children, being far from good friends or struggling with the education system, the challenges of being a Good Mother and a Good Wife and a Good Feminist and a Good Person often bumping up against one another in unexpected ways. And nowadays, I've come to realize that no one understands me more than my sister...even if I still don't comprehend how she can look like she stepped off of a magazine when her room was always a mess or how her brain manages to turn a single overpriced commodity into her own side-business, although we both have the uncanny knack to laugh in the face of things going haywire with our distinctive brand of humor. She is one of the most innovative, creative, funny & savvy gals I've ever met and sometimes I just content myself to sit back and watch the magic happen.
It never occurred to me that she felt likewise.
During the trip, my sister mentioned that while we're very different people, we're also more alike than any two people have a right to be. I imagined a Venn Diagram and could see how much of our selves overlapped and that those things that stayed on the outside, while distinctive to our personalities, were few and far-between. It was a startling revelation that seemed obvious once it was out in the open some thirty years after we'd first been introduced by Mom and Dad. And then I thought about how this related to writing.
When people write characters, they don't exist in a vacuum. Even if the MC's family doesn't make a grand appearance on the page, their presence and influence are almost always felt by the reader, and if they *are* introduced, there's an important lesson to keep in mind: no matter how diametrically-opposed their personalities might be or how unalike their philosophies or outlooks, they should 1) affect one another in clear, definable ways & 2) be far more alike than they are different at their core because they share a common origin. I know we have evil stepmothers and ugly stepsisters and a plethora of orphans and single-children on our pages, but even so: the Main Characters are motivated, self-actualized and ultimately defined in relation to (or against) their families, alive or not, present or absent; most often we focus on the (often missing) Mom and Dad, but we should keep this in mind for both influential siblings as well as close, personal friends.
I've thought about "sibling" books like THE DEMON'S LEXICON, SISTERS RED, IMAGINARY GIRLS, the orphans in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS or the Loontwills in the PARASOL PROTECTORATE series, but then also about strong secondary characters' families like those who collect "black Santas" in PAPER TOWNS, the varied girls of the GEMMA DOYLE and GALLAGHER GIRL series, or the famous Weasleys in HARRY POTTER. We connect with these characters *because of* their relationships to their parents and siblings and cannot fathom who they would otherwise be without them. It far more integral to their character than what they wear or the color of their hair.
As I develop my own work, I think about what characters were like growing up together in the same house or in the same environment, experiencing life comprised of the same circumstances seen through different eyeballs, sharing memories and arguments and treasured childhoods in ways no one else can comprehend--it's something that builds the foundation of every character, whether orphaned or single-child or one of many: it's a core defining characteristic. So when I look at this picture of my sister and I, two grown-up siblings, a real couple of characters, I can see how our roads wound so far apart only to come back closer than ever in the end, full-circle. It makes for a pretty good story!
P.S. I also have a brother. He's a post onto himself!