Writing Dysfunctional Families

28th September 2016
5 min read
15th September 2020

I started to write this, then thought, hang on, what is a functional family? Does one actually exist? Even those perfect-looking ones, with happy parents and cute, well-behaved kids probably have their own hidden layers of dysfunction. The kids are well-behaved only because the parents are over-controlling; or perhaps the mother’s dreaming about her lover; or the father’s worrying about the mortgage money he gambled away…

Beth Miller

I've never agreed with Tolstoy’s famous Anna Karenina opener, that happy families are all alike. I think they are fascinatingly different, like strange birds of paradise. I do, though, agree with the second part of his pronouncement: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Dysfunction is on a sliding scale, from families who are a teensy bit messed up, to ones who are all-out batshit crazy. Once there is a family, there is, by definition, more than one person. And once there is more than one person, there’s an almost infinite amount of possible conflicts, misunderstandings and resentments.

What sort of dysfunction will you write about? One where a member of the family is the lightning rod for everyone else’s difficulties, perhaps? I used to work at an advice service for young people, and one day a father came in wanting counselling for his daughter. The problem, he said, was that she was moody and uncommunicative. I skipped the obvious answer that she was simply adhering to her teenager job description, and asked if anything had changed in her life recently. Not really, the dad said. Other than he’d split with her mother and moved in with his girlfriend who had three children… The family had clearly managed to locate the source of all their strife in the daughter, which fascinated me. I pretty much planned an entire novel before he’d left the building, with chapters telling the family’s story from three different points of view (though as so often the way with my grand ideas, I never actually wrote it).

The novel I did eventually write, When We Were Sisters, was about two families, each dysfunctional in their own way. One contained an unhappy marriage which imploded, sending out shock-waves that reverberated for years. The other involved an unhealthily co-dependent mother-daughter relationship, in which the daughter felt herself responsible for her mother’s happiness, and the mother silently encouraged her to carry that burden.

Then there are dysfunctional families where one or more members are labouring under a delusion or obsession. One of the causes of dysfunction in my second novel, The Good Neighbour, was a character who had an unusual relationship with the truth. Three narrators told the story (I finally used that structure!), each with their own take on events. 

There are of course more extreme dysfunctional families: the sort in Janette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (religious maniac mother + rebellious gay daughter) for instance, or Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (emotionally withholding mother + psychotically interdependent son), or the most popular book when I was at school: Flowers in the Attic (everyone scoring high on the bonkers scale). But much as I like reading about those sort of families, I prefer to write about a quieter level of dysfunction, the sort we might encounter in our daily lives, and in our own families.

The key thing I do when writing is to focus on the dynamics between each of the various members. If you have four people in a family, you have at least eleven possible configurations of relationship, all with their different complexities, secrets and tensions. How does what A say or do impact on B? How do things change if C comes on the scene? The writer here is like a family therapist. Both writer and therapist have to tease out the dynamics, work out how each pairing, each triad, each quartet, changes depending on who’s there, what new stuff they’re bringing, their shared and separate histories.

Talking of history, I always write a bit of backstory for my main characters. After all, unless you start the story from the womb, à la Ian McEwan, a helluva lot of things have happened to these people before they turn up on your page. What things are most important to my character? What is she afraid of, what’s the best thing that ever happened to her, what does she regret? And of course, how are her sibling relationships? If you decide, say, that she has always felt her brother to be the favoured child, while he has long resented having to fulfil the role of the perfect son, this will always affect the way they are with each other, with their family, and indeed, with new relationships they enter. 

These complexities your characters have developed during childhood and adolescence – their family years - are always going to be there, bubbling away under the surface. Our awareness of their backstories, even if the details never appear on the page, help us write deeper, more human-like characters. They help us make our unhappy family properly unhappy in their own way.

Beth Miller has written two novels: When We Were Sisters (2014) and The Good Neighbour (2015), both published by Ebury Press (Random House). She has also written two non-fiction books: For The Love of The Archers (2015), about the world’s greatest radio show, and the just-out For The Love of Shakespeare (2016), both published by Summersdale. She’s writing her third novel, and works the rest of the time as a book-coach and writing teacher. 

Photo credit: Katie Vandyck

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