Your crazy grandma… Your drunk uncle… You narcissistic sister…
Family is great, huh? Some real characters. And Christmas is the force that brings us all together. For better or worse. But just because you’re taking a break from your keyboard to enjoy the cheer, doesn’t mean that you have to stop working. Grab your notebook, because you’re about to take a lesson in realistic relationships.
Got your notebook ready? No, really. Take notes, because after the fifth egg nog, things might get a little hazy. People are at their most relaxed–or maybe their most tense–when they’re around people they know well, like family. They are their most true selves. You might catch them picking sleep from their eyes, or with a finger in their ear. Maybe they slink around the room, can’t sit still, or nap every time they sit down. Does this suit their personalities? You know them best. Can you attribute these habits and quirks to characters in your novel with similar personalities?
Everyone has their own way of speaking. People don’t need to have accents to sound different. Different words, different sentence structures, swear words, or maybe they’re talkative, or the strong, silent type. How does each member of your family interact with each other? Siblings, mother and daughter, grandma and grandkids. Note their word usage. Even notice when they take a pause, if at all, to maybe puff on a cigarette, or shove another cookie in their mouth, or roll the dice in Yahtzee. These are the kinds of interesting pauses that can break up long chunks of dialogue.
What’s Christmas without old grudges and a few new fights rising to the surface? Why do they come up? Are they really fighting about the right thing? Or are they fussing over burnt biscuits when it’s actually the new boyfriend that’s the bother. How do they fight? Do they bicker? Swear? Throw ornaments across the room? Or is it like a couple of circling ferrel cats, calm until the moment that they decide to strike?
Watching their gestures and expressions are especially important here. Keep it fresh and interesting with new character-specific interjections, like waving spatulas, or choking someone with glittery ribbon, or shooting a snowblower at somebody. Wait… this doesn’t happen at your family Christmases? Yeah, mine neither…
Even if no one fights, what’s the undercurrent around the dinner table? Is there tension? Accusations left unvoiced? Eyeballs glaring over the steaming turkey? If it was a scene in your novel, think of ways you could create conflict. Maybe your brother would stand up and declare he’s gay. Maybe your wino aunt could announce she’s pregnant.
Whoa, whoa, I’m not saying you should start anything to amp up the excitement, just be aware of your family dynamics. Take a step back and be the objective observer now and again. You might find some pretty great fodder for your next novel, not to mention, you’ll find ways to bring your characters to life.
So, let the drinks pour, the insults rip, and the snowballs fly. And have a happy holiday season.