Posted by: Kerry Gans | April 12, 2016

Character Genealogy for Worldbuilding and Plot

We all get to know our characters very well during the writing process. We delve into their backgrounds, searching for wounds, secrets, and personality quirks to make them come to life. But how many of us dig into our characters’ genealogy?

1873 - Charles McCall, 4th great-grandfather of Author Chronicle writer Kerry GansSome types of stories, such as multi-generational epics, require a firm grasp of family history, but most of the time we limit ourselves to our main character’s immediate family. However, I find genealogy creeping into my stories.

Genealogy is a passion of mine, so it’s no surprise it runs under the skin of many of my stories. My novel The Witch of Zal hints at genealogical mysteries to be further explored in later stories. My current WIP, Veritas, contains a genealogy that spans 300 years and carries evil repercussions for the descendants. Another WIP, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, takes place in a small town where your family line defines you—and since Polly doesn’t know who her father is, this is a problem. A third YA WIP, The Forgotten Planet, examines sisters whose close relationship is threatened when they discover they are not who they think they are. Even in my middle grade WIP The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone, the protagonist’s adventure is sparked by an uncle—the only member of his mother’s estranged family who speaks to them.

Why should YOU have genealogy in your toolkit?

Genealogy is something that fascinates me, but why should you concern yourself with family history in your stories? One reason is that the decisions the ancestors made directly impact the life the protagonist leads today. If they had decided not to emigrate, the protagonist would not be where he is. The decision to sacrifice to allow a child to go to school and get a non-manual-labor job impacted the future financial prospects of the family.

A second reason is secrets—family secrets can come back to haunt the protagonist. Family feuds attest to the longevity of revenge. A black-sheep family member could leave a fortune to the protagonist—or steal one away. An unmarried woman had an illegitimate child. A married man had a second family. The possibilities are endless.

Capt. William Wooldridge, 3rd great-grandfather of Author Chronicle writer Kerry Gans

Civil War, Union army Capt. William M. Wooldridge

A third reason is science. With the science of epigenetics, it may be smart to consider the longer family view. Epigenetics shows that trauma can change a person’s DNA expression and that change can be passed down to their children and grandchildren. If your protagonist’s grandparents or even great-grandparents went through war or famine or internment camps in your book’s history, this can impact your character and your character’s family dynamic. Personal trauma (rather than global) such as abuse, rape, poverty, or starvation can also cause epigenetic change. There is even speculation that DNA can pass down memories. Does that possibility tingle your writer’s brain?

So it might be time to take a longer view of your character’s family, at least back to the great-grandparents. Where would all those people have lived? What was going on in the history of your book’s world during their lives? How did decisions they made influence the protagonist’s present? By bringing your book’s world history down to a personal level, you can more easily access that history—and maybe come up with some great short story material to use to market your books.

Do you ever consider the genealogy of a character when you write?

Norse Lineage of Author Chronicle writer Kerry Gans


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