Observation Journal: Favourite tropes about families

On this observation journal page, I loosely corralled some thoughts on my favourite tropes about families in fiction.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on family tropes.

The observation journal is a useful place to quickly pin down vague fascinations. Sometimes they turn into a project, or a point of reference. Sometimes, as here, they don’t seem to lead to any epiphany. And yet I keep coming back to the ideas on this page, and gradually it’s getting out into other projects, and I keep linking other related interests back to this one, building a pattern of thoughts for some future enquiry. Further, just having written this down means the knowledge as a corrective to a slight tendency to default to an individual, unanchored central character.

Handwritten notes on takes I like on families in fiction.

Here are some of my favourite tropes & treatments of families in fiction:

  • The odd one out — the strange character in a normal family; the normal character in a strange one.
  • The vast and peculiar family — unique circumstances, idiosyncratic, Gothic…
  • Erratic but functional — feel but don’t necessarily react; appealing/sympathetic but strange…
  • Scattered but resonant — geographically; seen across generations
  • Parents vs kids — smart parents intrigued by strange kids; practical offspring of bohemian parents
  • All get stories — siblings each pursuing their own stories; multi-track (e.g. kids, teenagers, adults each on their own plot); crossed tracks
  • Present — actively can’t shake them; part of the context of the story, e.g. qctive hindrance, or secretly very important to the context
  • Haven — for others; for main character; for readers
  • In summary:
    • families that function as both unit and context (as well as a group of characters);
    • families that are something the reader is terrified to lose (but that will not actually be destroyed by the story).

Stories referred to include: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (specifically the family mechanics in the book, which aren’t in the movie), and indirectly most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books; Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson; Stranger Things (seasons 1 and 2 but in different ways); Fargo (movie and at least the first season of the series); Midsomer Murders; A Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh; Queen Elizabeth, a portrait of the Queen Mother by Penelope Mortimer (seriously, whatever your position — and Mortimer’s book is not a hagiography — it’s a fun read); The Addams Family (Charles Addam’s work and the show, movies, etc); and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (the book and the 2015 movie, especially).

Tiny ballpoint drawing of ibis savaging a stolen croissant, with light blue watercolour background
Ibis savaging a stolen croissant

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2 thoughts on “Observation Journal: Favourite tropes about families

  1. Pingback: March 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders | Kathleen Jennings

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