The robust fictional family (from observation journal notes)

These observation journal pages are both in pursuit of a fascination with robust characters and fictional families. (Thematically connected: Favourite tropes about families.)

This began with a pattern I’d noticed from previous pages (particularly things-to-steal notes) and recent reading: I enjoyed reading about people who are who they are, know it, never doubt it, and aren’t punished for it. (For better or worse.)

On the first page, I simply stated that pattern. Then I jotted down characters/books that fit the pattern in various ways: The Addams Family, the Roses (Schitt’s Creek), the Barnabys (Midsomer Murders), Gilly (Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware — The Foundling), the Lampreys (Surfeit of Lampreys), the Lindsays (from a scene in Time Without Clocks). And then for each I made further notes about how that characteristic played out.

Chart of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want

Here were some interesting patterns in the examples that sprang to mind:

  • Often (particularly in the idiosyncratic groups) moneyed and or upper class backgrounds, even if one or both of those have been lost. Tied to that, a somewhat outgoing eccentricity.
  • They don’t attempt to alter others without provocation.
  • But if they are distinctive through their ordinariness, they are often thrust into paternal/patriarchal roles. (Related to point #1.)
  • Either a strong particular aesthetic, or rigorous avoidance of one.
  • They almost all occur in families — even Gilly’s striking out on his own is aided and abetted by a self-contained and stubborn relation. (See previous notes about favourite tropes in families.)

I then sorted the families into tables, noting the type of family, how others viewed them, and to what degree they were unified/members could leave.

Table of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want vs families in fiction
  • Tendency towards self-sufficiency. Others are admitted into the family circle only if they won’t alter its fabric.
  • If they aren’t masquerading as ordinary, they tend to be regarded by the broader community with cautious bewilderment or alarmed integration.
  • The family forms a centre point for activities. Individuals may have their own adventures, but there is a dense unity/gravity and it is difficult to separate from the family entirely.

A deeply traditional, moral core, with an unflappable certainty of their rightness. In ‘ordinary’ families, that results in quite paternal/care-taker roles, and newcomers/additions must be equally responsible, respectable and easy-going. In ‘unusual’ families, they form their own fiercely self-sufficient and independent group, and newcomers must generally conform by being equally eccentric (or exceptionally easy-going). Even if this isn’t presented as being an unalloyed good, the sheer robustness and self-sufficiency of the group becomes very appealing, their inviolability charming. There’s a strongly traditional and conservative pattern behind many of the families — see also notes on the appeal of The Navigable World.

It’s a striking contrast to more found/chosen family tropes, which seem to me to be be capable of being more disparately chaotic and democratic, with correspondingly different possibilities and risks, and where a central gravitational point is more likely to be a circumstance or personality than a Tradition.

(NB — my affection for this type of character/family is definitely related to liking characters who aren’t changed by a story.)

(AND ANOTHER THING — I need to revisit the original question, because there is a textural difference between the utterly self-confident person embedded in a family, and the one who is in isolation. A degree of defiance vs complacency, a different attitude/stakes to survival… And the role of the found/chosen family vs that.)

1 thought on “The robust fictional family (from observation journal notes)

  1. Pingback: March 2023 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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