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.
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.
- 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.)