The Writer’s Craft #40: Oh Brother! (Or Sister)

Faith Van Horne
Faith Van Horne

Faith Van Horne is a writer of speculative fiction living in the Midwest. Her novelette, All Hope Lost, will be available from Escape Collective Publishing on October 10th. You can see what she’s up to at her blog,

When I started writing stories, my main characters were usually raised as only children, or spoke to their siblings rarely. This choice didn’t stem from my own life. I’m the youngest of three, so why did I go for loners as my protagonists?

Early on, I didn’t appreciate the deepening conflict that family relationships provide. Especially siblings, with all their rivalry and suppressed hostility.

For example, let’s look at one of my favorite films, Labyrinth. In it, fifteen-year-old Sarah curses her baby brother’s existence; if only the Goblin King would take him away, she’d be free. But when the Goblin King does steal Toby, she has to face her true feelings toward her brother, and does some growing up in the process.

My latest story, All Hope Lost, deals with Dana’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. She has a lot of suppressed feelings (no surprise). But in her case, a supernatural cult might be involved in the death. She denies its existence; she has to, to protect her sanity. But when a client arrives who’s lost his sister in the same way, and he also suspects the cult…well, Dana can’t let another sibling feel that pain without trying to help.

Who are your favorite supporting siblings in stories? Or do you go for the “lone wolf” hero?

14 thoughts on “The Writer’s Craft #40: Oh Brother! (Or Sister)

  1. Hi Faith, great article and well written:-) Your book sounds intriguing, kind of ‘X files’-ish. I’ll look for it! (Also, the Labyrinth is one of my favorite films, loved the symbology)

    Re: your question. I’ve been hashing your article for a few hours now, and I think what you are channeling is Joseph Campbell’s ‘the hero’s journey’. These are plot lines/themes that require a lone hero, which is usually a stand in for our own psyche. I.e., it just doesn’t work if the psyche has siblings, as that gets into multiple personality problems… hehe.

    Examples: Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter; would any of these have worked with a sibling? What they do get are ‘side kicks’, (I liked Frodo’s Sam the best), which are almost always friends. According to Campbell, ‘heroes’ must have this aura of being ‘a child of the gods’, and what good is that if there’s a spare or two?

    My MC in my WIP does have a sister, but I don’t bring her in until book 2. My book one is very much a ‘quest’ story arc, which he must go alone.

    1. You make a good point about the hero’s journey. But then, I would argue that Sarah in Labyrinth is also, in her way, on a hero’s journey. The story simply made her sibling an essential part of it. Now you’ve raised a good question; are there any good hero’s journey stories where the hero/heroine has to deal with a sibling? Time for some research. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. I’m geeky enough that I feel I have to point out that Luke does have a sibling, even if he wasn’t raised with her. Which gives them an interesting relationship later (if mostly in books).

  2. +1 to Kari, very well done article.

    Do you think your choices regarding familial relationships have to do with your placement in the pecking order? The experiences of those in the middle and at the top (oldest, generally) are far different and might well influence those decisions.

    Or I’m drunk at 11:02 AM. Take your pick.

    1. Drunk at 11am; I’m jealous. 🙂 My place in the pecking order…well, youngest siblings are supposed to be self-absorbed little brats who think the world revolves around them. So I can see that as a possibility. Growing up, I really didn’t have to worry about taking care of a brother or sister, so the concept of that as a plot device was probably less obvious to me than to, say, an oldest sibling of five. Good point.

      1. Huh! I hadn’t thought about how I used my own “pecking order” status as oldest when I write fiction with siblings–though, and this is something I’ll have to explore as to *why*, I almost put my character as the youngest or younger sibling, deliberately not the oldest. I’m going to have to explore this! I was also thinking–in lines with Narnia as mentioned by Andre Guirard below–of E. Nesbit’s books (of course, the Would-be-Goods spring to mind, though any of her fantasy books would fit that bill also).

  3. I always used to write complex sibling relationships, probably because I’m an only child and saw my writing as a way to vicariously live what I missed.

    But I realize that since I met my wife and was more or less adopted by her family, I write much less about siblings. Maybe if her brother were a Machiavellian schemer or a reclusive eccentric, if they hated each other or loved each other *too much*, it might be different. As it his, he’s just a nice guy with a steady job, a wife and a young son. Great to have as a brother-in-law, kind of boring as a character.

  4. I like the way the siblings work together in Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and its sequels. And the Chronicles of Narnia, of course, and Pamela Dean’s “The Secret Country.”

  5. Faith: I think you’re right on with the idea that familial relationships can help deepen conflict. I love adding another dimension to the relationship between two characters by making them related in some way. The relationship between the main character in my current work-in-progress (who is by nature a lone wolf) and the leader of his people wouldn’t be so interesting if the leader wasn’t also his sister. I’m surprised not to see this technique used more often.

  6. The Narnia books frequently involve siblings. I want to say E. Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones don’t neglect them either. Diane Duane’s Wizardry books are mainly about two people who aren’t siblings, but they each have siblings who start to become main characters later on.

    Anyone really doing a study on this could look at Buffy. Because she _didn’t_ have a sister, and then suddenly and retroactively _did_.

  7. ooh, gotta chime in here with my twins: Samanda and Samdan O’Pearl. Yeah, people in the books complain about the names, too. Samanda (Sam) enters in Part 6 of the Okal Rel Saga impersonating her brother Samdan (Dan) to escape the social stigma of consequences flowing from involvement with a quasi-criminal woman that he embroiled her in. Sam is mad at him. But still loves him. And his idealism drags her into deeper waters, emotionally. Oddly, most of their relationship now I think about it takes place “offstage” but it is important to the story.

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