It’s All in the Family

Defining Character by Familial Role

Family dynamics are especially useful when assembling an ensemble cast. It’s not that you’ll need to cover every gender, age, or familial role. But it is helpful to determine how each character might relate to one another in both positive and negative ways. Police detective partners, even if both heterosexual and male, will invariably relate to each other as fighting spouses at times. Professional colleagues might jockey for position to impress the boss, and thus struggle through the jealousies of sibling rivalry.

Photo by Loren Kerns

Notice how age and gender is not always the main determining factor of family dynamics. In season 3 of The Walking Dead after patriarch Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), dies in childbirth, their prepubescent son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), is forced to grow up fast. He becomes so confident with his marksmanship and fearless zombie killing skills that he evolves from innocent child to resourceful survivalist adult in a matter of months. And when his father, Rick, starts hallucinating (seeing the ghost of his late wife) and losing his sanity, it’s Carl who (temporarily) emerges as the patriarch of the prison group until Rick can come to his senses and lead again. This transfer of power occurred when the elder leaders were occupied elsewhere—with Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) trying to rein in his loose cannon brother Merle (Michael Rooker) and Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) dealing with his impaired.

In later episodes, Andrea (Laurie Holden) seeks normalcy and traditional community life by moving to the “secure” township of Woodbury. The patriarch of the town is the Governor (David Morrissey). As Andrea and the Governor become romantic partners, she essentially becomes the First Lady of Woodbury (its matriarch). Meanwhile, outside Woodbury and inside the prison compound, Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) and the Greene sisters move into matriarchal roles. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) become “spouses.” While Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) and Carol tend to Rick’s new baby as new mommy figures. Toward the end of the season, Michonne (Danai Gurira) returns to the prison and bonds with Carl as his new maternal/big sister protector figure.

When populating your series or creating guest characters for a particular episode, ask yourself not only who is this new character, but also, how will the arrival of this new character impact your regular characters?

All relationships are like mirrors, and each new person we encounter reflects our sense of self right back to us. They can also remind us of someone else either in appearance, attitude, or how he/she makes us feel. This causes characters to project their past onto new individuals—perhaps overreacting to a quasi-judgmental remark that (usually subconsciously) reminds them of a judgmental parent.

The sub-subtext of virtually any scene is familial power dynamics, psychological wounds from the past, and subtle movements that reaffirm clan position. The show’s family may spend most of its time in a house, office, police precinct, hospital, prison, or any other arenas where people rely on each other, challenge each other, learn, struggle, and, hopefully, mature.

Excerpt from The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series by Neil Landau © 2013 Taylor and Francis All Rights Reserved

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