When one thinks about the word “family” many reactions quickly come to mind. There is the genuine, heartfelt response: “I have the best family ever” – to — “Oy vey. Don’t ask.” Every family has a story to tell. And every family relationship differs.
This is all true in real life, and it’s true in the world you are creating in your screenplay. Regardless of the genre you’re writing in, familial relationships should be conveyed with poignancy and depth.
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I discuss family relationships. Here’s an excerpt:
Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.
Complex mother/daughter relationships are depicted in such films as Terms of Endearment (written and directed by James L. Brooks), as seen in the stubborn and independence-seeking Emma and her possessive widowed mother Aurora, and in Mildred Pierce, (directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Ranald MacDougall) in which Mildred, an overly devoted and hardworking mother, sacrifices everything for Veda, her spoiled, ungrateful, and insufferable daughter.
Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Big Fish, (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August) and Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson). In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom’s fabled tales about his fantastical life captivate everyone but his journalist son, Will, from whom he becomes estranged. When Will returns home to reconcile with his dying father, Edward does not understand how his stories have truly affected his son and Will struggles to accept his father for who he truly is. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.
Complicated sibling relationships are portrayed in such films as The Skeleton Twins (directed by Craig Johnson, screenplay by Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson), East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan, screenplay by Paul Osborn), in which rival brothers, Cal—the unappreciated, insecure loner—and his twin, the dutiful and favored son, Aron—compete for their devoutly religious and self-righteous father’s love. In Sweetie (written and directed by Jane Campion) the emotionally unstable, self-centered, overtly sexual, and manipulative Dawn (known as Sweetie) brings chaos and hurt to the lives of her parents and her sister, Kay—who, wrought with her own set of emotional issues, despises Sweetie for creating unrelenting trouble for their dysfunctional family yet is the only one, who attempts to save her life at the end.
Unstable family relationships are portrayed in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. The Squid and the Whale examines the Berkman family’s transition and redefinition when parents Bernard and Joan decide to divorce. Teenage sons, Walt and Frank, prematurely come of age, struggling with their conflicted and confused emotions, as they must cope with the repercussions of their estranged parents’ respective actions. In The Savages, Wendy, an aspiring Manhattan playwright, and her brother, John, a theater professor in Buffalo, New York, are forced to come to terms with their respective troubled lives and romantic relationships, when they must take care of their unsympathetic father, who is suffering from dementia.
Top Five Tips
- EMPATHY: Characters’ relationships with family members must be empathetic. Readers need to feel something for your characters’ relationships whether it’s love or hate; they need to understand their dynamics, as to why they get along or don’t get along.
- CONFLICT: Regardless of the genre you are writing in, agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a way that readers gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
- MAKE THEM HUMAN: Even if your characters are nonhuman (such as the father/son relationship in Finding Nemo) – humanize your characters by giving them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
- MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other in families, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.
- ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others or don’t fit in with their family members.
In real life and in the movies, and in comedies and dramas, successfully drawn family relationships can offer insight, truths, nods of understanding, if not a few chuckles along the way.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches at Purchase College, SUNY and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial, and screened in international festivals. Kouguell was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. She is the author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER! and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and @SKouguell on Twitter.