***Wacko Wednesdays: Each Wednesday, I’ll outline a human quirk or phenomenon in the study of Personality Psychology, or perhaps talk about a specific type of research into personality. I’ll provide information, links, and my own experiences to help you along in your goals of writing memorable characters.***
Writers don’t write about mothers much. I was at a writing conference where the speaker asked the audience to call out something they’d read that examined the mother-child relationship. No-one spoke up. The speaker had made her point. The mother/child relationship is very complex and close to the heart. Even Disney likes to kill off moms so they don’t have to deal with trying to navigate those murky-mommy-issues waters. Fathers, on the other hand, abound in fiction. Father’s Day is this Sunday. Because we know all psychosis comes from our parents (not!), for today’s Wacko Wednesdays, let’s talk about at writing about the father/child relationship, or writing a character as a father.
For decades, psych research focused on the mother’s parenting as pathology for mental illness in children. More and more, researchers are looking at the father’s influence (especially with the area of girls and eating disorders). The father’s attitudes and behaviors toward parenting would influence your main character (MC). The father’s raising of your MC will probably all be backstory that happens offstage (i.e. not in the novel), but it is perhaps the most important character detail that fuels your MC’s current motivations. Let’s take a look at how some psych research examines how a father’s behaviors influence his children.
In the book, “The Role of the Father in Child Development” (.pdf of intro here), Editor Michael E. Lamb outlines the 3 areas that many researchers concentrate on when researching the father/child relationship: Engagement, Accessibility, and Responsibility.
“Whether and how much time fathers spend with their children are questions at the heart of much research conducted over the past three decades. In the mid-1970s a number of investigators sought to describe—often by detailed observation and sometimes also through detailed maternal and paternal reports—the extent of paternal interactions with children (Pleck & Masciadrelli, this volume; Lamb & Lewis, this volume). Many of these researchers have framed their research around the three types of paternal involvement (engagement, accessibility, responsibility) described by Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, and Levine (1987). As Pleck and Masciadrelli note, researchers have consistently shown that fathers spend much less time with their children than do mothers. In two-parent families in which mothers are unemployed, fathers spend about one-fourth as much time as mothers in direct interaction or engagement with their children, and about a third as much time being accessible to their children. Many fathers assume essentially no responsibility (as deﬁned by participation in key decisions, availability at short notice, involvement in the care of sick children, management and selection of alternative child care, etc.) for their children’s care or rearing, however, and the small subgroup of fathers who assume high degrees of responsibility has not been studied extensively. Average levels of paternal responsibility have increased over time, albeit slowly, and there appear to be small but continuing increases over time in average levels of all types of paternal involvement.”
Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility are the three things you can think about when forming your character.
Engagement: How “hands-on” was your MC’s father when she was small? Was he a good guy but had a job that took him away often? Did he just seem like he was yelling everytime he spoke to his kids, but he was just trying to encourage them?
Accessibility: Could your MC bring any question under the sun to her dad or was she relegated to communicating with him through his secretary? Did he send the MC off to boarding school and say “See ya at Christmas?” Was there always a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door, but he was very attentive at dinner time?
Responsibility: Did your MC’s father support his family well? Was he a good earner but a fierce disciplinarian? Was he a drinker but loved his family with all his heart? Was he a drifter that constantly told his kids to reach for the stars?
Look for ways you can build in contradictions in each of these areas, then think about how a kid would reconcile those inconsistencies. How we judge people is a lot of our character. A father’s personality greatly influences our sense of judgment. In flat characterizations, fathers are either no-good bums or unsung heroes, drinking louses or quiet loyalists. Usually a main character (MC) comes to acknowledge the father’s cheating ways or learns to appreciate the constant wisdom that they couldn’t recognize before. It’s all so cheesy and cheap. Try to go for some more depth. What kind of roles does the father character in your book play? What kind of parent is he? Is he a stand-offish, everyone-has-to-learn-for-themselves kind of guy or is he a soccer dad that is with his kids every step of the way? How can he be both? What generation is he in? Is he a 70-year-old but a modern diaper-changing/sling-wearing dad? Was he raised to think he’d let the kids grow up before he had any kind of relationship with them, even though he’s just 20 years old?
Take those three aspects of measuring fatherhood, Engagement, Accessibility and Responsibility, and mix and match good and bad characteristics of each. Make the father character a conflicted, true-hearted, complicated being that marked your MC with distinctive world views. Happy Father’s Day, to all of those dads out there!