March 6, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: Siblings & Birth Order

sibling-rivalry by Life Mental Health
sibling-rivalry, a photo by Life Mental Health on Flickr.

My main characters often come to me before any other part of a story, springing fully formed from my head. Secondary characters? Not so much. Those ones are crafted in the mines of my first drafts, and sometimes second or third drafts. We all know how important secondary characters are. Who would Harry be without Ron? Jasper and Alice made the Twilight Saga for me. Friends, neighbors, parents all make up the fabric of our stories.

One of the strongest influences I see in real life are siblings, yet I almost never see convincing siblings in fiction any more. Meg without Charles Wallace would be neurotic instead of a caring big sister.

I'm number two in a family of five. My older brother beat up boys who thought I was cute. My sister and I shared a room. The two youngest were born when I was a teenager and were very effective birth control. When I sit down to write, I ought to draw on those experiences, on chaos of a large family. Instead, I do everything I can to keep my MC alone. I send older siblings away to college, wrap up younger siblings in activities, write characters who are only children, all to avoid one of the richest sources of character development.
Siblings by CarbonNYC
Siblings, a photo by CarbonNYC on Flickr.
What is it like to grow up in an exceptional sibling's shadow? Or to have a sibling that's total a screw up? To be the one who feels responsible for the others or the baby everyone coddles? How does your character's birth order effect how he or she developed?

Birth order theories can be a great way to add some depth to your characters - and flesh out their families. We all know "lonely-onlys" and melancholy middle children (hem, me), but there's a lot of research into birth order - why not use it? Here's a quick run down of some stereotypical birth order characteristics:

First Born
The oldest sibling is an only child first and knows what it's like to be the center of attention in ways subsequent children don't. They want to be right and in control. They're leaders and often protective. They are often more conformist, striving to please. First borns are reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, controlling high achievers.

Second Born
The second child seldom has his or her parents' undivided attention and is always behind a more advanced older sibling. In a sense, they are born playing catch up. Often, if the first child is a high achiever, the second will act out to gain attention and almost always develops skill, interests and abilities their older sibling does not exhibit. In other words, they aim for the opposite of their older sibling, especially if they're the same gender.

Middle Child
Particularly in a family of three, the middle child gets squeezed. Neither the first nor the baby, middle children often feel left out and like they lack a place within the family. However, middle children are also adaptable. They are skilled negotiators, dealing with older and younger children. Middle children are people-pleasers, yet rebelious. They thrive on friendship and have large social circles. They're peacemakers.

Youngest Child
The baby of the family often acts like an only child with extra parents. Everyone is bigger and more capable, so they abdicate responsibility, letting others make decisions on their behalf. Parents are often more relaxed, so the youngest will get away with more than older siblings did at the same age. Youngest children are fun-loving, uncomplicated, manipulative, outgoing, self-centered attention seekers - and everyone loves them for it.

Only Child
Only children grow up surrounded by adults. They may be pampered, or  at least are the center of their parents' attention, but also must learn to entertain themselves. Only children are mature for their age. They are conscientious, diligent perfectionists. They make great leaders.

There are a lot of exceptions to these rules and they go much deeper than this post will allow, but it's a quick start into a fascinating area of study. If you want more characteristics, exceptions and info on how gender and spacing effect birth order, look here and here for some fun charts.

Siblings are a lot of fun in real life and should be fun to write! Go explore ways to bring those relationships into your writing.

Also, because I'm nosy like this, how do you compare to your birth order traits?  Anyone care to argue for why their stereotypes are wrong?


Jamie Krakover said...

I disagree with your stereotypes a bit. I am the oldest in my family and I have one younger sibling. While I had to learn at a young age to be very independent because attention often went to a younger sibling that needed more help, I was slower to learn things because I had minimal examples and none of my age. I had nothing pushing me to learn things faster other than having to learn to fend for myself when the younger sibling needed more attention.

My younger sister on the other hand picked up things a lot faster at a younger age because she had more examples and examples closer to her age. Plus she always wanted to be like her "cool" older sister. So there is an inherent drive to learn things faster. While to her it often felt like playing "catchup" she beat me to a lot of milestones of sheer want to catchup. However younger siblings do ofter like you said live in the shadow of their older sibling especially if the older sibling is smart and hard working. Teachers expect them to be equally smart if not smarter on their school work which can make them want to rebel a bit. That said living behind all those examples and seeing all the mistakes an older sibling makes, I think younger siblings tend to be more cunning. My younger sister found ways to circumvent the rules in smarter sneakier ways that would have never crossed my mind. She got away with far more things then I ever did, and in fact tried to get away with more things because I was much more rule oriented. In fact there was many times I got blamed for things she did because of that.

I would say while in ways I am more applied and book smart, things come far more naturally to my younger sister. She is not only book smart but more street smart as well because of the additional examples in her life provided by an older sibling.

That said I am fiercely protective of my younger sister and would do anything I can to protect her. It's often a source of frustration for me when I see her do things that I know are going to be a mistake. It's hard to watch her learn her own lessons that I've already learned. You can give advice but at the end of the day they have to learn for themselves. Which is a very difficult gut wrenching thing for an older sibling to watch.

callmebecks said...

I'd say the only one of my sisters who kind of fits is the youngest who was born when I was 15 and is, in a lot of ways, an only child. She kind of fits that demographic. Wise beyond her years, kind of perfectionist, comfortable on her own.

My older sister and I are only a year and a half apart and don't really hit our "typical" traits. We share a lot of interests, but she's messy, disorganized and a world-traveling risk taker. I never really acted out and tend to be a middle child-esque peacemaker if anything.

Gina said...

I am the oldest of three girls. Were are (today) 30, 28, 26. We are the textbook definitions of our birth order.

I aim to please, feel intense pressure to host/control/take charge. I always interacted with adults better than kids my age. I had my college applications in the mail the day they were allowed to be sent in (the days before electronic apps), without a parent prodding me along. I am organized and efficient and competitive.

My middle sister is emotionally over-wraught at her invisibility. She was in a state of constant emotional trauma at being "Gina's little sister" and worked so hard to be the opposite of me in every way conceivable.

The youngest is the flightiest, barely graduated high school, didn't get her driver's license until she was 18 and looked around and said, "Huh. My sister moved out. How am I gonna get places now?" She's the cutest, the prettiest, the can-do-no-wrong, princess.

We've all become well-adjusted adults now, but we definitely lived out the typical birth-order drama all of our childhood and adolescence.

And, for reals, why aren't there more siblings in books? I suspect Twilight had so many siblings around because Stephenie comes from such a large, close-knit family.

Stephsco said...

These are definitely just a framework; gender, years between siblings, and divorce/remarriage also factor in. But this is a great tool to use when devloping characters and adding in layers. Especially for those of us who are say an only child who are writing about a character with several siblings.

Morgan York said...

This is definitely important for characters. I myself am the first child of three, and originally made my MC the same. But then I realized it didn't fit her character at all. She needed an older sibling. She needed to be someone who was not used to leadership roles. Hence, her older brother was born--and so was one of my favorite subplots in the book, which focused on their dynamic.

Obviously, the stereotypes above are just that--stereotypes. They don't fit everybody, and if they do fit someone, at least one trait probably doesn't ring true. A lot of the oldest child stuff is true for me, except for the conformist thing. My sister, the middle child, is a much more typical teenager than I was. My mom has literally said this to me, haha. The second child/middle child traits fit her pretty well, but the youngest child doesn't match my brother at all. Uncomplicated? He's one of the most complicated people I know! Just goes to show how complex people are (and I don't think you were saying people weren't in this post).

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