Family conflict is fictional gold!
The moment my mother floated the idea of having an extended family potluck to celebrate Christmas, I felt my stomach clench. Now, admittedly, I had moved away—like far away—to the other side of the continent and across an international boundary twenty years before, and yet, I knew what I was in for. My Aunt Alice, who years ago refused to put away the Bridge Mix that my step-grandfather liked, even though it contained peanuts and my toddler who was two at the time, had a severe peanut allergy and had a disconcerting habit of stuffing anything that wasn’t nailed down into her mouth. My favorite aunt, Darlene, who broke out in hives at the very real possibility that my Uncle Marcel would show up drunk. And my grandmother, who wore a tierra unironically and had a pathological need to be the center of attention at every family gathering, even if she had to faint to do it.
The only thing that made this situation extra special, was that I was put in charge of coordinating the event from over 3,000 miles away. From the very word Go, it was the perfect setup for family conflict, and as it turned out, the day didn’t disappoint. The morning started off with me in my mother’s tiny little kitchen making two large pans of scalloped potatoes, her favorite. “You’re scalding the milk,” she called from the living room. “I’m not scalding the milk,” I promised. “Don’t let it boil over in the oven.” I bit my tongue. Drew in a breath. “I’ve put a cookie sheet beneath the pans, just in case.” “Are five pounds of potatoes going to be enough?” she asked. I silently counted to ten. “It had better be, because that’s all I’m making.”
You see what I mean? Even the calmest family member can turn into the Tasmanian devil at a seemingly innocuous comment that touches upon some perceived slight levied decades in the past. Family stories are rife with conflict. Past hurts. Emotional baggage. Siblings who know how to push your buttons because they installed those triggers once upon a time when you were both children. That’s what makes family stories so riveting—the complex relationships between the characters and the deep roots of conflict that bind them together into a family. Like the roots of a tree, family bonds run deep and are so intertwined, they’re difficult to escape. One of the things that makes stories about family conflict compelling is that they’re so relatable. Who doesn’t have a family story about who did what to whom? Epic tales, recited often, until they have become family lore.
It was those family relationships (the good and the bad) that made writing The Perfect Brother so compelling. The story’s about two siblings. Amar, the golden boy, who can do no wrong in his family’s eyes. He’s young, intelligent, handsome. On the surface, he’s doing everything his parents expect of him. Only one person in the family knows that he’s not as perfect as he seems—his sister, Indira.
Indira is the baby of the family. The rebel. Having grown up in her brother’s shadow, Indira decided early on that since she was never going to please her parents anyway, she might as well forge her own path. So she did. She’s a talented software engineer who shares her condo in downtown Vancouver with her dog, Hazel. While her mother longs for Indira to find a young doctor with whom she can settle down and start a family, the idea of marriage and children couldn’t be further from Indira’s mind. She spends her days (not to mention many of her nights) solving coding puzzles and working on her AI (Artificial Intelligence) project. When the story begins, Indira is on the cusp of taking a position that would move her away from her family and give her the independence she’s craving until the unthinkable happens. Her perfect brother is accused of murder.
Family drama ensues with very large, very complicated stakes. The funny thing about families is that in the end, if you can work your way through the conflict, the bonds you share with the people who remain your closest connections in life, can become an unexpected source of comfort. While some families cling to rigid roles forged in the crucible of childhood, other families, like Indira’s as well as my own, are capable of change. They grow together. Learn to appreciate one another.
In the aftermath of the family potluck, when everything was cleaned up and everyone had gone home, I sat with my mother in her tiny living room, eating leftover scalloped potatoes. “That went really well,” she said. And it had.
“I’m glad we did it,” I said. And I was.
We’ve all heard the old saying about family. You can’t live with them, and you can’t shoot them.
… Or can you?
When it comes to fictional families, the tried-and-true rules may not always apply.