Creating a Family Hero for your story can help strengthen character motivations and make your readers relate to them more.
Children’s roles are a specific set of coping mechanisms that children tend to develop throughout chaotic situations in their childhood. This could include the loss of a parent, a family struggle with addiction, or even a move to a new place.
The four major roles are Family Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, and Mascot. Most children have played these roles at various points throughout their lives, but some kids get “stuck” in one of these roles and it can be problematic for them as they grow older. However, while they are in the midst of the chaos (parent loses a job, being severely bullied at school, parents divorce, etc.), these behaviors are how they cope with the pain.
A Family Hero is the ‘perfect’ kid. You may have seen, heard of, been friends with, or even been a Family Hero yourself. Let’s use the example of a single, alcoholic mother who loses her job due to her consistent drunkenness and decides to drown her sorrows in yet more alcohol. Needless to say, this means that bills are not being paid, clothes are not being washed, groceries are not being purchased, and so on. The household containing her and her 4 children is in chaos.
The Family Hero is the kid who wakes up extra early to get their other siblings off to school on time (with a hot breakfast that the Family Hero made). This kid strives to excel at everything that they do. They are often in a leadership role outside of the household as well. They might be a first chair violinist, captain of the football team, or in AP classes. They will often get a 4.0 GPA or very close to it. They may get a part-time job to help pay bills and keep the family afloat. They may be the one who physically applies for unemployment benefits or other kinds of financial assistance (for instance, asking grandparents for money) if the parent can’t or won’t.
This kid spends very little time actually just being a kid. They take on many of the responsibilities of an adult. They often juggle all these extra tasks in an effort (subconscious, mind you) to take attention away from the dysfunctional aspects of the family and try to ‘fix’ it. Their worldly success makes it harder for outsiders to view the family as a whole or even the parent(s) as having any kind of problem. “They can’t be that bad, Joe had the brains to start his own business at 16 for Christ’s sake!” neighbors might exclaim among themselves.
There is some level of appreciation for the Family Hero from the parent, though it might go unexpressed, or the focus of praise may be only on the good done outside of the home. “You’re such a good kid!” “I’m the only parent on the block with a child with a real job. I’m so proud!” Note that the parent will likely steer clear of mentioning that the child has only done these ‘good’ things in order to pick up the slack for the parent.
Therefore, even though the child has a lot of outside success, internally they often feel things like guilt, shame, frustration, and hopelessness. The Family Hero role is a facade that they can hide these feelings behind. The extra activities they engage in are often their only outlets for these feelings. Until they are offered a self-help group, non-judgmental companion, or therapist, these feelings may never be directly expressed in a healthy manner.
If the single, alcoholic mother of four goes to treatment for her addiction and gets some treatment for her children, they may be able to wrench themselves loose from these roles. However, if this doesn’t happen, it’s very easy for a child’s personality/sense of self and their role in this chaotic situation to become enmeshed.
When this happens, the Family Hero keeps looking for new ways to fill the same role in different situations. The Family Hero will often be called a ‘Workaholic’ as an adult. Being able to manage people and situations can be soothing for the Workaholic since they weren’t able to do so with the trauma they experienced during their childhood. They love long hours and difficult situations. They feel restless on vacations or when there’s a lull in their work.
This character is often the one who doesn’t pay attention to a potential love interest’s advances, which can be great fodder for a romance.
This character is also often not likely to pay attention to health problems (they think they’ve only had a cough for a few days, but it’s been a few months), which can be perfect for the start of a tragedy.
This character often continues working even though they have millions of dollars put away and could retire on any given day. For some supporting characters, bitterness will ensue. They will be frustrated by the Workaholics inability to realize how lucky they are to have been so financially successful since many people literally have to choose between working full time or being homeless within a few months. For other supporting characters, they may continue to admire the Workaholic. They may see this unwillingness to stop working as an unwillingness to stop living or some deep-seated passion for the specific type of work that the Workaholic is doing (feeding the homeless, finding homes for orphans, etc.).
Having a character who is a Family Hero / Workaholic with a realistic backstory can add depth to your work and maybe even offer you some extra avenues to explore when it comes to how they will behave in the new situations they come across in your story.
Stay gready, Friends!