Small Details reveal character and family dynamics

Family storytellers can take a page from fiction writers who know the importance of the small details in describing a character. Though you may have to dig a little to find that type information about ancestors (more about that coming soon), your memory banks and photo albums are a great place to find small details about your relatives.

Author Mark Spencer explains the difference between “gratuitous details” and effective ones in The Importance of Small Details in Fiction Writing.

Take, for instance, the first Rocky movie, the Academy Award winner for best picture in 1976.  There’s much about the premise of Rocky that would strike a lot of people as trite: a down-and-out boxer named Rocky gets a chance at the title. Nothing very original about that. But what makes the movie work is that the characters come to life so that the audience knows them and is interested in them. Little details like Rocky’s pet turtles, the photographs on his walls, the hole in his tee-shirt, the phrases he uses habitually–all these small things play a big part in his character development.  (The same would be true, of course, if Rocky were a short story or novel or memoir.)

Remembering and Depicting Relationships through Small Details

Twice this last weekend, the back seat of my mother-in-law’s car gave me a great perspective to watch and enjoy the mother-son dynamics going on in the front seat.

Friday night, coming home from the restaurant, my hubby turned the radio to my mother-in-law’s favorite ‘40s station. As “I’ll Never Walk Alone” came on, Mom sang along in her beautiful soprano voice. My husband accompanied her with a whistle, riffing out trills as she got to the chorus.

They did it again on the way home from church, this time sans radio. Mom softly sang the closing hymn, “Lift High the Cross,” to the sole accompaniment of her son’s whistling.

It struck me that this epitomizes their relationship. Not just dutiful son and aging mother. Two people who genuinely enjoy hanging out together. Having fun even when it’s riding in the car.

Examples of Small Details that Show “A Slice of Life”

When describing your loved ones, replay scenes of the past in your mind. What screams “Classic Mom” (or whoever you’re writing about)?

Small details

Small details in our family stories include family gatherings on the deck of the log cabin.

As you’re remembering, think back to the physical scene, or if you have photos, you can use them to remind yourself. Are there sensory details you can add? Was the house always hot, the kitchen filled with the aroma of apple pie, or the TV turned up so loud that the neighbors could probably hear it too?

Can you remember those “habitual things,” like clothing the person always wore, the brand of cigarettes they smoked or kept in their front pocket, favorite beverage or word? Now think, which of those things is particularly revealing of character.

For instance, a plethora of bumper stickers on the back of your social activist aunt’s vehicle, the fact that most of your uncle’s love of the hometown team was reflected in every t-shirt he wore, or fact that you’d never seen your mother outside of the house without lipstick tells a great backstory.

What about conversations? Were there exchanges that were memorable not just for their humor or poignancy, but for the role each person played in the dialogue.

Family meals—especially the big holiday ones—often reveal family dynamics and roles. When the family ate together, how did the cooking and after meal cleanup go? Was it a job just for the women? Did each person have set jobs? Did relatives feel completely at home in each other’s houses, pitching in without being asked and rarely having to ask “Where does this go?” or inquire where the aluminum foil was kept?

Your Turn

Using small details to describe family members pinnable graphic What small details are you going to choose for your next story?

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