For this discussion, I really want to answer three questions about putting familial drama into a novel. First: is it necessary to do so? This is a bit of a subjective question because it could vary from book to book, but still. Second: is it realistically portrayed? And third: is it cathartic to read about?
Is it necessary?
As I said above, this is a highly subjective question. I’m going to be supposing that the drama I’m referencing is not in fact a necessary plot conflict–where family drama is a necessary plot conflict, I’ll concede such drama is absolutely necessary. For this question, I’m more considering stories in which the main plot drive is totally unrelated to whatever family drama is boiling under the surface. I’ve definitely read a fair share of contemporary novels, YA and adult, in which family drama is thrown in there for some extra emotional oomph without any real payoff. It’s just present as a way of explaining the extremes of emotions felt by various characters, and then never resolved. Honestly, I don’t think family drama and conflict is necessary in every single contemporary piece. It’s part of why I read significantly more fantasy and non-contemporary fiction. Maybe I’m showing my cards here as someone who’ll stop talking to a family member I disagree with and not care. But again, unless the family drama is in some way part of the main plot of the novel, I find the fighting and the making up and the constant emotional turmoil exhausting and unnecessary.
Is it realistic?
Again, this question becomes more subjective than anything else. Everybody’s family is different and everybody’s family drama will necessarily be different. However, I think there are definitely times that you can tell the author hasn’t had a particular kind of conflict in their own family when writing it. A straight author will never be able to fully capture the conflict of a queer person dealing with a family that doesn’t understand or accept them, for example. I think that when it comes to incorporating family drama into the plot, the author really does need to consider what kind of a family they’ve set up. If the parents have never been accepting of their children’s decisions before, it needs to be demonstrated how they changed their perspectives in order to be accepting now.
Is it cathartic?
I don’t think so. I think the catharsis for the author is not enough to justify inclusion, and that the only time such drama is necessary is if it is cathartic for author, character, and readers alike. Unfortunately, as a writer you are charged with not only writing a story you want to tell but writing a story that’s worth reading. I struggle with this in my writing as well, finding a way to explain why the readers should care. If you’re writing family drama as a sideplot to story because you want to incorporate something that helped you through your own rough times… Be prepared to cut that subplot. Writing it down as catharsis is fine, but keeping it shoehorned into your story where it might not fit is another thing altogether.
Personally, I rarely care for family conflicts unless they’re new and interesting, or important to the story. Most of the time I find that the family conflicts don’t make sense for the plot, or detract from the pagetime needed for other more important subplots. It very often feels like an inclusion that the author made because they were working out their own family drama on page first. I also find that the stakes for family drama are so incredibly low despite the characters reacting as though the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. A lot of family drama subplots are realistically so easy to resolve, but drag on for far longer than I care to read.
Do you like family drama as a conflict? Do you think it’s well done in some cases?