Family Roles in Fantasy Cultures

Last week we talked about courtship and marriage customs, and this week we’re carrying on the family thread by discussing family roles as a whole. What role do families play in the culture of your world, or in the lives of your characters? And are they such that you can get away with not killing your teen protagonist’s parents? Well, let’s find out.

Is Family Important to This Culture?

The first thing to ask is whether or not family is appreciated in your culture. If your culture values individualism, family might be considered inconvenient. If your culture values community, family might be seen as the ultimate community or it might be seen as an obstacle to chosen community; it would depend on how your culture defines the community that they value.

But whatever your culture values, those principles will shape what family roles are considered important and which are disregarded or even seen as inconvenient. An individualistic culture might make children a matter of choice and ailing or elderly relatives a nuisance. A culture that values family highly is more likely to see children as a joy and the opportunity to care for older relatives a privilege.

What Family Roles are Expected?

What is the expected family structure in this culture? A married couple? Simply a couple that’s together? Are children expected or considered optional? Are parents or grandparents part of the equation, or are they left behind when a new family is shaped? What about aunts, uncles, and cousins?

Do families encompass only blood relatives, or are others adopted in (either officially or unofficially)? What does it mean for those adopted to be treated as family? Do families share their resources? Are families responsible for the education of their members? Do families share work and business? Do family members protect one another? This is also a good place to ask how families might influence the culture around them. Families educating their own and sharing in similar work is a powerful means of shaping a whole culture, or at least a sub-culture, by raising up whole generations with a consistent worldview.

Once you know what structure is expected, ask what happens when families break the mold. Are people scoffed at for looking after their parents? Or, at the opposite extreme, ostracized for neglecting the elders in their family? Are couples without children pitied or admired? Are unmarried couples a scandal or a norm?

How Does Law Affect Family Roles?

Are families influenced by governmental or religious input? Do religious couples view children differently from their neighbors who adhere to a different faith or no faith? Is building a family desirable for the sake of lower taxes?

And what laws are in place for the sake of families? What protections are in place to defend families from being split? At what point do those protections cease to apply? Are these protections just, or do they overprotect abusers or enable an excess of interference from a government or religious power?

How does adoption work in your culture? Is it a legal matter, a religious matter, or none of the above? Who can be legally adopted?

How Are Children Viewed?

Do the families in your culture cherish their children or consider them an inconvenience? Or do they perhaps see children as a commodity, to be sought by those who want children and discarded by those who don’t? Are children valued for their own sake as people, or does this culture believe the value of children differs based on their proficiency in a particular area? Are children with special needs looked down upon, while “normal” children are praised?

Sadly, this is a topic ripe with worldview conflict, and your world might not be as idyllic as you wish it were. But it’s also an area where positive contrast can be powerful with the use of disagreeing cultures and sub-cultures.

A culture that values growth and life might place great value in children of all sorts, while a militaristic culture might see only their potential as future warriors and a religious culture might cherish the opportunity to share their faith with a new generation (for good or ill).

What Are the Family Roles of the Elderly?

Are the elders of your culture’s families considered wise and worthy of respect? Or as weak (in, say, a militaristic society) or inconvenient (in an individualistic culture)? Are elders trusted with tasks like teaching and management, are they forced into retirement, or does it differ from family to family and elder to elder? Are elders appreciated for their knowledge of past ages and their ability to caution against history’s repetition, or are they considered traditional and over-cautious?

Related Post: How to Write Fictional Families

Do your books often feature families? Are those families in keeping with your culture’s values, or are they more counter-cultural? (I often enjoy writing a mix, personally.) Let’s chat family in the comments!

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