Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Importance of Your Character’s Family of Origin

Unless you’re writing young adult novels, authors don’t always give a lot of thought to the intricacies of an adult hero or heroine’s family of origin. After all, if she’s already left home when the book starts, what’s the big deal about her mom and dad?

Below are five questions from the family APGAR assessment (acronym explained below) that will measure important concepts about your character’s family of origin. I’ll explain why these concepts are important, even for adult MCs.

Question 1 (Adaptability): Were you satisfied with the help your family gave you when something was troubling you?

This gives you an idea of the resources that were shared or not shared when the character was growing up. It also shoes how the family adapted to stressors, and whether or not they were responsive to each other.

Question 2 (Partnership): Were you satisfied with the way your family discussed items of common interest and shared problem solving with you?

This question measures the partnership aspect of a family. This includes communication through decisions and how mutual concerns were dispersed through the family. In some families, one individual holds power while another might do all of the nurturing. Alliances can be formed and some family members feel left out.

Question 3 (Growth): Did you find that your family accepted your wishes to take on new activities or make changes in your lifestyle?

Affirmative answers to this question would reveal that the family welcomed individual growth and maturation. A family that is resistant to change might show a lack of mutual support and guidance and stunt an individual member’s growth.

Question 4 (Affection): Were you satisfied with the way your family expressed affection and responded to your feelings, such as anger, sorrow, and love?

Looking at how emotional experiences were shared in a character’s family of origin is a powerful indicator of how open that character will be to emotional sharing and intimacy later. This question measures a family’s ability to share love and affection through emotional interactions.

Question 5 (Resolve): Were you satisfied with the amount of time your family and you spent together?

This question looks at the commitment between family members to devote time to one another for physical and emotional nurturing. Usually this involves a decision to share money and space, as well as time and energy.

As writers, we should keep in mind that how a person interacted with his or her family of origin is most likely how we would expect them to interact in their own new families. Romantic interests who grew up differently from each other can make for lots of tension.

If your character answers the Partnership question by indicating her family wasn’t as communicative as she would have liked, it only stands to reason that she will look for a partner with whom she can talk with about everything. She wouldn’t want to feel that she is left out of decisions as she was when growing up.

The Resolve question could be telltale about a character’s need for quality time. If a hero’s family never let him do anything without tagging along, then he will look for a more laid-back romantic interest. If he never felt that his family was connected (they never ate together or played games together), then vice versa. He’ll look for someone with more of a tight-knit view of family time.

A character whose family didn’t allow for or adapt to Growth very well would be a character who either does the exact same thing or is looking for the exact opposite. In truth, this is how parenting is passed through the generations. You either loved what your parents did and do the same, or you hated it and vow from adolescence that you will not put your child through the same thing.

I hope this information gives you some new considerations about a character’s family of origin to bring even more depth to your fiction.


The Character Thrapist