Everything the Only Child Needs to Know to Write Realistic Siblings

Writing Realistic Stories about Siblings

The author Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in his book Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I would change this to add that, whether happy or unhappy, all children are unique in their own way—but for children who grow up in the same family, their relationships with one another might not be so distinctive. Despite how some stories may make it seem, siblings have more complex and varied relationships than meet the eye. These interactions often have a direct effect on each person’s personality and motivations throughout life. But even authors who grew up as only children can write sibling relationships realistically, as long as they keep a few things in mind.

Research has shown that birth order influences the ways children act and perceive their place in life, as well as how parents react to them, according to Parents Magazine. Many parents note they were stricter with their first child than with their siblings. A first-born child in a family will often be an overachiever, while the youngest is more likely to be a free spirit. Middle children, according to Parents, are people pleasers and peacemakers. Status in life, whether rich or poor, affects the ways children develop and thrive. Knowledgeable authors will consider the birth order as they develop characters and their characteristics.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women can serve as a prime example of how such research can play into fictional stories. Alcott’s book, which she based on her real-life sibling relationships and experiences, seemingly matched each sister’s role and personality to their age and position in the family. The oldest, Meg, was the motherly type while her next sister, Jo, was the tomboy. Beth was the people pleaser, while Amy, the youngest among the four, was an artist who wanted wealth and fame. Alcott showed how birth order worked in this family, but she was also remarkably prescient for the studies done centuries later.

I once knew someone who was the oldest of eight children and had to help care for her younger siblings. As an adult, she says she felt deprived of her childhood. Only children, on the other hand, grow up with a separate perception of the world from those in larger families, as they do not have to share their parents or their toys. They may like their “only” status, or they may be lonely and seek companionship with friends, extended relatives, or pets. 

I was the oldest of five children: three boys and two girls. Two of my brothers were twins. Cryptophasia, or “twin speak,” is a real thing; they had their own way of communication, and many studies over the years have observed other twin pairings inventing their own secret languages during development. Children in families are often bound to one another with invisible ties as well, and though they might fight among themselves, when confronted by others, they often unite against this threat. (They definitely band together when no one will admit to being part of the sword fight that broke their mother’s lamp!)

Gender can also play a role in how siblings interact with one another. Research of the role a sibling’s gender may play on someone’s personality is solidly mixed—some studies have found that girls growing up with only brothers behave more “typically feminine” and boys with only sisters are more “typically masculine,” but other studies have found the exact opposite to be true. As you write sibling relationships, don’t fall into outdated stereotypes, such as the girl who’s athletic and tomboyish after growing up only with brothers; today every child in a family may be on a sports team, regardless of their own gender or their siblings’.  

Finally, today’s authors need to confront the reality of high divorce rates and consider the blended family as a norm. Some families may have a single parent or are parented by grandparents, and others may grow up with two parents of the same gender or in households with family dynamics unique to that of a nuclear family. Modern authors should ask questions and be able to represent these realities in a tale through the perceptions of the youth they describe.

Sibling dynamics, as with any friendship or family relationship, vary and are rarely one-size-fits-all. Although they’ll always share some relatable traits with other sibling groups, they also need  to be shown as unique as the individuals who make them up. Once you’ve considered all the above, all that’s left to do is write!

Sharon Dooley

Sharon Dooley

Since she lives in MD near the nation’s capital, she keeps an eye on politics and the Washington Football Team-The Commanders. She includes among her special favorites her two children, and her grandchildren. Other likes are cooking, drinking excellent coffee, eating chocolate desserts, and walks with her rescue dog.

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