My Brother’s Friend’s Sister’s College Roommate: Family & Genealogy in Worldbuilding

Family and family lineage are a relatively common feature in fantasy and, to a somewhat lesser extent, urban fantasy. They also play some role in science fiction. Some of the major examples include George R.R. Martin, Tolkien, Rowling, George Lucas, and Frank Herbert. Why are these elements widespread? What purpose do they serve? And how do they fulfill their purposes?

In the fantasy tradition, the use of family lines seems to originate in legend, medieval romances, and myths. The tropes of the hidden prince and divine lineage of heroes are easily recognizable throughout the genre. Thus, family line can provide a link to royalty, governance, and status for a character. Following that path, it provides a link to both potential plotlines and resources through family allies and family enemies. Family lines can also yield abilities, talents, and other inheritances. These inheritance can include the ability to use magic, or to use certain kinds of magic. For example, Garth Nix’s Sabriel can use positive necromancy due to her father’s line and the royal line of the country has its own magic. Likewise, Michael Moorcock’s Elric has a special connection to myriad elementals and the quasi-divine Lords of Chaos through contracts made with his ancestors.

Urban fantasy, arguably, continues this tradition. The prevalence of mixed species characters could be seen as an extension of the ancient Greek demigods and the divine kings of Mesopotamia. As with the fantasy genre, family lineage can provide access to powers (Riordan’s demigods and Egyptian mages; Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels). The family genetic inheritance can also be linked to the ability to use magic (Rowling’s wizards and Riordan’s magicians). These associations can also connect a character to politics (Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane, granddaughter of the leader of Earth’s vampires). Mythological elements can be harnessed by the story and characters through lineage (Riordan’s demigods), as can legends and magic items (Rowling’s invisibility cloak handed down to Harry from his father).

Science fiction often maintains the tradition in space opera or science fantasy, but also has its own unique uses. Family lines are important to sci-fi politics, alliances, and the history of nations. The hidden prince and Chosen One archetype continue in segments of the sci-fi genre, looking at the Jedi (whether Anakin’s “virgin birth” or Luke’s family line, depending on which one sees as the Chosen One) or Dune with its warring houses and genetic mingling. But, sci-fi adds other uses such as family or generation ships for both trade and colonization. C.J. Cherryh presents a perfect example of the family ship with the traders in much of her Earth-based space opera, particularly Merchanter’s Luck.

How can family lines and genealogy be applied in worldbuilding and narrative? There are a variety of methods, some more subtle than others. Harry Potter and the Skywalkers have their family lines incorporated with references to their respective parents throughout, though not appearing too strongly—aside from continued references to Harry’s eyes. George Martin tells his readers the complete lineages and blood relations between all of his characters, their houses, their sub-houses, and the castles they hold. Tolkien does something similar in the Silmarillion and the hobbits’ interest in genealogy and is more subtle in Lord of the Rings. There, he uses genealogy to connect Aragorn to the Ring, Elrond to Aragorn via Arwen and their half-elven bloodline, and Gimli and Frodo serve as family links between The Hobbit and LotR via Gloin and Bilbo. Frank Herbert is more subtle than Martin, but shows an equally complex and important relation of noble houses and family alliances. Herbert adds, though, the importance of family lines in the Bene Gesserit’s manipulation of bloodlines to produce the Kwisatz Haderach and generally guide human evolution.


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