Family Obligations

12 Oct

Barbara Barrett can’t help being a bit schizo when it comes to her lifestyle, since she lives half the year in Florida (guess which season) and the other half in her home state of Iowa. She believes she has the best of both worlds, with visits to the Mouse in winter and her six grandchildren in summer. Although she has been writing romance fiction for several years, her debut novel, The Sleepover Clause, was just released this September by Crimson Romance. While she has refined her craft, she has also been active in RWA, particularly the Kiss of Death chapter (someday she’s going to start that cozy mystery series), chairing their annual conference planning committee for two years, including New York City. Her next book, And He Cooks Too, is coming out in the next several months with The Wild Rose Press.Visit her website at:www.

Family obligation is a frequently occurring theme in literature, because it provides strong character motivation. Characters to do and say things they might never consider otherwise due to the pressure of obligation to family. This theme also serves as the obstacle that prevents characters from readily obtaining their goals.

Sometimes one family member will outwardly exert their influence over another family member. (Though this is an example from television and not literature, Marie Barone of “Everybody Loves Raymond” comes to mind.) That type of situation generates one type of story.

In other instances, something within the character’s emotional make-up sets them up to feel obligated rather than just grateful. In the case of Mitch McKenna, the hero of my debut romance novel, The Sleepover Clause, for Crimson Romance, it’s the belief that his brothers will fail if he’s not there to help them. That character flaw provides rich territory for exploration and development of Mitch and his story.

A few years back, Mitch put the career he was meant to follow, practicing law, on hold in order to customize luxury motor coaches with his two older brothers. Though miserable ever since with that decision, he refuses to let his brothers know. If they find out, they’ll throw him off the team, and that will jeopardize their success. Or so Mitch believes.

Mitch feels obligated to his brothers because they paid his school bills and made it possible for him to go to law school. The irony of how his sacrifice negates theirs eludes him.

But there’s more to it than that. Even though he’s the youngest sibling, he sees himself as the smart one, the successful one – the “savior,” if you will. That drive and intelligence make him a perfect candidate as an attorney. That ego also prompts him to see his brothers in a less positive light than himself. One left a boring job before he was fired. The other developed a serious medical condition. In Mitch’s mind, they both “need” him. Which is true, up to a point. Yes, they can use his assistance. But they are both quite talented and resourceful in their own right and probably could make a success of the business without his help.

Even though Mitch hates the idea that the heroine, Aubrey, tries to “fix” everyone else’s lives,  he is doing the same for brothers. He can’t move on until he recognizes that paradox. The journey to that realization is one of the story’s major underlying themes.

Resolution of family obligation comes in many forms –  self-discovery, confrontation, game-changing circumstances, to name a few.  Something out of the ordinary must occur for the character to see the obligation for what it is and take action to get past it. Therein lies the foundation of a solid story.

I’ve portrayed “obligation” in a pretty negative light in this post. Are there any times when obligation is positive?


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Idaho


30 responses to “Family Obligations

  1. Liz Flaherty

    October 12, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    Excellent post, and I love that premise. I also love obligation. (I know, strange.) But I think it equates with caring even when you don’t want it to. The book sounds wonderful! Is it a series?

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 8:25 AM

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Liz. You have an interesting take on obligation, but isn’t it a strong motive? One that can take a writer anywhere. Yes, the book could be the first of a series, although I’m still working on the next parts.

  2. Judith Keim

    October 12, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    So great to have you here, Barbara! Family obligations have been a mixed blessing for me with two parents who experienced long suffering deaths but I wouldn’t trade the time I spent with them for anything!!

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 8:28 AM

      Thanks for asking me, Judy. This post made me realize how much the impact of families has in my writing. Until now, it has just sort of slipped into my characters’ motivations. I think your experience caring for parents with long-suffering deaths may be an instance of positive obligation, like I was asking about. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Meredith Conner

    October 12, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    Thanks for being here today Barbara.I think family obligations are a two edged sword – yes they can be a burden, but at the same time – as Judith mentioned with her parents – there is that trade off with the emotional satisfaction of time spent together.
    Lots of ground to work with for a plot though and yours sounds wonderful and rich!!!

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 8:33 AM

      Hi, Meredith. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here. Although the second book in the “Clause” series is still in the formative stage in my brain, I may continue with the family obligation theme, only from the perspective of the oldest brother, Graham. Oldest/older/only child syndrome is bound to add a whole new spin on it. Should be fun, since I’m an older child myself.

  4. Stephanie Berget

    October 12, 2012 at 8:23 AM

    Thank you for a great post, Barbara. Family obligations can be overwhelming, but both of my in-laws died young. What I wouldn’t give to have family obligations with them.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 8:40 AM

      Stephanie, I’m sorry you didn’t have the blessing of those years. I think it makes a difference if our parents are still around to ground us versus our being the oldest generation and having to blaze our own trails.

  5. lynncahoon

    October 12, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    Barbara – My debut – The Bull Rider’s Brother – dealt with the family obligation of one brother to another, but instead of the hero being the baby brother – like in your story – James is the older one. The guy who thinks he has to take care of the other. I love the themes surrounding family, either as a writer or a reader. Hope your book does well.

    And I LOVE the redo of the Gem State Writer’s page. The pictures really rock! (and make me miss home just a little more. 🙂 )


    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:23 PM

      Lynn, I’m looking forward to exploring the oldest brothers’ story when I write the second book in this series. I hope you had as much fun developing their relationship, both good and bad, as I did.


  6. Jean

    October 12, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    When you love the people involved it takes the negative out of obligation. Just be sure what you give them a say in what you think is right for them.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:24 PM

      Jean, and in your last sentence lies the rub. My hero thinks he does know best and doesn’t give them a say. Thanks for that perspective.


  7. Janis

    October 12, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    I remember an editor stating that family obligation wasn’t enough to carry a book because it was external and didn’t have a good internal conflict. What? Was she raised in solitary? Often, books have to be larger than life when it’s the things we all face that make the best stories. Thanks for guesting on Gem State Writers.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:26 PM

      Janis, thanks for the welcome. I’m happy to be here. Interesting comment from the editor. I wonder what she meant by it being “external.” Obligation to me is embedded in one’s psyche and soul.


  8. Sarah Andre

    October 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Great Post Barb! I think family obligation plays a huge role in readers lives and a well fleshed out novel with layered characters generally has family issues or obligations either overtly or covertly in the plot.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:29 PM

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Sarah. I’m finding that the influence of family members is becoming an integral part of my plotting, to the point that I now need to step back with the new stories ahead and consider whether there isn’t some other theme to explore.


  9. Brenda Sparks

    October 12, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    Wonderful and insightful post, Barb! I think family obligations simply are. The are something you must do. They are something that can’t be avoided. They are both a blessing and a burden. They just are. But as with everything, it is how we approach them that makes them tolerable…or not.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM

      Brenda, thanks for the insight. “How we approach them.” And therein resides the stuff of which compelling stories are made.


  10. marsharwest

    October 12, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    Probably if you think of the things you do for the family as “obligations,” they are a pain. Whereas, if you think of those things as just what one family member does for another . . . .My husband is driving one daughter and her family to the airport tomorrow at 6:30 am to catch a flight to NYC. Going for her 36th birthday. (I had kids when I was a baby! LOL) Her husband said he didn’t want to impose (he’s very good about that–never ever takes advantage and is always greateful when we help out with something. That, of course, makes it all the easier for us to do for them. I reminded them, if hubby couldn’t drive me to catch a plane, I’d see if they could, and wouldn’t think anything of it. Think that made him feel better. It’s what families do. Not an obligation, IMHO.
    Intriguing premise for your book, Barbara. It made me think of one of my favorite Christmas stories–about the woman who sells her long hair to get her husband a watch chain, but he’s sold his watch to get her combs. Best wishes for lots of sales.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 4:35 PM

      Thank you, Marsha, for your comment. What an interesting thought, “it’s what families do.” I couldn’t agree more, and yet I find that statement means different things to different people. Exploring these differing perspectives can provide a wonderful backdrop for a story.


  11. M.J. Schiller

    October 12, 2012 at 5:03 PM

    Marsha, I love that story as well, “The Gift of the Magi,” by O.Henry. Every Christmas when I read it, I get choked up (it’s kind of a running joke in our family). Not only is the premise wonderful, but the writing is unparalleled.

    I think the strength of your story, Barbara, is that all of the readers should be able to identify with it, on some level. Best of luck with “The Sleepover Clause” and all of its “siblings.” ( ;

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 12, 2012 at 5:46 PM

      Thanks, M.J. I like thinking that people will be able to relate to the issues involved in my story.


  12. Clarissa Southwick

    October 12, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    Hi Barbara, What a great, complicated topic! My stories would definitely be made richer by adding more family interaction. Thanks for guest blogging for us today.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 13, 2012 at 11:07 AM

      Clarissa, thanks for commenting. It’s sometimes difficult to capsulize a complicated topic into a brief blog post, but it makes you focus on the critical points. At least what’s critical to you.

  13. Phyllis Watson

    October 14, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    Sounds like a great book. I look forward to reading it. I never looked at helping my family as an obligation, but as a privilege. My philosophy is that what you give you will get back three fold in the future. I have a great peace of mind knowing that I was there for my parents and my husband when they needed me most. I don’t believe that a person needs to give up all of their dreams and plans to fulfill family obligations. It is possible to do both.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 14, 2012 at 9:22 AM

      Phyllis, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m glad your family experience was so positive and meaningful for you.


  14. JoMarie DeGioia

    October 15, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    I think you can choose how you view an obligation, positive or negative. They can serve to remind you of what’s important, like sending birthday cards or keeping in touch with family. They can be negative too, of course. If they compel you to do something you would rather not, like deal with a relative who mistreated you over the years. For me, that’s an empty obligation and life is too short!

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 15, 2012 at 12:26 PM

      JoMarie, thanks for stopping by and for sharing your even-handed approach to the topic. In other words, the theme is rich for exploration either way.

  15. maryvine

    October 16, 2012 at 4:36 PM

    Thanks for posting, Barbara. Family is important and motivating in all three of my books.

    • Barbara Barrett

      October 16, 2012 at 4:52 PM

      Maryvine, you’re welcome. Most of the rest of my books explore family themes also.


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