Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Shape of Families

I've been thinking about families for a lot of reasons. One is the ongoing U.S. debate over gay marriage; another is that I've been reading The Tale of Genji which features a very different family structure from the Imperial court of Japan in the Heian period; another is that my latest alien species, the Cochee-coco, have very different concepts of family. So I'll come back to each of these below.

What do we think of when we hear the word "family"? Well, I think of mother-father-sister-brother. This is most likely because that was the shape of the family that I grew up in. Of course, that's not the only shape a family can take. At this point I start thinking of all the permutations I know of, and really it would be both tedious and exhausting just to list them all. I'll refer you though to a wonderful Sesame Street song called "Doing the Family Thing," which shows lots and lots of different kinds of families.

What I'd like to do is start by taking a look at some of the underlying principles behind family structure, and then looking at their consequences.

The prototypical family is based on the concept of matehood - physical matehood, by which I mean two individuals who can mate with one another and produce children (not that they necessarily do). Although gay marriages don't fall into this category, the criterion is not as restrictive as you might think. Monogamy is only one example of a family type based on the matehood concept; step-families also fall into this group with the simple addition of divorce or some other form of detachability. Families born of arranged marriages fall into this group, and so do polygynous and polyandrous family types (collectively known as polygamous).

The Imperial family of Heian Japan was quite complex because it was polygamous. Here's a quote from the introduction to Royall Tyler's translation of The Tale of Genji: "...the Emperor normally had a range of recognized relationships with women, less because of sexual acquisitiveness on his part than because he was required to make his prestige relatively widely accessible to the members of the upper aristocracy."(Penguin Classics 2001, p. xiii) So in addition to the single Empress there were Consorts and Intimates who had different status, and following from this, their many children had different importance within the society.

Other families might not have followed this same pattern. While the character Genji, who is officially a commoner, ends up having four or five wives, that was probably not so much the case outside the aristocracy. Which is to say that a single society doesn't always follow the identical family pattern throughout - something to think about if you're designing a society of your own.

Another way of organizing a family is based on the concept of soul-matehood. The change between the criterion of physical matehood and the criterion of soul-matehood is both inclusive and exclusive: it excludes families born of arranged marriage, and includes same-sex couples and their families. It also easily accommodates a happy family I know with two lesbian moms and two gay dads and their children (this one could very well be seen as lying on the border between the physical and soul matehood types).

A variant of the soul-matehood criterion appears among the otterlike aliens I created for my most recent alien linguistics story, "At Cross Purposes." The Cochee-coco are born as twins, and the twin relationship is the major organizing relationship of their society - but it is flexible, so twins who don't feel compatible can separate and go look for someone else to serve as their "twin." In fact it is a type of soul-matehood that is far closer than that of human societies, but it is primarily non-sexual. Cochee-coco can choose physical mates to be their de facto twins, but they don't always.

So, I thought to myself as I designed them, what would that mean for their family structure? Well, you could have a physically and soul-mated pair who lived with their children, and that would look like a typical family of humans. Then you could have a pair of unrelated male or female soul-mates who would live with their children, which might in some ways resemble a gay family. You could also have a pair of twins - male and female siblings, brothers, or sisters, who would live with their children. These might look to humans at first glance like incestuous families, but in fact the children would not be conceived with the siblings, but with physical mates outside the pair. You could also have very large family groups where twin pairs would want to live with their physical mates and their twins...

At a certain point I realized that this was far too interesting to include in my first story about the Cochee-coco, so I kept things simple and I'm thinking about how to include it in a story later on. I have no doubt that there are ripe opportunities for humans to misunderstand the nature of Cochee-coco families and for strife to arise from it.

One useful thing to think of when working with families of different types in your writing is to consider kinship terminology. What do people call each other? In some societies, the maternal uncle and paternal uncle are called by different terms because they are seen to have different social functions. Keep in mind also that some societies allow kin terms to be applied outside the family, and some don't. In America typically a person outside the family must be very close to merit a kinship term like Aunt or Uncle, while in Japan it's pretty standard to call people you don't know by kinship terms. In Japan the term you apply generally depends on the gender and the perceived age of the person you're talking to - a young boy would be "big brother" and an older man "uncle" and an even older man "grandfather." Mike Flynn does a great job of creating a society which applies kinship terms to everyone in his latest story in Analog, entitled "Cargo" (June 2010).

Another thing to consider when working with families is child-rearing. Who does it? Mom or dad? Or older siblings? Or the entire village? Do people keep track of paternity or not, and why? Do adults talk with children at all, or do they leave that to the older children?

If you're creating a society which uses different criteria for the creation of families, think through the possible permutations that the new criteria entail. Ask yourself how the people talk about one another, and how they think about one another. What does it mean to be a brother or sister? To half-brothers and half-sisters in the Japanese Imperial family, it would mean something very different from what I think of when I think of my own brother, and something very different again from the way that my Cochee-coco would think of their siblings. What does it mean to be a husband or wife (if they use those terms at all)?

Don't necessarily content yourself with maximally restrictive assumptions. Think about all your options, and make an informed choice. Your world, and your story, will be all the stronger for it.


  1. A tiny nitpick first -- polygamous means "many mates" and subsumes both polygyny (multiples wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands).

    Then there are group marriages. The best examples in SF are Ursula Le Guin's four-person sedoretu (2 men, 2 women, in which each partner has one homosexual and one heterosexual union and the children from the two heterosexual matings are called "germanes" and can marry) and Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite.

    Then there are the Gethenian families in The Left Hand of Darkness and related short stories which are extended and "matrilocal" by necessity: since Gethenians can change gender whenever they come into kemmer (heat), the children of the body stay with the parent of the body.

    In one of the universes I created, shown in my story Planetfall (, scarcity of women has resulted in polyandry. On earth it has usually resulted in kidnappings and women ending up as trophies; I wanted to introduce a fresh paradigm. Neither is it "reverse Islamic" with the co-husbands competing; instead, they feel and act like brothers.

    Such a wife is called a night, and her co-husbands are called her stars. The rare one-to-one unions and the men who are not affiliated with wives also have corresponding celestial terms.

  2. Ah, Athena - thanks for the clarification. I know about polygyny/polyandry but it slipped my mind as I wrote... indeed, I may go back and correct it.

    Thanks also for the extra examples. I knew while writing that there would be a lot more than I could actually delve into in one blog post! It's great that now readers can have more examples to think about.

    I invite readers who can think of still further examples from sf/f contexts (their own or others' work) to explain them here.

  3. One interesting point is that the nuclear family, which is the default concept of contemporary Americans, is rather rare through history. The usual working unit was either a small clan or an extended family.

    The configurations were necessitated by requirements for living -- most economy was home-based and women could not be full-time mothers because they were needed as workers. Ditto for adolescent children; there were no "teenagers" back then, disaffected or otherwise...

    As you pointed out indirectly, Juliette, in some matrilineal/matrilocal societies the maternal uncles assumed the father's role because men stayed and worked in their mother's household and "visited" their wives. This meant that if they liked each other they could court throughout their lives, among other things.

    Lifelong courtship is also the ideal/ized case of liaisons in societies with arranged marriages, a paradigm brought to its apex of glory by Heian court ladies and Proven├žal troubadours.

  4. A very interesting post, Juliette. I've yet to need alternate family structures in any of my stories, but it's a concept I find interesting and have some idea scraps for. Thanks for addressing it in so much detail.

  5. Great post and comments. I was vaguely aware that the American definition of family was very modern, but I need to watch for (and allow) different types of families in my writing. Thanks!

  6. Thanks to all of you for your support and great comments. I'm glad you found this interesting.

  7. Marion Zimmer Bradley used differing family structures in her Darkover books. Thinking of the way alien biologies affect family structure, there are the Chieri. They are predominantly either male or female, but can change to the other sex under certain conditions. She even has at least one story that revolved around that change. The race is very long-lived leading to lowered reproductivity rate. But they are similar enough to humans that they can interbreed. Many of the human bloodlines have Chieri blood from way back, sometimes showing a visible sign such as sporting an extra finger on each hand. (Chieri have 6 fingers.)

    Darkover societies are based on family structuring and mind gifts. Those with stronger gifts tend to correspond with greater political and economic power. (And also with madness, but such leads to some interesting stories.) Bradley makes use of several different family groupings and marriage rules depending on culture. Very interesting stuff.

  8. Great example, Jaleh. Thanks for your comment!