Stories about lonely people finding lost family certainly resonate within many readers and audiences. Whether it’s the Rogue One crew or the Avengers, characters finding a home with others are popular in culture.
Nevertheless, another less-frequent theme is that of flesh-and-blood family. In literature, it often seems that everyone is an only child with dead parents. Basically, family is a fantastic and meaningful theme you can explore in your own stories.
The thing is, we can’t really talk about the “right” or “wrong” way to go about this, as art is not definitive. However, we can study effective stories about family and consider how the writers achieved what they did. Here are two films and one book which are all about family.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. While the Star Wars saga is known as a classic tale about good versus evil, at its core, it is also about family. This is perhaps why Return of the Jedi is my favorite instead of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke’s character shifts from seeking vengeance to trying to save his father. The relationship between him and Vader is what makes their confrontation in the third act of the trilogy all the more compelling and meaningful. One of my favorite moments is when Luke throws away his lightsaber and says he will not fight his father. He has come to a point in his character arc when his only desire is to save Vader, even if it leaves him vulnerable.
A Wrinkle in Time. Meg, the protagonist, lives with and has strong relationships with her mother and three brothers. Their father has disappeared, and the whole family feels the absence in their lives. Once Meg learns she has the chance to bring him home, she is determined to do whatever it takes to do so. Likewise, when she loses her brother, Meg does whatever she can to save him. The entire plot of the novel is driven by Meg’s desire to be with her father and to save her brother. Family is at the heart of her goal and thus, the popular book written by Madeleine L’Engle.
Inception. Perhaps what makes Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling heist film a favorite for many people isn’t so much its action and confusing dreams within dreams, but its highly emotional nature. Very simply, it is a story about a man who wants to be with his children. While one can say that performing inception is his main goal, the effect of this goal–seeing his children–is really what matters to him.
Characters are nothing without objectives, and in these three examples, family is at the heart of the protagonists’ goals. In Star Wars, one can say that Luke’s desire to save his father has arisen from his character arc. In A Wrinkle in Time, family is the story, the plot, besides saving the universe along the way. In Inception, family is not so much part of the character arc or the plot as much as it is the drive or motivation behind the character’s goal, the why of what he does.
So while the familial theme plays many roles within the vast world of story telling, why does it matter? While there may not be one straight forward answer, a common theme arises- the family represents completion. Good stories start with something broken and end with something fixed, something whole. Vader was redeemed by his son and thus brought balance to the Force. At the end, Meg’s family is together again and there can be order and wholeness. Cobb is with his children and the family is whole.
Family in stories is compelling because it is about something broken becoming whole. Wholeness is at the heart of God’s great story of the world, and mirroring it in our stories, whether through the theme of family or not, proclaims the truth of the Gospel in a way nothing else can.