(A table of contents is available. This series will remain open for additional posts and the table of contents up-to-date as new posts are added.)
Part Twelve: Writing Cousins
I love cousins. They strike the perfect balance between sibling and friend in that they’re family–and therefore easier to form inside jokes with–but they’re not from your nuclear family, so you have some distance from them. You’re not always forced to be in their presence, so when you do see them, it’s not like you’ve been forced to share the bathroom with them every day for the past sixteen years. Inconveniences like sharing a bathroom are temporary–you know they’ll end so they’re less likely to tear down someone’s world. You put up with it amiably, knowing it won’t last forever. When you get one each other’s nerves, you don’t have to then go share a house and fight over a remote. Cousins are a special opportunity when it comes to writing.
How close your cousin-characters are depends on three things: distance, personality, and age. Your character is more likely to be on good terms with their cousins if they live close enough to see each other on a regular basis. Whether that’s once a year at a family reunion or once a week at Sunday dinners, those face-to-face moments are going to help strengthen the bond between them. Of course, whether they even want to see each other at those get-togethers will depend on the personalities of both. The more interests or hobbies they have in common, the more affection will naturally blossom from that. And, of course, the closer they are in age, the easier it will be for them to bond. They’ll be in the same life stages and dealing with the same difficulties, unlike cousins who are separated by a wide age margin, who may not feel as though they can as easily relate. There’s still affection there–after all, they are family–but (in the case of my most recent cousin) 20-some-odd years is a very wide bridge to cross.
Humor me an example:
I have quite a few cousins, and both sides of my family hold family as something very important and special. Given how often my nuclear family moved, it was rare that we lived very close to any family, let alone my cousins. Other than the few years here and there where we lived within distance of two sets of aunts and uncles (4 cousins), we only saw each other when a life event happened (graduations, marriages, funerals, etc.) and when my nuclear family happened to be traveling. The exception to this was my maternal cousins, who also held family highly. They had an arrangement with my grandparents when my grandparents moved ~2300 miles away (they had formerly been ~130 miles from each other) that they would spend 2 weeks every summer out with my grandparents. Two and four years younger than me, my cousins extended the offer to me–would I like to join them for two weeks each summer? I spent the next several years making trips out to meet them, hiking, watching movies, video gaming, star gazing, making up dumb stories on the lawn, convincing them of a massive ninja corporation keeping watch on them, and overall having a great time. These two became some of my favorite people in the world, however since the invitation did not go out to my sister as well (for a variety of reasons), my sister never got the chance to bond this hard with them. She loves them dearly and thinks very affectionately of them, but it’s me my cousin reaches out to when he’s writing video games and it’s me they share goody pictures with.
Without those factors–close quarters, compatible personalities, and comparable ages–cousins are more likely to be ambivalent about each other. They may perhaps keep tabs on what the other is up to out of curiosity, but the level of investment that accompanies even distant siblings’ relationships is likely lacking. Animosity between cousins is less likely than with siblings, again, because they’re not people you live every moment with. A general dislike is more likely than hatred. To garner true animosity, generally an intolerable difference in ideology is required, perhaps a lifestyle or political belief that has been acted out in a way that one party finds offensive.
Cousins often share a similar joking relationship to each other as with a character’s piblings, so cousins easily become a safe place for characters to go. They know they’re likely to find a smiling face, and because the cousin has some shared history as a family member, they’re easier to talk with. The cousin has the opportunity to provide a perspective that isn’t as closely aligned with the character’s nuclear family as, say, a sibling might, but they can still contextualize their response within the narrative of the family’s values. That fresh spin on things may be crucial for a character’s understanding and evaluation of a situation.
Additionally, since cousins were brought up by parents who were not your character’s parents, they were likely given different opportunities to hone different skills. After-school activities, hobbies, and manual labor tasks likely varied from your own character’s, so while perhaps your character can’t swim very well, a cousin might be able to. A cousin who grew up with parents just that much nerdier than your character’s may be proficient in archery from their parent’s Renaissance Fair competition days, or a cousin may bring better car-repair skills to the table from their mechanic mother. A character may feel more at ease asking a cousin for a favor since they already have a relationship that wouldn’t have to be built from scratch in order to ask, and may be able to twist the family aspect to get more or better service out of it. That very same familial obligation may convince a cousin to say yes, but don’t forget that they have goals as much as the next character.
The bond between cousins covers distance both as siblings in terms of the shared family history, but also friends, since they don’t live together. What this means for your story is that cousins can be easily pulled into a story without appearing conspicuous–they’re family!–but they also don’t have to have all the answers a character might be looking for–they’re not that family! If you’re still looking for your character to have family appear in the story so you can play with that shared history and tell hilarious family stories, but you also still want to preserve any Family Secrets™, cousins are a great way to go.
Of course, cousins have an easier time leaving, too. They have their own homes and their own families to attend to, and the obligations to help a cousin aren’t quite the same obligations to help a sibling. Figure out how far your cousins are willing to go for each other, taking into consideration age, personality, and how often they’ve been able to get together. As much as family will usually try to help out family, the limit between cousins is smaller than between siblings. Knowing a cousin’s goals will help with this, too.
Next up: Friends!