A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: a Character, a Conflict, and a Cost

In this series, we’re talking about how to craft your genealogical research into engaging stories to share with family.

  • The first post covers the facts, clues, and in-between bits that form the backbone of your story, and you can find it here.

Today we’re looking at the key components to a story. The research, impressions and suppositions you’ve gathered give you a good start, but in order to make it interesting, you will need a Character, a Conflict, and a Cost. To put it another way, successful stories tell of someone who does or experiences something with some significance.

Character

To convert research into stories, you must identify the characters.

Without people, events lack meaning and context. Even in national terms, we mostly vividly remember where we were when we heard the news. We make it personal. To tell interesting stories, we must do the same with our ancestors.

Find those people in your family tree whose personalities come through in the facts and impressions you’ve gathered. These people are your main characters, the centers of the action. By telling the story of one person, you focus on a perspective and allow your audience to identify with the character’s struggles, to understand and empathize with them.

In complex stories, you may have multiple sides of a story that you want to tell. Handle this by structuring your story in scenes, so that you can tell each ancestor’s part of the story in turn. Like a scene in a movie, you will cut away from one character’s part in the story to focus on another’s. Alternating in this manner will build tension and interest as well, whereas trying to tell multiple viewpoints concurrently will just create confusion for your reader or listener.

One important note: Even though you are the one telling this story, you must resist casting yourself as the main character.

I’ve been working on my own family history for about five years. I’ve discovered mounds of facts — dates and places and dry-as-dirt details — along with a comparatively few actual stories, cohesive happenings with a beginning, middle and end. As such, it’s tempting to tell the stories of how I discovered those facts, the great herculean lengths to which I have gone in my quest for… data.

But that’s boring.

It’s your ancestor’s story, and like any author, you will have to move out of the way to make it interesting.

Conflict

Quite simply, the conflict is the obstacle that your ancestor must overcome, whatever it may be. It is the question that they seek to answer with their lives. In your family history, the conflicts are the pivot points — the problems, the events, the moments that change everything for your ancestor.

The conflict drives interest in the character’s story. When you begin to tell about how your parents met, or a long-ago grandfather who settled a wild frontier, or the great-great uncle who robbed a bank, you want your audience thinking one thing — “What happens next?”

The conflict serves an important function in the story — it links events in a meaningful way. Although you might simply string together a list of known events in your ancestor’s life, an interesting dramatic narrative depends on showing both the problem and the character’s attempts to solve the problem.

This can take many forms, and it doesn’t have to be the defining moment of their lives. If it’s meaningful or entertaining, it can be the defining moment of a single afternoon.

Cost

What is lost if the main character, your ancestor, does not prevail over the conflict? What must he or she give up to succeed?

The cost — what’s really at stake in your story — is no longer about names or dates or even events. Rather, it’s about some basic struggle of humanity (of which there are any number — take your pick), and more importantly, it lets your modern audience connect with, and care about, your ancestor.

The cost can be stated but it is often implied. Though specific to the characters and their conflict, it can be summarized by broad themes that resonate deeply. Love. Sacrifice. Pride. Justice. Greed. Freedom. Grief. Joy. Fear. Redemption.

When you’ve identified the cost, it should answer the question: Why does the story matter? Your character is no longer just words on a page. He or she is a person with motivations and foibles, striving to meet the same basic desires that your audience experiences themselves. Even if it is not stated explicitly, understanding what’s at stake gives your audience an emotional investment in the outcome and a powerful connection with the story.

Unlike fiction, life doesn’t always, or even usually, wrap up with a neat, tidy ending. Next week, we’ll continue A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling by talking about the story’s conclusion.

Question for You

What challenges have you encountered in telling your family’s stories?

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7 thoughts on “A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: a Character, a Conflict, and a Cost

    • I’m glad it’s helpful, Linda! Improving my craft as a fiction writer is an ongoing process, and I thought it was more than worthwhile to adapt some of what I’ve learned into a format useful for other applications — like family history!

  1. Some great tips in here, thank you. I agree that in general that we should make our ancestors the key players but my feeling is there’s room for occasional stories that reveal the process as well….a different style.

    • Oh, I definitely agree. I just think that the process-oriented stories are best received by fellow genealogy buffs, who are entertained by them and stand to gain research insights from them. I’m recommending this storytelling approach mainly as a way to engage less-interested family members, and it definitely won’t work for recording every ancestor because you can’t control which details you’re able to find. The researcher belongs in that main character role when the point of the story is a connection with a living relative, or a discovery of an unexpected link to the past, or the hilarious things that went wrong on a genealogy road trip. :)

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