|my grandparents, c. 1945|
In times past, family remained the nuclear family, but also included larger elements as well such as the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We see this when families focus on a common ancestor whether as a matriarchal or patriarchal civilizations. Most often, this is limited two or three generations back, and would include a common great-grandparent.
For others, family is something you choose, not inherit. For some, family is the group of friends that share common bonds. Military individuals refer to their units as brothers, Christians refer to churches as church-family.
Deciding the familyDepending on your story's setting, family may already be dictated with rules in place as well. In other cases, you might create a new world and would need to create the family structures. Two major considerations are (1) the biological family structure and (2) adopted family structures.
For the Adopted Family Structure, this would include families created by circumstances, and typical do not include parental figures. These families primarily develop in military story lines or dystopian worlds.
For the Biological Family Structure, this would include a couple and their subsequent descendants. The largest question is how to limit the family. Will you limit it to mom, dad and the kids, or will you extend it out into a larger portion to include maybe grandchildren or grandparents as well.
Tribes and ClansAt their very basic structure, tribes and clans are extended families. Typically, they claim one common ancestor that unites everyone to them. Tribes and clans develop certain legal structures to maintain order among the members including inheritance, marriage, and property.
In stories where these family structures are established such as the Scottish Highlands, or the Middle East, writers can learn from the cultures to develop accurate portrayals. In stories where that isn't the case, the writer will have to decide what the structure is, though decisions may be under-developed because the story line doesn't require them.
As an example, one of my fantasy novels has a family (parents, children and grandchildren) who are elvish assassins. The family took on aspects of a wolf pack, with the rest of the family submitting to the head of the family. In this case, the head of the family was also the one with the title, Duke.
In early versions of the story, I focused primarily on the main character and the descendants of her father's parents. The story was fairly straight-forward until the characters started interacting more and more with their king and enemies. At this point, I had to start fleshing out how the family worked - what were the social expectations within the family, and what did others expect of the family. Since the family were the assassins, I had to incorporate training into their family dynamic, as well as the pack concept.
In another spin-off of the story's family line, I realized that certain structures would remain true regardless how far apart the various branches of the family had gone. These elements included hierarchy within the clan structure as well as the expectations therewith.
As you develop your story, you'll pick up the family structures used within the world. Sometimes, added tension can be brought together when what we expect is not what is real. For example, if the eldest son inherits the property, what happens when a man has had two wives and both bear a son? Is it his first-born son? Typically yes, it is the man's first born son. Now, what if the man married the first woman because he was forced to, but married the second woman because of love? Does it make a difference in who will inherit?
Sometimes, thinking through the many implications a simply family structure could have can lead to new ideas and story lines.