Are you able to form emotional connections with family members you don’t remember? With ancestors? Or are they stubbornly one-dimensional, lying flat on the page?
Even when you have the basic facts of your relatives’ or ancestors’ lives, emotional connections to them often remain elusive. If you never knew them—have no memories of them—they are simply names, dates, and random facts.
Form Emotional Connections to Family Members via Empathy and Imagination
Luckily, we already have the tools we need to bond with these family members. They are the same tools that allow us to connect with anyone else: empathy and imagination.
That’s why looking back at old photo albums or scrapbooks can trigger connections, even if you never knew any of the people featured in them. These mementos portray family members doing the things they loved with the people they loved. This resonates with us. A mother holding a baby, for instance, sparks both imagination and empathy. What dreams did that mother have for that child? What were her fears?
That empathy forms a connection. As Brené Brown so eloquently phrases it, “it’s a ladder out of the same hole.” You realize that you also have “… spent some time in the same hole.” Or at least a similar hole. Or maybe you see that big hole looming in your future and you gather comfort in knowing that others dug their way out of it.
Understanding family members’ or ancestors’ circumstances feeds empathy, enabling you to connect. That understanding gives your imagination a hand-hold to climb back through history. It puts past lives in perspective, revealing glimmers of personality. Was a grandparent a trailblazer, creating change? Alternatively, do you believe he or she was more a product of his time? Were relatives s a product of their socioeconomic circumstances, as well? For instance, did they practice a vocation that was passed down in the family or did an individual pursue a trade that was different from the rest of the family? Did they step outside of cultural norms?
Put yourself in their situations. How would you fare?
Storytelling Helps Form Emotional Connections to Family Members and Ancestors–No Memory Required
As you do all this imagining and empathizing and understanding circumstances, you’re developing stories. You’re thinking of your relatives in terms of narratives. Stories are what give these family members texture and substance. They begin to stand out on the page. They take shape in your imagination.
Names no longer simply represent dead people; they’re grandparents and uncles, maybe even loved ones. But even if you feel emotions other than love, such as resentment or anger, those emotions will convey a stronger story. It might go without saying, but I’ll say it (again): Stories are what help us form emotional connections to family members, ancestors, or even total strangers.
Your imagination can lead to great stories. What do you think your life would have been like if he or she had been a part of it? Are there pastimes you would have enjoyed together ? Would he or she be impressed with what you’ve accomplished or do you think there would be a rift due to the lifestyle you chosen to lead? If you could sit down with your grandparents or great-grands what do you think you would talk about first ? What family mysteries would you ask them to solve for you?
Even the most meticulous researchers have to employ their powers of visualization to conjure up a connection to ancestors who lived centuries ago. To do this, they often look at art from that time period. They imagine hairstyles and dress. They read about other events in that time period.
You can do the same thing. As you tell their stories, give readers food for their imagination. Including the details that allow readers to visualize your characters, will help your readers connect as well.
Of course, the most important thing is to tell those stories.