The Power of Generational Storytelling

As I hurtle toward the publication of my debut, it struck me the other day that I’ve spent over a decade crafting an elaborate 1,500+ page setup. It’s true. In 2011, after two years of collecting rejections for my first epic fantasy story, I convinced myself that the only thing keeping me from a publishing deal was that my story lacked an engaging opening (reader, this was not the only thing). I must have tried two dozen new openings before I had the not-so-original idea that led to the following ten years, and ultimately to this moment.

I’m not sure which came first, my interest in a deeper exploration of the backstory of the deceased father of my protagonist brothers, or the idea that his story could become the new entry point into my story-world. Whether it was the publishing chicken or the storytelling egg that came first, I embarked on what I then supposed would be a quick and easy novella. About a year later, I had a 180K word shitty first draft about the entire life of not just the father of the brothers, but also of the guardian who became the love of his life and the mother of another key player in Epic #1. The rest, as they say, is history—in this case, quite literally.

Yep, I stumbled into becoming a generational storyteller. In hindsight, I consider it a fortuitous stumble. In the years since that shitty first draft, I’ve sought to shape a more meaningful trilogy from the epic tale of the first generation, and I look forward to moving back, into the future of book four, to reengage with the next generation. Let’s take a deeper look at the phenomenon of generational storytelling, shall we? Whether you’ve done any generational storytelling or not, you might discover an angle you’d like to utilize in future works.

Beyond Lineage

Hidden lineage reveals are certainly nothing new to epic SFF. I mean, “Luke, I am your father,” anyone? “This… is Isildur’s heir?” also springs to mind. There have been scores of stories in which we learn something about the ancestry of characters that was previously veiled, and I’ve enjoyed many of them. I’ve used the trope myself, in a less prominent fashion. But I’m talking about something more.

I just finished reading Jade Legacy, which is book three of The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee (I’m still recovering, but I think I’ll be all right, thanks). The series is amazing, full of magic and martial arts, set in a mafia-style empire, but at its core, the story is a family saga. We meet the generation of the primary characters as they come of age and step into leadership roles, struggling to live up to expectations born of their famous sires, who decades earlier became insurgents to thrust off the yoke of a despotic foreign occupation—primarily through their unique (but costly) ability to utilize a magical and empowering element (jade) found only on their home island.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers (because you absolutely should read this trilogy!), but in book three I quickly became enthralled by the progeny—the fourth generation to appear in the saga—as they too come of age. It’s just so fascinating to consider which gifts and limitations they were born with, what they learned, and how each of them reacts so differently to their generational circumstance. The parents’ response to their children is just as fascinating. The genius is in coming to feel as though you’ve known these characters almost all of their lives. I’m convinced that the generational aspect took the series to another level of brilliance. [On a separate but related note, I have never gasped aloud while reading as often as I did during this series.]

The Green Bone Saga made me more fully appreciate the power of generational storytelling, but in hindsight I’ve always loved it. I can see that it plays a big role in my love of Robin Hobb’s The Realm of the Elderlings, and more recently in Joe Abercrombie’s Age of Madness Trilogy. Oh, and no list of generational favorites would be complete without the Sevenwaters series, by WU’s own Juliet Marillier. To name a few.

The Benefits of Blood

Hindsight has provided me with another clue as to how long I’ve been intrigued by generational storytelling: the title of my very first novel—The Bonds of Blood. That choice, made about fifteen years ago, reflects how early on I recognized that my first story was rooted in the assumptions, expectations, and obligations of having been born to a famous (or infamous) but deceased parent. If I do say so, the very nature of the generational tie provided fertile soil for storytelling.

But leveraging inner conflict with the weight of expectation is far from the only potential benefit of generational storytelling. The list includes (but is not limited to):

*The opportunity to explore nature versus nurture—Inherited traits make for fine story fodder, and we mustn’t forget that those traits can be negative ones as well as positive. But there are also various ways to explore how characters’ upbringing makes them different, distinct from their sires. Contrasting siblings can provide a delicious additional dimension.

*Enhanced conflicts—Who hasn’t had a conflict with a family member? Who hasn’t been stunned by how swiftly such a conflict can escalate? Who hasn’t resented being judged by an elder? Who hasn’t been disappointed by a younger family member? Who else is able to get in your head, or under your skin, like a family member? If you’ve lived your life free of family conflict, and have no idea what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky and please don’t rub it in.

*Elevated stakes—Using Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga as my example, let me assure you that growing very familiar with the parents and the fraught nature of a story-world makes readers exponentially more concerned with what happens to their offspring, or what will come of their offspring should something happen to the parents. I have rarely felt more invested in the outcome of a series, and I’m sure that the generational aspect provided a solid foundation for my empathy and fondness.

*The sweep of history—Have you ever watched Finding Your Roots on PBS? Ever notice how every guest is swept up in the turnings of history? Do you get swept up with them? (I do!) Do you think getting such a personal perspective on past events provides us with a new level of understanding and appreciation? A generational facet can offer just that to your story. It’s the ultimate backstory enhancement.

*A lost societal element—Here in youth-obsessed America, most of us have never lived with our family’s elders, not like our ancestors did. Or indeed, as many societies around the globe still do today. Many of us have little contact with our grandsires. I can’t tell you how many funerals I’ve attended where the younger members of the family allude to the fact that they hardly knew the deceased. I think it’s a shame. There’s so much elders have to give, not just in wisdom but in guidance and support. They can uniquely illuminate where we come from and how that makes us who we are–illumination that many of us lack. We can provide those things to our characters through generational storytelling.

“Then It’s a Gift…”

Have you ever seen the 1965 film version of Doctor Zhivago? Do you remember the final scene? (If not, spoiler warning for a 57 year old film, I guess.) In the scene, Yuri Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf (played by Alec Guinness) is meeting a young lady named Tanya. He believes he’s found the daughter of his deceased brother and Lara, the love of Yuri’s life, lost to the chaos of Russian history. Yevgraf tries to convince Tanya to allow him into her life, but she remains skeptical, resistant. As she’s leaving him with her partner, she slings a string instrument over her shoulder.

Yevgraf calls after her: “Tanya! Can you play the balalaika?”

Tanya’s partner: “Can she play? She’s an artist!”

Yevgraf: “An artist? Who taught you?”

The partner: “No one taught her.”

Yevgraf: “Ah. Then it’s a gift.”

Looking back, I’m sort of surprised my parents allowed me to watch this film when I was as young as I was the first time (maybe 9 or 10). But I clearly recall how moved I was by that final scene. It still gets me. Why do I long for Tanya to be Yuri’s and Lara’s child? How could it be gratifying to witness the finding of a girl who was orphaned, traumatically abandoned by the man she thought to be her real father in the heat of war? Why was I left feeling sort of smug and knowing—and fulfilled!—to learn that Tanya seems to have been magically endowed with the skill to play the very instrument that Yuri’s mother played so beautifully? All after such a dark and tragic tale?

I guess my fascination with generational storytelling started early.

Why Me? Why Not Us?

As many of you know, I’ve been working in my story-world for a long time now. I know the names of the parents, and even grandparents, of dozens of my primary characters. I’ve come to know their family histories better than I know my own. It begs the question: why should I, an aging, childless writer, who barely knew three of his grandparents and never met the fourth, be so enthralled? Why do I feel compelled to tell this sweeping intergenerational set of stories? For that matter, why are humans so naturally inclined to sacrifice so much, to struggle and persevere to ensure the betterment of our progeny? Is it merely instinctual–a matter of survival of the species? Or might it be that it feels as though passing along a part of ourselves in those who follow is our way of cheating death?

Maybe it’s just that. Perhaps I feel compelled because I never had children, and didn’t get a chance to know my family sires. Maybe this is my way of seeking to cheat death, by hoping to create the legacy I failed to leave in the form of offspring. Or maybe I’m just seeking to better understand love, which I feel is central to the human experience. Maybe I sense that the love shared by parents and their children is an elemental version of the love I strive to grasp well enough to convey through story.

Maybe, as did Yuri and Lara, we all yearn to reach beyond the limits of our mortality, to bestow upon the future a tiny piece of the greatest and most enduring loves of our lives. Maybe, like Tanya’s artistry on the balalaika, such offerings are a gift.

Why would we not want to utilize this powerful human inclination in our storytelling? Why wouldn’t we seek to provide such a gift to our readers?

Well, WU kids, parents, and grandparents—what say you? Did you know your grandparents? Great-grandparents? Do you play the balalaika? What blessings or curses have your sires bestowed? Have you ever told generational stories? Do you believe generational elements can enhance our stories?

About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days striving to finish his epic fantasy series.