One thing I don’t often see in books is the sibling dynamic, which always seems slightly unrealistic, given the number of people in the world who grow up with siblings. When it came to writing Backstroke, I knew I wanted that dynamic in there in a big way, especially for Nik, and less so but still there for Tiernan. Siblings are an important aspect of personality; they often shape the way you develop and grow, and later in life, once you get past the constant squabbling part, they can provide support.
Nik comes from a big family, with four siblings, three of which are significantly older than him, and therefore always see him as a child who needs to be taken care of. His only equal is his sister, Rae, his twin. With absent parents, Nik and Rae are left to fend for themselves a lot of the time growing up. What’s most interesting is the adverse effects this has on both of them. Where Rae takes on the responsibility of sticking by the family and caring for their ailing mother, Nik leaves the first chance he gets, with ambitions of making something of his life.
Nik has always been the black sheep of the family, and his relationship with his three older brothers could definitely be called tempestuous. I wanted there to be friction there. The common thought is that the youngest can get away with anything (as the youngest, I can confirm it’s true), but the youngest are also often compared to the elder siblings and have higher expectations placed on them. Nik doesn’t have that problem so much since his parents aren’t around to place those expectations, but he puts them on himself instead, to be better than his brothers, to do more, and not get stuck in the same routine.
With Nik and Rae, I wanted him to have someone, a confidant, someone who understood why he did the things he did. Rae has been his best friend his whole life, and by leaving he fractures the bond in a way he didn’t expect. Rae has always been put in the “female” role of the family; the caregiver, the one who fixes things. She has ambitions of her own, but she puts them aside for the sake of keeping the peace. Next to her, Nik can come off as selfish for going after what he wants rather than staying in a place he hates simply because Rae stays. Their relationship is the most interesting to me, as they are so close and understand each other so well but they still fight and think the other is making bad choices, like real siblings do.
On the other hand, Tiernan has only one sibling, an older sister to whom he feels constantly compared by his parents, who were once very involved in his life. The brother/sister dynamic is different compared to a sister/sister relationship or a brother/brother relationship. Tiernan is lucky that his parents haven’t placed their expectations based on gender, but rather on levels of success. As an Olympic swimmer, he would expect to be high in their esteem, but an antiquated view on sexuality has lowered him in their eyes.
The conflict comes from his sister, Ella, who has always felt the opposite–that Tiernan is the favored child rather than her. As someone with only one sibling, Tiernan and Ella’s relationship was the most relatable for me. As children, they probably fought like cats and dogs, but as people get older, I’ve found the fighting really decreases. In their case, they’re past the physical hitting and yelling stage and moved into more sophisticated verbal sparring and underhanded moves. Tiernan is still young, and as he matures, their relationship will grow too. I feel like he and Ella have the chance of becoming closer as they get older and begin to understand each other better.
Backstroke was my foray into sibling relationships, and I think the contrasts are especially interesting between the two families, but also the similarities that run through all relationships. Nik and Tiernan are clearly shaped by their siblings and their desires to please certain people and how those desires translate into actions, whether acceptance or rejection of them. I like to think that relationships drive the story, and Nik and Tiernan’s families certainly help bring them together, in their own roundabout sort of ways.