Genealogy is one of my hobbies, so I enjoy inventing elaborate family histories for my characters. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the genealogy programs I use to keep track of my own family history are not well suited for creating family trees for fictional characters. They include many features that are unnecessary for writers trying to keep track of an imaginary family, such as tools for organizing different types of research and source materials, yet simultaneously are not flexible enough to meet the needs of novelists, especially fantasy and science fiction novelists.
The good news is that genealogy programs are becoming increasingly flexible about dealing with non-traditional family arrangements such as same-sex couples, polygamous relationships, and children born outside of wedlock. Many programs also allow you to create custom fact types if you’re more interested in keeping track of the dates your characters were turned into vampires than the dates they were christened.
Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go before genealogy programs become truly representative of all human cultures and identities, let alone those from alien or fantasy races. For example, I have yet to hear of a satisfactory method of recording transsexual and transgender individuals. If genealogy software can’t handle a single change of sex, imagine the headache of trying to create a family tree for an alien race of simultaneous hermaphrodites! Most genealogy programs will also give an error message or warning if you try to create a listing for a character that lives longer than about 120 years, if you try to enter a non-standard date format, or similar.
Despite its limitations, genealogy software can be fun to muck around with for fantasy and science fiction writers. For authors working with actual historical people, whether historians or historical fiction novelists, it can range from useful to downright indispensable. (Before spending a lot of time and research re-inventing the wheel, historians and historical fiction writers should be aware there there is a free .gedcom file floating around the internet that covers the royal families of Europe.)
Here is a selection of some of the best genealogy programs and tools:
- Ancestral Quest,Win, commercial
- Brother’s Keeper, Win, commercial
- Family Echo, browser based, free
- Family Tree Builder, Win, free
- Family Tree Maker, Win/Mac, commercial
- GenealogyJ, Win/Mac/Linux, open source
- Geni, browser based, free and subscription options
- GenoPro, Win, commercial
- GRAMPS, Win/Mac/Linux, open source
- iFamily for Leopard, Mac, commercial
- Legacy Family Tree, Win, free and commercial options
- Mac Family Tree, Mac, commercial
- PhpGedView, browser based (self-hosted), open source
- Reunion, Mac, commercial
- RootsMagic, Win, free and commercial options
- The Master Genealogist, Win, commercial
- The Next Generation of Genealogy Site Building, browser based (self hosted), commercial
- Webtrees, browser based, self-hosted, open source
For help deciding which of these programs is best for you, I recommend GenSoftReviews, though with the caveat that the reviews are written by people interested in tracking the family history of real people, not fictional ones.
If a real genealogy software program is too complex for you, you may be able to create a simple family tree with the help of mind-mapping software. Some personal wikis, including MediaWiki, also have features enabling the creation of simple family trees.