Family Tree Software for Writers

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:

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.

Article written by

Kerry Given

Kerry M. Given is a freelance writer, indie author, and occasional ghostwriter specializing in topics such as history, science, gardening, sustainability, culture, media, and women’s issues. She is the author of P is for Princess: The Extraordinary Lives of 26 Real-Life Princesses, and numerous articles and blog posts.

7 Responses

  1. Sia
    Sia November 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm |

    Hmm … do any of those allow you to input future dates?

    1. Laura W-A
      Laura W-A June 15, 2014 at 6:24 am |

      Did you find out if any let you input future dates? I need to go from 2000 BC to the 8000s AD. Argh for time travel and reincarnation.

  2. Marlena H.
    Marlena H. March 22, 2015 at 4:06 pm |

    I have Family Tree Maker and I use it for my stories (and my own family tree research). I quite updating after it made changes I didn’t like, so I use Family Tree Maker 16. I use it for everyone within a given story universe regardless of their relationship with each other. It allows you to create as many families within one file as you want. Genderwise, you have M, F, or ? Marriage can be between whomever you want, although some things will probably give you warnings, such as marrying a parent to their child.

    Likewise, you can have as big of age gaps between parent and child as you want, but if you go beyond certain perimeters it will warn you that the age doesn’t work, especially with a mother too old to bare children or a parent who is dead by more than a year when their child is born. I have a character who was over four hundred when her youngest was born (she’s just past six hundred in the series’ present day). She’s been married four different times and only the oldest two were born when she was within “childbaring age.” I have another character in another series who married before she born, but over a century. It protested, but it let me do it.

    There is a huge lists of facts you can use to define your character and you can make up your own as well. There is a place to define their physical characteristics and and medical history. My favorite part is the note section. I use it both to make general notes about them that don’t fit elsewhere and to make little short story pieces staring that character. There is a search function and sometimes I use it just to find all of the places I wrote those short stories. I start a short story piece with ~ to make them easier to locate.

    To answer the questions above, this software at least allows you to go into the future. I have some characters that are born over four hundred years from now. I admit I don’t know how it does with dates going into BC. I don’t think it can handle those, so that might be an issue. However, I’ve never tried, so it might work in some way or another. Once you get back to a certain year, dates in the first months of the year give you multiple dates, to reflect multiple calendars at the time.

    As for the other softwares, the only one I’ve tried is GRAMPS. I didn’t much care for it, so I didn’t try it for long. It might be a decent program, but I prefer Family Tree Maker.

  3. shahid durrani
    shahid durrani February 17, 2016 at 11:51 pm |

    The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy, t… … I wasn’t using this program long before I was soon singing its praises. … Regardless of whether you are writing your family history book, a fictional novel, a how to book, a magazine article.

  4. Clara
    Clara December 31, 2016 at 2:09 pm |

    Family Tree Maker also lets you go into the various parameters and adjust settings regarding marriageable age and such, or at least it used to (haven’t used it in a few years). Lots of customization on that one.

    1. Clara
      Clara December 31, 2016 at 2:10 pm |

      I’m sorry, Family Tree Builer from Heritage.

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer January 18, 2017 at 9:33 am |

    I have tried most of the above.
    Though it doesn’t have everything I really want, Family Tree builder ( pretty easy to use, and the mapping and charts are easy to see and follow.
    The settings allow you to change the values of the warning system. Change max age from 115, to 3000, for example – So Vampires and other Immortals are possible with little hassle.
    Adoptions are both possible and fairly simple. It is also possible to make intricate family connections – and re-connections. (The current character I’m working on has a very extensive and complicated family history – which becomes valid as the story progresses.)
    Add notes, and physical descriptions.
    Add anything for cause of death, from burning at the stake, to staked in the heart.
    Add fictional places for birth and death. (Some of the other programs don’t allow this.)
    I can add future dates. However, it does not calculate age past the present date.
    I can use it both on and off line, with a simple sync button.
    I have only recently begun to use this program, but so far, I think it just may be my favorite.

    I also use and like Family Echo. Online tree builder, and pretty simple and straightforward. It allows for notations about each individual – so dates of adoptions, cause of death, physical descriptions, and so forth can be added for personal use, if not shown.

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