Rich Relationships

by Camera Eye Photography

What’s your most meaningful relationship? Quick, write it down.

Did you write down a relationship with a person?  That’s great.  Now, keep listing relationships that are important to you.  Write down as many as you like.  When you’re done have a look at your list.  Are one or more relationships that matter to you relationships to non-living things?  Chances are that’s true.

We have relationships to all manner of things: music, animals, towns, careers, sports teams, food, the past, and even our own writing.  We also have relationships to aspects of ourselves, for instance to our fears, our dreams, our sins, our suffering, our beliefs and ideals.  We have relationships with time, the Devine and death.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they’re unique to us, they matter and they change.  Just as our relationships to others evolve so do our relationships to things that are abstract and intangible.

Look at it this way: Do you feel the same today as you did in childhood about your Barbie dolls or Lego blocks?  No.  Your toys today are different.  Is your passion for Van Halen, blue eye shadow, shoulder pads or Jägermeister the same as in your younger days?  No.  You’ve moved on to jazz, minivans, Ann Taylor and Ribera.

As for me, don’t get me started about hair, coffee, books or the European Union.  It’s complicated.  Ask me a year from now and I likely won’t say what I’d say today.  That’s the point.  My relationship to those things is changing.

So it is with characters.  Their relationships to non-human things are as dynamic as their relationships to other people.   How can we measure those changes?  It’s done by capturing evolving feelings, opinions and perceptions.  Here are some approaches to developing a deeper connection between your protagonist and his or her subjective world…

  • What’s something about which your protagonist is passionate?  Why is it important?  What meaning does it have that others do not see?  Bring that thing into the story once…then bring it in again at a moment of defeat.
  • What’s something your protagonist hates, hates, hates?  Where does that hate come from?  With what or whom is it associated?  Bring that thing into the story once…then later reveal something unexpectedly beautiful about it.
  • What is something with which your protagonist struggles?  Why does that struggle matter, why can’t your protagonist let it go?  Find three places to enact that struggle…and finally the moment when the struggle ends.
  • Give your protagonist a childhood memento.  Have it go missing.  Where’s the least likely yet most symbolic time and place for it to be found?  You know what to do.

The world in which you and I live is more than what we see.  It’s more than the people with whom we interact.  Just as real to us are crossroad moments, the mood of a holiday or the truths of human perfidy.  Intangible things can walk into a room, sit down and engage us in conversations.  We find that talk worth having.

It’s worth putting on the page, too.


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. says

    It’s easy to think of relationships in regard to people and pets – and then to put that on the page – but to take it one step further and expand that definition of “relationship” is to make the character, the scene etc come alive on that page.

    My favorite part – “Intangible things can walk into a room, sit down and engage us in conversations. We find that talk worth having.”

    Thanks for the great reminder!
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..GIVEAWAY! Signed Copy of…

  2. says

    My current heroine has a strong feeling for her family’s business. The hero threatens to buy it out from under her. Relationships run rampant through every day life. The hardest ones are with the intangible.
    Mary Jo Burke´s last blog post ..Hello world!

  3. says

    Thanks, Donald. I always look forward to your craft articles–for their practical advice and well-crafted style! My heroine steals a garnet ring, the first beautiful and valuable thing she’s ever owned. She can never wear it, but brings it out to look at in secret. Finally, she offers it as a bribe to save her best friend’s life, but her effort is scorned and rejected.
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..On the Southern Literary Trail: Part One—Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s Farm Home

  4. Denise Willson says

    Another printer, my dear Yoda! I think I might actually have enough pages of your advice to make a book. Too bad I already own your books.

    Thanks for your contribution to writers… much appreciated.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  5. says

    Thank you for helping us to expand our concept of relationships. It makes me want to go back into a completed novel of mine and take a second, maybe third, look at how my heroine interacts with objects from her childhood. They are her mother’s handkerchief and a small tintype of her father – all that she has left of them. She calls them her talismans and clings to them for comfort. Late in the story she even risks her life to retrieve them, but now I’m wondering if I could have done more with them or handled her relationship with them differently. You have given me something to think about.

    I look forward to meeting you in Houston in October at NWHRWA’s Lone Star Conference.

  6. Laurie McCulloch says

    I don’t know why, but I’ve always balked at creating character sketches. For me they’re flat and boring, and I forget everything about them. It isn’t until my characters are in the story that I get a sense of who they are.

    This advice, though? Wow! Lightbulb over head is on overloading circuit, ready to blow.

    Thank you!

  7. says

    I was recently reminded of a relationship for which my passion had cooled. I hadn’t spent much time in the woodshop in the past few years. But being out there was a reawakening. The smell of freshly cut Douglas fir, the feel of a quality tool in hand, the bright color of a freshly planed board–the little things warmed me right back up to woodworking. It demonstrates the power of your advice to bring relationships back. Good stuff, as usual. Thanks, Don.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Keeping the Faith (In Spite of All Contrary Evidence)

    • says

      Woodshop, hardware stores, paint stores…all evocative for me, too. I’ve been doing some projects in our new loft. It brings me back to my dad, who taught me planning, measuring, tools, painting.

      As I swish a brush around the rim of the paint can before tapping the lid gently down with a hammer, my dad’s right next to me. When I groan and grunt forcing a reluctant Phillips head screw, he’s with me too. I am never more my dad than then.

  8. `Peggy Foster says

    Thank you for this great advice. I will definitely be bookmarking this for future reference. I have heard a lot about you but this is the first article that I have read of yours. I will check out and read one of your books. Thanks again for your great advice. I’m writing my first book and this will help me a lot.

  9. says

    The protagonist discovering unexpected beauty in something she hates-hates-hates is one of the best surprises to experience when reading a novel… I love the glimpse into a character’s heart and the connection that can only come from seeing something in a new light. And for that matter, finding beauty in unexpected places is one of my favorite things about growing older. :) There are so many things I used to scoff at back in the day, whereas now, I’ve somehow acquired an appreciation for them. (Jazz and minivans do not fit into that group btw, but hey, I might see it differently one day….)

    Thank you Donald, for these excellent tips.
    Barb Riley´s last blog post ..Defining the Sense of an Ending

    • says

      There has to be something good about getting older, eh? I hope you’ll give jazz another chance. Nowadays I follow the progression of solos with more patience and pleasure.

      Minivans, though…now, I have to admit that age has not made me more appreciative. Maybe after a few more car trips with my kid?

  10. Jennifer Lundberg says

    My relationship with writing, well it’s complicated.

    Thanks for this post. Some helpful suggestions.

  11. says

    Sitting at Wegman’s, writing, and popped in to read this. Great prompt as always, Don! Passed the advice about evoking an entire character arc through relationship to an object to a writer sitting two chairs down from me—this will work great for her middle grade—she says thanks!

  12. Jeanne Kisacky says

    So maybe I’m just totally self-centered (or have been doing way too much research on new age spirituality), but after your initial question about ‘what’s my most important relationship,’ I answered with the word ‘myself.’ It’s the relationship I have with myself that determines how I interact with all other people and things.
    Then I read on and realized you were not intending the question introspectively but externally. Do you have suggestions for how the role of the protagonist’s relationship to self manifests in how those relationships to external persons and things gets expressed? Or perhaps that’s another topic entirely.

    • says

      Self regard is, in my opinion, one of the most important components of a compelling protagonist. We are drawn to those who take themselves and their journey through life seriously…though I hasten to add that being self-absorbed and self-aware are two different things.

      To get to your question, one thing to try is testing your protagonist’s core principles. What’s a situation which could show your protagonist that he/she is wrong about something held sacred? That’s turning the internal outward. Hope that helps.

  13. says

    Fabulous post!

    I am writing my memoir with an arc of fiction. Your suggestion of adding relationships gives my antagonist more ‘life’. Although mentioning things she is passionate about is good… writing about what she hates-hates-hates is just the ‘umph’ my story needs.

    Thanks for the nudge!
    Deb Hathaway´s last blog post ..Love Letters…

  14. Chro says

    It’s funny; I didn’t check who the author of the article was, but having read your books and been to a workshop, I knew who it was by the end of the second sentence. ;)

  15. says

    There was a young lady of Niger
    Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
    They returned from the ride
    With the lady inside,
    And the smile on the face of the tiger.

    Now that’s what I call an evolving relationship!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    Melissa Shaw-Smith´s last blog post ..Mud Season

  16. says

    One of my characters is going through an emotional turmoil. She discovers that she had repressed memories of being kidnapped as a child. As she tries to deal with it, she develops a fixation with a cartoon character. I hadn’t thought about this as a relationship. But maybe it is?

    • says

      This is a bit awkward to say, but I do feel a relationship to certain strip cartoons…Calvin & Hobes, 9 Chickweed Lane, Luann, The Meaning of Lila. I’ve “argued” with the cartoonists (in my head) and sometimes grown impatient with them, but in the end I treasure them. I cannot imagine my life without Peanuts, Pogo or Shoe.

      See? A relationship with artists, and their characters, who don’t know I exist.

  17. says

    Ah, this gives me ideas. I’ve always loved the conflict in stories where a character values something and then loses it. Like in the Sword of Truth series when Richard and the Sword are separated. But I’ve never thought of it as a relationship. This helps me focus a bit. Thanks
    Jennifer M Zeiger´s last blog post ..Alosian Oasis Option B: Salt

  18. Barb says

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I love all your posts Don, and refer back to them often. Thanks for always giving such great advice!

  19. says

    I read through this entire article thinking, “This is something Donald Maass would like.” Then I went to print it and realized that it was your article. Duh. You’ve completely ruined me, Don, with all your talk of tension and struggles and inner journeys. And I mean that in a good way. I’ve attended a number of your workshops, masters classes (SIWC) and had a few quick conversations with you, all of which have pushed me to become a better writer. But enough flattery. It’s time to get back to the day’s writing. Thanks for making me think.
    Wendy´s last blog post ..PDA