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.