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The Care and Feeding of Relationships

Photo [1] by Don McCullough, CC BY [2]


A Revealing Scene (in more ways than one)

I stumbled upon something unexpected recently while working on the opening for a potential work in progress. It turns out my protagonist has a son. Well, I suppose that in itself wasn’t a shock. After all, I was the one who placed the youth amidst the brief bridging conflict, having him tag along as an inquisitive preteen might do while his father checks a glitch in the security perimeter for the isolated town in which they live after the collapse of a once great land. The surprise was the realization that this awkward, questioning boy was the center of my protagonist’s world, meaning more to him than his wife, more than his standing in the community, more in fact than he himself will see until much later in the story. And it was in that moment of discovery that all the machinations for the tale I had plotted out in my head instantly fell into place. For I had identified the primary motivator of my lead, and pinpointed a relationship I would need to tease out and understand, just as surely as any individual character arc.

Only later did it occur to me I had experienced a similar epiphany on my first novel, when the protagonist’s relationship with his brother, though not central to the story, had proven key to understanding his past, and an essential thread in his evolution.

Both observations got me thinking about character relationships, from those that bloom in plain sight, like Ove’s thawing relationship with his neighbor Parvaneh over the course of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, to subtle ones that sneak up on readers and characters alike, such as Ove’s grandfatherly affection for Parvaneh’s daughter in the same tale. Specifically, I wondered this – What are the keys to crafting realistic and moving relationships between characters? And what are the tools one can use to give those relationships their due, supplying them with the power not only to shape the protagonist’s emotional arc but also to elevate the entire work?

Turns out I could find little discussion on the topic, aside from the usual slew of sometimes questionable advice on developing lifelike characters to a smattering of cautions on how not to portray romantic relationships (apparently the secret is out that love is more than flowery lamentations about someday being together). So instead I pondered character relationships in stories I have enjoyed, as well as exercises from my own writing experience. Here are a few ideas that stood out:

A Worthy Introduction

Ove, protagonist of the aforementioned title, meets Parvaneh for the first time in a comical scene in which Parvaneh’s husband manages to scrape the side of Ove’s suburban home with a trailer before taking out his mailbox a short time later. Sparks fly, literally and figuratively, as Ove and Parvaneh trade barbs, both with each other and at their mutual nemesis at the time, the hapless husband. It is a hilarious scene, for sure. But it is also one that sticks its landing, serving as an opening benchmark for the kinship that will gradually bloom between these two remarkably different yet equally stubborn characters.

Which brings us to our first lesson – First impressions matter. As your protagonist meets each of his or her fellow crew for their shared journey, think carefully on where their travels begin. What behaviors do they display in that initial encounter, with each other and with the reader? Do your characters attract or repel each other, and what do those reactions indicate about each? What seeds are left to explore later? And what questions will linger with a reader, consciously or not, after the interaction concludes?

Respect for the Relationship Arc

In life, even with those we consider constants – our oldest friendships, our families – relationships evolve over time. People age. Circumstances shift. We change. They change. Events pull us closer or drive us apart. Likewise, a protagonist’s evolution reflects in his or her interactions with others. From that initial meeting on Ove’s front lawn, he and Parvaneh undertake a steady circling. While Ove at first resents the intrusion of the new boisterous neighbor and her clan into his decidedly set routine, in each encounter their familiarity grows. Slowly the ground gives way until eventually a connection appears – one still humorous, and still filled with barbs – but a connection nevertheless. Their relationship echoes, and at times prompts, Ove’s journey from thorny recluse to, well, someone with a bit less bite, while all the while his personal stakes rise.

This didn’t happen by chance. Backman crafted each encounter with a destination in mind. In other words, he constructed a relationship arc. As author, editor and writing coach Allison Beckert explains on her Art of Stories [3] blog, “Writing a relationship functions the same way as any story; it requires its own rising action, climax, and resolution.” It may be an easy aspect to overlook, what with all the focus on character development and plot continuity and world-building. But with a keen eye on major and minor relationships in a story, one can find opportunities to use those encounters essential to moving the story as a window to changes happening within the characters, or to underscore important themes.

Fortunately, a lot of the work on this is simply in the awareness, so by making notes on relationships in your work in progress, one may well find they have already instinctively traced the lines and simply need to add details and nuances to elevate what is already on the page.

An Exercise in Isolation

But what if you need more? What actions can a writer take to ensure character relationships grow naturally, and to check if they are doing all they can to shed light on the transformation in progress?

What worked for me on my first novel was a series of exercises I undertook while editing. For each relationship of my protagonist, I stripped out each scene in which he engaged the other character and then read them independently, isolated from the distracting swirl of the rest of the story. In doing so, I could see gaps clearly, places where emotional leaps felt too broad, or moved too fast. The process worked well with the primary relationships, but surprises came from even minor ones. Interactions with his fiancé’s mother and father proved revealing, while chance encounters with a near stranger culminated in a scene one beta reader called her favorite of the entire manuscript. But the joy for me came from honing the relationship mentioned near the start of this post, in which my protagonist moved from mentor to equal with his quickly maturing younger brother.

At the time the decision to focus on relationships using the technique was more instinctive than planned. But in retrospect the exercise yielded more tangible manuscript improvements than any other employed during my revision process.

Those are my observations, and a tool that worked for me. But what are your thoughts? What do you look for in relationships between characters in stories you read, or those you write? Do any character relationships spring to mind as having been particularly well written? Do certain authors have a knack for depicting realistic relationships? Do you employ certain tools to improve how character relationships are depicted and revealed in your own writing? Are there relationships in your current WIP which might benefit from a bit of extra scrutiny? Please share. I look forward to hearing from you.

About John J Kelley [4]

John J Kelley [5] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [6], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.