Sunday, 3 October 2010

On Writing Relationships

I've neglected the blogosphere shamefully this past week. Partly it's been a case of Real Life taking over, and I haven't wanted to visit blogs knowing I won't be able to properly sit down and read and comment on posts. So sorry about that, everyone, I'll be back to making my rounds of my favourite bloggers this week!

It's also been a case of not really having anything to blog about. Yes, I have ideas for posts and stuff I want to say, but I never write up these posts if I'm not feeling passionate about the topic at the time. So I've waited until I have felt that spark again.

I don't know about you, but relationships in fiction are so important to me. The relationships between friends, lovers, family are, to me, the anchor of a story. No matter how great a plot is, no matter how clever the twists and turns are, I'll never be able to love something if the characters and the relationships between them (or even some of them) aren't interesting, compelling, moving, fraught, amazing... I could go on.

So I'm going to offer up a few things that have occurred to me about why fictional relationships work, and what specific story or relationship made me realize these things.

Tension is key. No one cares about a relationship where everything goes swimmingly all the time, and the characters never have doubts, or argue, or do something awful without meaning to, etc etc. In Veronica Mars, my favourite relationship is the one between Veronica and her father. They stick together through thick and thin (and believe me, things get thick). But they're also not above lying to each other, protecting each other through various underhanded means, tricking one another, and generally confronting each other over issues that are important to them. This is why this relationship works. 

On the flip side, they do stick by one another and that's as important as the doubts. The reason I lost interest in the Logan/Veronica romance was because there was too much doubt, too much conflict, too little loyalty and faith and awesomeness between them. They were unhappy far more than they were happy. I think there needs to be a balance.

The nature of the relationship itself is in question - and is then satisfactorily resolved. Do they love one another? Hate one another? Are they going to betray the other? Will they forgive the other one? Will they overcome their different ideals to love each other, or will their ideals matter more? This kind of conflict is an off-shoot of tension, I guess, but I needed it earmarked separately because it's so effective. When you question a relationship from the outside, and then finally get your answers, it's satisfying and moving. And it keeps you interested right through.

Key example? Luke and Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. Being twenty-two and the daughter of a Star Wars fan, I knew Darth Vader was Luke's father before I ever watched any of the films. I think most people do these days. But that, if anything, makes the question even more gripping. Will they reconcile? Can he be redeemed? Will he kill his own son - or save him?

We got great answers to those questions, and that's why I love their relationship so much.

The characters have to be able to stand on their own. They have to be able to stand individually as great characters before they can make a great relationship. Otherwise, it's just a hollow relationship that doesn't quite ring true, no matter how much you praise the love. For me, Romeo and Juliet epitomize this. Everyone knows them for the tragic love story, but when I read the play, it was kind of disappointing. I just thought 'meh, they're not that great, either of them. Pfuee!' And their relationship didn't feel real at all.

You have to be invested in them. Some of you may disagree, but for me, a relationship in a book or movie or TV show has to be something I'm deeply invested in for me to care at all. It's amazing how much of a difference that emotional investment makes. Even if you tick every single one of the boxes above, a relationship will still fall flat if a reader or viewer is not invested in it. This is the wild card and it's annoying because it means we as writers could tick the boxes and still not create that special spark. To use a reality TV metaphor, the relationship might be able to dance, have a great voice, look good - but it's always going to be trumped by something that has that special X factor.

For instance, when the Harry Potter books were still coming out, I had my heart deeply and firmly set on the idea that Harry and Hermione were better together than any other characters in the books. They had a spark I couldn't identify, something that made me go 'wow, I love seeing how these two interact and stick by each other'.

This made me a little impatient (to put it mildly) with the Ron/Hermione romance and don't even get me started on the Harry/Ginny one. I used to find Ron and Hermione's bickering irritating. But other readers tell me they loved this because it threw up 'sexual tension'. Me? It left me cold, in spite of ticking the 'tension' box. But if Harry and Hermione argued? I lapped it up like a starving cat confronted with cream. 

Oh. And did I mention relationship-love is so subjective?

And that's my (rather long) two cents on the subject. What do you guys think?


  1. Welcome back, Sangu!

    I love your new picture. Life has also been hectic for me of late : A mistake from a higher up resulted in my injuring myself on the job, and the company is being what you expect of a self-serving company.

    But enough about that.

    Relationships are important in all my novels. In my current YA fantasy, I have a 13 year old street kid fall in love with a flesh-eating ghoul. (Can you say ultimate self-destructive relationship?)

    It's my revolt against the 200 year old Edward falling in love with a 16 year old. (Always struck me as a pedophile situation.)

    If you're curious, here is my short (honest) post told through the ghoul's perspective :

    In a similar vein, I had my long-lived Texas Ranger fall in love with the beautiful, nearly eternal Meilori. Why did they fall in love?

    They were lonely souls, starved for companionship and friendship and yes, love, to share with someone whose perspective and sensibilities were formed by long centuries of experiences.

    Their differences pull them apart. Their similarities draw them back. Their love determines to see their journey through together. Their love is a rope of many strands that bind and cut both at the same time.


    Did I get caught up or what?

    Have a great new week, Roland

  2. Relationship love is hugely subjective isn't it? My all time favourite tv couple are Josh & Donna from West Wing and I think that was written utterly beautifully but I know there are tons of fans out there that hated it when they eventually got together. Equally I'm not fussed by the Harry Potter romances and how they turned out but one of my friends still refuses to believe that Hermione chose Ron.

    I am terrible at writing romantic relationships. I can plan out the entire thing in my head and the relationship is there and it's real and lovely but it comes out as an awkward loads of cliches when I write it. Hence me putting the fiction on the back burner for the time being.

    I find it awfully frustrating when I actually prefer a secondary relationship in the book. It seems to happen more often with established authors and I wonder if it's just laziness? They rely on cardboard main characters and it's the secondary ones who are allowed the quirks and end up being more interesting. Anyway, ramblings over for now. None of what I've written is probably relevant!

  3. Heya Sangu! No point in blogging if you don't feel like it. Simple as that. : j
    I'm putting Questing for food on hiatus, and I'm going to end Okurokami sometime before the 14th, all in one big chunk.
    I think that relationships in fiction and their nature vary with the function they fulfill in the narrative.
    While I agree with what you've said about them in the frame of the kind of story you're talking about, there are times and stories where the rules are radically different. Some of Asimov's stories with his emotional wasteland flat characters for instance.
    Not a big Potter fan, a friend of mine recently suggested I pick them up again "because they get better"... From my recollection, wasn't Hermione way too good for Harry? Maybe that's a hasty statement, I'll get back to you if I get around to reading the series. ; p
    Nice to read you again!

  4. Great post! And I've noticed a lot of bloggers 'temporarily disappearing' recently - maybe getting used to the flow of back to school? I don't know! :) And I agree, I loved the Harry Hermione aspect. The best part of any book is the relationships - otherwise, who cares?

  5. Interesting take. I agree - relationships drive any fiction, HP definitely included, those books wouldn't be nearly what they are without the friendships and relationships. It's what makes me adore the Marauder's generation. You don't get better shifting loyalties than that, and you don't need to go slash to get to it, either (unless you want to, of course).

    Bit of a tangent there. I totally agree on H/G. No tension there.

    And don't apologize for being absent! I haven't been here for months.

  6. I think I hit all of those points with my two main characters. Definitely lots of tension!

  7. You make excellent points. It's all about character and relationships.

    And I agree with you about Harry and Hermoine. I didn't mind that he wound up with Ginny, but it was never developed enough. And the dynamic between Hermoine and Ron seemed off. In the end, JK Rowling's biggest flaw is that she couldn't write romance.

  8. Oh, I love this post, Sangu! You're so right - tension is critical in relationships.

    Thanks! I hope all's well with you!