How to write relationships that work
Love is in the air!
February is the month of love, and in publishing, the month when most romances come out. But love and writing about love includes all kinds of different relationships. Between parents and children, siblings, friends. Even lack of love. So what makes these relationships compelling and how can we get good at writing about them?
As writers, our best tools are our powers of observation and analysis, and in no arena is this as critical as in writing about relationships. If we want to create interesting characters and believable connections between them, we need to understand what drives people, namely motivations and human psychology.
Motivations: Human beings do not act randomly. Even if we're unaware of our reasons, our acts are bound to the rules of cause and effect. Who we are and what we want shines through. It is our job as writers to understand our characters and their motivations. In general, people act because they either want something or want to avoid something. This is your biggest tool when writing about them.
Psychology= Reactions: Unlike what might appear at first sight, human beings' reactions are not infinite. Most of us respond to an attack in similar ways: fear, anger, excitement, frustration. A sociopath or someone looking for revenge might add happiness. Understanding how people react will be key to writing the right response as characters interact.
Beyond those two, the last thing to consider is pacing. Deciding how fast or slow you want your characters to reach the next level of closeness. Like everything in writing, there are no formulas and you should experiment to see what works. But here are a few things I've found useful.
5 Tips about writing relationships
Build in conflict: Interesting relationships need conflict. Even if it is a loving comfortable relationship between a parent and a child, or a wonderful grandfather. Conflict doesn't have to be negative. It can be banter, it can be a funny misunderstanding, it can be dreading something and being pleasantly surprised. But you need it. Without conflict there is no story. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that every dialogue show have conflict. Even if you don't go to that extreme, consider how those back and forths, the opposing goals that build tension and create a knot impact the way characters are perceived. Relationships have an arc as people resolve and learn to live with the natural friction spots that result from interaction.
Know your backstory (even if you never reveal it) Our history and past experiences shape us, often informing and pushing us to act a certain why. Know what made characters are the way they are. Take the time to create a past that matches their personality and explains their idiosyncracies. Then use that to your advantage as they interact with others. Backstory can also produce great moments of connection as people share themselves and their secrets (see below).
Include a vulnerable or bonding moment Relationships, like stories have arcs. They have midpoints. Usually, it is the moment we decide to let someone else in. To remove some of the protections we have up to face the world. Building in a moment of vulnerability will produce a strong emotional response in your readers. In terms of relationship development, this decision to expose a character to another is a powerful driver and often a turning point. It could be exposing self-doubt, a secret from their past or the way the feel about something or someone. It could be watching a character converse candidly with someone else. It could be watching them perform a selfless act. True connection requires honesty and capturing the instance when a character decides to bare him or herself to another is key to helping the reader understand their dynamics.
Learn from the experts Do you know who does relationships consistently well? The best romance authors. Because the whole plot revolves around will they or will not, good romances must get this part right. There are no excuses. Romance novels are also great at backstory (think all those horrible childhoods and broken betrayed heroes), and they often have friendship weaved in. So even if you don't love the genre, I recommend you pick up a few and read them to analyze how the relationships are built and how their growth is developed.
Show feelings: Just like there is no infinite number of feelings, there aren't infinite ways to show those. When we're afraid our pupils dilate and our pulse speeds up; we might break in sweat and struggle to breathe. Understanding how to show emotions as people interact with each other will enhance and add depth to your story. For ideas on showing emotions through physical manifestations, you can check books like The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman. Keep in mind that a lot of communication between people is non-verbal. Use movement to your advantage to tell the reader more without spelling it all out.
Relationships have stories. Building them requires conflict and pacing, just like the rest of your writing.
Dare always. Keep writing.