If only I could Relate to the People I’m Related to.

- by Elaine Isaak

Thanks to Ashleigh Brilliant for my title this month (you might remember him from the Potshots comic block and postcard series.)

I want to talk about relationships.  Oh, no!  Some of you are groaning already.  Don’t worry–this is a blog by and for novelists:  I’m not going to moon about my *own* relationships.  And I’m not primarily a romance writer, so I’m not going to talk about love and sex–or at least, not only about love and sex.  While those are very exciting relationships to write about, they’re not the only ones.

Here’s the thing.  Every time you have two characters in a scene, they have a relationship.  And you can electrify your scene, and your book along with it, by paying more attention to that relationship.Your characters might be strangers until they appear there.  But their appearance and role will instantly signal to the other character something about themselves.  Also, their character traits will take over.  Is this a person who is nervous around strangers?  An outgoing person at a party or one who tries to dominate even an ordinary conversation?  Every interaction can show us more about your main characters and who they are, especially how they treat others and how they are seen by others.  We are used to creating characters individually, generating lists of statistics, background sketches or interviews–but it’s how people work together (or don’t) that makes fiction so fascinating.

One thing to think about is the power dynamic of the relationship.  Who holds the power?  Why?  Will that change as the scene progresses?  Power shifts from one character to another are a great way to maintain tension and movement even in a relatively simple dialog as each character pursues his or her goals through conversation.  It could be a pissing contest between rivals at work.  It could be a more subtle jockeying of two girls trying to get the attention of the same friend.

If the characters are of opposite genders, different social classes, or different generations, that adds another layer to their interaction.  What preconceptions does each bring to the moment and how will that affect what they say and do?  What if those gender or age expectations play into the power dynamic:  an older man must approach a younger woman who happens to manage the bank that’s calling in his business loan.

When the characters know each other, or the relationship has a history, then the scene really starts jumping.  Parents and children (especially grown children); estranged family members; old friends or enemies; former, current or future lovers.  What baggage does each bring to the moment?  What freighted history does their meeting carry and how does each participant respond to this fraught reunion?

Next time you’re working on a scene, take a moment to diagram the relationships you find, and give the scene a vigorous current of social interaction–rather much like life.

One comments

  1. Great thoughts, Elaine. I especially find it interesting when characters say one thing out loud to someone they know well, but the background between them causes them to think something completely different. Outwardly polite, inwardly raging about some past issue, for example. Thinking about those relationships more deeply would certainly up the tension.
    Great post.