“Yes, Dear”: On Character Relationships

happy__familyWhen I was writing the Tone Talks series, I figured that the area of character relationships really needed something more than a brief mention or paragraph. This is one of the biggest mistakes of amateur writers and an easy thing to miss if you don’t know what to look for. If handled well, characters relationships can enhance conflict, humor and believability–and if you know where to look, it can be an easy thing to fix.

Out of curiosity, I once decided to make a list while watching an episode of a favorite TV show. I noted everything that I liked, from central plot points to random props in an apartment, and one of the things that surprised me the most was the fact that one of my favorite things was the fact that two of the characters drove each other crazy. This is the case in many TV shows, and stories in general. Characters don’t have to be mortal enemies to hate each other, or even on opposing sides of an issue. All it takes is for one to have a quirk that the other can’t stand.

On a more serious level, you need to make sure that your characters aren’t being overly passive, either. One problem in too much of my writing is that my characters always have a “yes, dear,” attitude. A child didn’t want to do his chores? “Yes, Mom/Dad.” An adventurer sent on a suspicious quest? “Yes, so-and-so.” In one case, I had a mother who much too easily consented to have her own young daughter sent to be killed–all because her husband (who didn’t understand the situation) thought the trip sounded like a good idea!

You need to study the relationships between your characters. Where do they draw the line? At what point does the teenager decide to rebel, and how much? When does the crewman turn against the captain? One exercise I found helpful was to go through every pair of characters and find all the kinks to bring out. Considering the example of the mother and daughter above, the father/husband had seen his wife freak out many times. This was nothing different for him, and his natural response to the situation was to help her face her fears  and calm her down. As for his wife, she had good reason to be afraid. She knew her parents, who had invited the family over, were involved in some strange cult-like activities, and she knew from her sister’s disappearance years before that she could not put them above killing their grandchild. There was no way she would relax and let her husband take care of a matter that important. She had to panic. She had to fight!

When revising your novel, I have to recommend taking some extra time to review your character’s relationships. You’ll be surprised at the many new things you find and the impact they have on your story!

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