A while back, I wrote an essay called How to Write a Romance
. In the essay, I outlined what I think makes a good romantic story. Whether you agree with my main viewpoints or not, I think the point that everyone can agree upon is this: writing a believable romance is tricky.
Want to know what's even trickier to write well? Relationships. But, I can hear some of you cry, aren't romance and relationships the same thing? The answer, my lovelies, is no. Romance describes the pleasurable feelings one experiences when in love; specifically, emotions over libido is what counts in romance. Relationships are the interpersonal connections that bind people together; a relationship can be shared by relatives, lovers, friends, sex partners, and the list goes on ad infitum.
While romance is written to evoke feelings one would experience when in love, writing about relationships is much more...complicated. Today I'll be focusing on intimate relationships, as I find them to be the hardest to write in a believable context. I'll list a few things I've learned while writing relationships or from relationships I've been in myself. So, let us begin!
You're going to have to ask yourself some very important questions.
There are many, many questions any writer should ask when outlining a relationship between characters. I could literally make a list of hundreds, but I'll stick to a few I find to be the most important.
+Why are these characters together/why are they attracted to one another/why are they in love?
This may seem like a simple question, but it's the core of what makes character relationships believable. You cannot throw two (or more) characters together in a romantic relationship based on a flimsy premise. I can't even begin to list the numerous examples in fiction of characters who simply look at each other and decide it's love at first sight.
Look, I'm not going to sit here and try and debunk love at first sight for the people who believe it; what I am going to say is that it's not enough.
Loving someone is the easiest thing you could ever do. People fall in love more than they fall off a bicycle. However, making a relationship successful is hard work. Some people simply aren't capable of maintaining a lasting relationship; maybe it's too much work when they expected it to be easy or maybe the problems they are presented with are too much for them to handle. This is why it's key to get to know a person, see what makes them tick, and understand if the person in question is really someone with whom you can build a lasting relationship.
Do you think it's any different for characters? No! Characters are people (or anthropomorphic beings) with whom we are supposed to connect. If you can't connect to the characters in a work of fiction in a realistic way, even on such simple terms as how they interact with the people around them, then those characters do not work. They aren't characters at all; they're blank slates, placed there to do nothing but be placeholders for ideas the reader has to come up with on his or her own.
Some people like these "blank slates." They like imagining themselves in those characters' places because the characters in question are such nothings it's easy to slap your own face on them. Personally, these sort of characters depress me. I read to see into a new world, or at least the world I live in as viewed by a different perspective. How am I supposed to do that when the character doesn't have a perspective to share?
So, if you have two characters who are supposed to be individual personalities, then clearly they would need to fall in love just as real people with personalities do. Once they have fallen in love, you need to determine what encourages them to stay together. Do they make each other laugh? Do they share opinions or interests? Do they solve problems well together? Is the sex so mind-blowing they can't imagine being with anyone else? Oh! That reminds me...
+Are the characters sexually compatible?
Let me say, you cannot have a healthy intimate relationship if you are not sexually compatible with your partner(s). People with a working libido who are not asexual need sexual fulfillment for any relationship to be satisfactory. Meaning, if someone's sexual needs are unfulfilled then the relationship will likely not work out; if the relationship does continue, it will be a frustrating mess which will only lead to resentment, feelings of inadequacy, and, in many cases, infidelity.
But, you may say, surely love is the binding force of relationships?
Um...no. Sorry, but no. Don't get me wrong, love is great. Love is necessary. However, love is not superglue. Just because you love someone doesn't mean you can have a relationship with them. Sexual compatibility makes a huge difference in whether a relationship works out or not.
With that said, not every relationship presented in writing needs sex to make the characters' cohesion make sense. There's an interesting paradox that occurs sometimes in writing. It's the ability to make something sexual without being remotely sexy. If you can't write sex well or craft a believable sex scene, don't include one. No, seriously, don't do it; there's no reason for it to be there.
+Does their relationship take precedence over an actual plot/should the story focus only on their relationship?
This is a subjective viewpoint. I mean, a largely subjective viewpoint that many might dispute me on, but I want to say it anyway: I don't think relationships should be the focal point of stories.
Save your rotten vegetables, my lovelies. Let me make a point here. Relationships, as complicated and exhilarating as they may be, do not a good plot make. Preferably, a plot should happen around character relationships. While a plot can certainly be driven by the relationships within the story and even be improved by them, making "will they or won't they" the central conflict in your story could kill the interest of readers.
This is a huge problem for stories with bland characters or straight up unlikable ones. Characters who do nothing but pine after another character are not interesting. Characters whose entire development is hinged upon whether their love interest is in their life or not are not interesting. If I have no interest in your characters, then why should I care whether they get together in the end? Give me something more to hold my interest.
There are a few cases where I think a story can revolve quite well around the relationship between characters: character studies, short introspective works, stories dealing with psychological problems, or stories that cover what problems in a relationship can do to people are such examples.
+Do the characters solve their conflicts in a healthy way?
Want to know a great way to stop conflict? Have a healthy discussion about your problems so all parties involved can meet a resolution which works for everyone. Sounds like Geneva, right? Well, actually, it's how to maintain a healthy relationship. Communication is key for any relationship to work.
It may sound like I'm stating the obvious, but if you can't talk to someone about what's bothering you then chances are you're in for a long, painful haul. Because as nice it would be if someone could just know what's the matter and know precisely what to do to make it better, no one is psychic. Telling someone what you want or what you need is the best way to actually get those things. Staying silent will only add to your own resentment and, very likely, the frustration of your partner.
Fights happen. While these are all painful events to experience, the pain will pass and the fights themselves can reveal the real source of a problem.
Harsh words, name-calling, emotional manipulation or physical violence are not good ways to win a fight. The truth is, I don't think anyone really wins when it comes to fights in relationships. The only way to really 'win' is to use frequent and healthy communication.
+Are your characters in an unhealthy relationship? And, if they are, do you make it clear that's the point?
Is it even worth mentioning anymore how Edward Cullen and Bella Swan's relationship
meets every criteria needed to meet the National Domestic Violence hotline's definition of an abusive couple? Well, I guess I just did. Let me repeat myself: their relationships meets every single criteria on that list.
Go ahead and read all of those criteria for yourself and then ask - are my characters in a relationship like this? Because if your characters' relationship meets even one of those criteria then it's considered abusive.
Now, let me ask you something else: is this precisely what you intended? If so, good for you! Portraying an abusive relationship in fiction in a negative light is a good thing. What's even better is a realistic portrayal of this sort of abuse, as it may help many people out there who are trapped unknowingly in such an abusive relationship discover they shouldn't have to stand for it.
Abusers are not mustache-twirling villains. They certainly aren't the cartoonish evil-doers found in Lifetime movies (oh, and they aren't always male, either, Lifetime). Often times, abusers never raise a hand to their victims; they use emotional and sexual manipulation to control another person. Remember that abusers are people, too; the only thing is, they have huge character flaws.
+Do you understand how to write the 'unconventional'?
So, this is an issue I tend to notice in LGBT works. While I'm still perplexed at how the world seems to view LGBT relationships as 'unconventional', considering they occur in nature and have existed since...the dawn of everything, I am even more perplexed at how certain people write an LGBT relationship as: Oh, see, they're gay - so they gay and they gay while they gay about gay.
Gay characters are not magic pixies who bring wonderment and unconventionality to every story. They do more than be gay, you know. Writing a gay relationship as being any different from a heterosexual one is silly. The thing is, people aren't all that different at their core. Yes, individuality certainly has an impact on how people interact, but the standard truths of relationships remain the same. What is different about a gay relationship, if anything, is how people outside the relationship react and how the characters react to them.
The same goes for other 'unconventional' relationships. Polyamory, polygamy, relationships involving asexuals or demisexuals, relationships between people with a huge age difference, and so on are not all that different from what is considered the norm.
Yes, we are all different and we all have relationships differently, but in the end how we love one another is astoundingly similar. Remember that when you are writing about the 'unconventional' and try not to be quite so focused on the fact they are 'unconventional.'
+Do your characters wind up together for no other reason than to give the story a 'happy' ending?
What I'm about to say might be a little controversial.
Relationships, more often than not, do not work out. Shocking, right?
People are complicated creatures. Our emotions and how we handle those emotions can create more turbulence than any one relationship can weather. Sometimes you try as hard as you can and things still don't work out the way you planned, but you want to know something even more shocking?
It's okay if a relationship fails. No one should ever think they're a failure if they've been in a failed relationship. No, really. Relationships are hard, if I haven't stated that enough. Trying to ignore the problems in a relationship to keep it going only ends badly for everyone and, if you've gone through every solution to no avail, it's better to end things before it gets ugly.
Just because a relationship has ended doesn't make it any less significant. Relationships shape who we are as people. They do not define us, but they can make self-realization a lot easier. Every relationship counts for something, even the ones that end.
So, if you end a relationship, either in real life or in fiction, take from it that you or your characters have grown as people and can use the lessons learned from said relationship in the future.
Happy endings are a nice idea. Reading about them in story books or watching romantic comedies is a nice way to get that happy ending fix. Me? I like reading about the relationships that didn't work out. Those relationships are the ones that really show who we are and are definitely the ones that change us the most. Characters who have never experienced that kind of heartbreak are the ingenues, the kind of character whose growth is an arduous process to slug through.
Don't force your characters into the standard happy ending if it's clear the relationship isn't working. It's entirely possible for your character to 'get the girl/boy' and still not have the standard happy ending. For a good example, watch The Graduate. That end scene between the characters in the bus could have been a typical Hollywood-style ending, where the hero of the story whisks his dream girl away and the music swells as the sun sets. Instead, the scene is filled with doubt and, perhaps worse than doubt, regret.
There are an infinite number of ways to give your story a satisfactory ending without it needing to be indulgent. As with real life, character relationships should all have different endings. There should always be that question of 'Will this work out for us or will it end someday?' Because that's exciting. That question leaves you breathless and a little scared; it keeps you up at night because it makes you think about the future.
Never be afraid to leave your readers with that feeling of exhilaration.
The moral of this story, my lovelies, is that believable relationships are hard things to write well. However, when they are written well, they can be deep, meaningful, and life-changing looks into the world your characters are living.
Love & Peace!