Devils, angels, and writing authentic relationships

April 9, 2013 Jessie

Writers are consistently told that their characters need flaws and their plots need conflicts. Yes, yes, and yes. I won’t belabor that point. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about authentic relationships. What exactly is a character flaw? What is a believable conflict?

I love high fantasy. Many typical fantasy conflicts are external: wars, threatened genocides, innate evil trying to take over the world. But if I read a fantasy where those are the only problems the protagonist must tackle, I get bored and annoyed. Because I don’t buy it. My own normal, humdrum real life is peppered with all kinds of conflict. If even pedestrian people experience myriad conflict on a daily basis, why don’t characters in books?

One of the biggest places to mine for conflict is in character relationships. I’ve discovered in real life that two people’s expectations of each other RARELY match up perfectly. I’m talking about every single human relationship here: lovers, friends, teachers, family members, even strangers on a sidewalk. It is extremely rare that, even when informed by the same cultural norms and mores, any two people will have equal expectations of a relationship, however transient.

Let’s have some examples.

  • Ships passing in the night: Recently I went hiking. When I pass other hikers on the trail, I look up and make eye contact and smile, but rarely speak. I like quiet in the forest. I don’t want to disturb anyone. After a few hours of this, the person I was hiking with pointed out that I had poor trail etiquette and it was rude of me not to say hello to passing strangers. I was fascinated by his take on it.
  • BFFs: This one is much trickier. If you’ve been on Facebook in the last couple of years, you’ve likely been inundated with photos of inspirational quotes accompanied by adorable cats. These quotes tend to follow along two basic themes: (1) Love yourself first and be okay with letting go those who create unnecessary drama or hurt in your life, and (2) Support others who need it and be there for your friends and loved ones. But really, that dichotomy is spurious. How do you know if you’re not being a drama-causer in someone else’s life by letting them go? And where is the line drawn between being a good, caring friend and putting others before yourself? This friction is a source for endless character conflict. If I choose to refuse someone access to my heart because I don’t see her as a good friend, then I will be seen as selfish, cold, inaccessible, and not worthy of inclusion by others who witness the quiet dance. This shaky balancing act can sow jealousy and judgment between any two characters. I have been given advice by two different people that seems to be contradictory: (1) Reach out more, be more inclusive, and call to check in on your friends more, and (2) Stop caring so much what your friends think and just enjoy being yourself; if they don’t like you then they don’t deserve you. This is a great source for inner dialogue and tension in fiction.
  • Lovers: This has potential to be the most conflict-rich relationship of them all. Lovers have strong, often non-negotiable, and worst of all, unspoken expectations of each other. There is some secret equation of the exact number of kisses, acts of service, gifts, hours of quality time, hours of alone time, and spoken sweet nothings to make a lover happy. Just look at the number of breakups, divorces, and counseling couples there are around you. And if you think your lover’s equation is exactly the same as your own, THINK AGAIN. This is another excellent source of conflict in writing.

Such a list could go on ad infinitum.

Archetypes don’t work for me as a reader because relationships—and characters—are not so simple. Complex, blended personalities are much better. A common character type is the teacher: the insider who helps inform the protagonist (and thus the reader) about the workings of the book’s fictional world. But even these characters should have some expectations of their relationship with the main character. What do they want out of it? Is the hero living up to those requirements? Is the hero even aware of them?

I want to hear from you. What books have you read that include authentic relationships with believable character flaws and conflicts? What authors don’t do that so well?

1 Comment on “Devils, angels, and writing authentic relationships

  1. Break Up Club by Melissa Senate included a lot of authentic character conflicts…not to spoil it but I liked how some of the relationships in the novel didn't work out at the end.
    And of course, Twilight did the same too. Also Isobel's Wedding by Sheila O'Flanagan. There are many novels out there that do the same, and I agree with you- a good novel should have a good dose of both external and internal conflicts.

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