Human beings are social creatures. We’re made to be with others, meaning, our lives are built on a series of interwoven relationships. Deep or superficial, good or bad, these relationships are incredibly important. They contribute to our feelings about ourselves, influence our decisions and actions, and teach us how to get along with others. As such, they’re formative, and even the most introverted among us can’t live without them.
The same is true for our characters. For us to know them, we need to know the relationships that are important to them, and why.
But when it comes to storytelling, relationships can accomplish so much more. They offer support in the form of allies that the protagonist will need in order to achieve their goal. People within the protagonist’s relationships act as mirrors and foils, providing reflective opportunities that can lead to the internal change that is key to character arc. And every relationship, good and bad, can shore up story structure in the form of natural conflict that can be infused into each scene.
Because of the many ways relationships can be used to enhance a well-told story, Angela and I have decided to make this our next thesaurus topic. We’ll explore a variety of relationships, such as Soulmates, Co-Workers, Rivals, Exes, and Parent and Child, along with the aspects of those relationships that could be tailored to fit a story. Here are a few of the features each entry will cover:
Relationship Dynamics. Some of your character’s relationships will be encouraging and supportive while others are characterized by dysfunction. Many, like the people involved, are a mixed bag. We’ll be brainstorming all the variations to give you ideas on which one might be best for your character and story.
Clashing Personality Traits. Even the most loving and supportive relationships should have some tension. But authors often make the mistake of making the “good” ones too good. And without that tension, they fall flat. A natural way to spice up a boring relationship is to give the players opposing traits, and voilà: instant conflict.
Conflicting Desires. Another way to add sparks is to give the people in the relationship opposing goals and desires. Alice and her parents may have a healthy and positive relationship, but if she wants to go away to a prestigious university while her parents want her to stay nearby (and attend the local state school), sparks are going to fly. Whether you’re looking at a supportive or toxic relationship for your character, conflicting needs and wants not only add conflict but can make your character question their own desires, seeding doubt and insecurity.
Positive Influences and Change. Characters undergoing a change arc will need to be pushed in the right direction. This influence often comes from the people around them: friends, rivals, family members, the doorman in the character’s building—literally any relationship can be used to solicit the change needed to get your protagonist where they need to go. We’ll delve into the various ways each relationship can help in this area.
Themes That Can Be Enhanced. Central story ideas are important for setting your story apart and adding depth, but writing them can be tricky. Relationships can naturally tie into certain themes and provide a subtle vehicle for exploring those ideas. So whether you’ve got a theme in mind or one naturally emerges as you write and you need to flesh it out, we’ll be looking at different relationships and highlighting the themes that can be emphasized with each.
Whatever genre you write, relationships will figure largely into your story. And they should be as complex, compelling, and layered as they are in real life. Our hope is that this thesaurus will encourage you to fine-tune and develop your character’s relationships until they do exactly what you need them to do in your story.
The first entry will be coming your way next Saturday, so stay tuned!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.