Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.
The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.
Description: There are very few people in this world who don’t have a romantic ex or two (or five?). When it comes to our characters, certain factors will impact the dynamics of this relationship and should be considered. Is the ex a spouse, lover, or boyfriend/girlfriend? How long did the relationship last? Are there shared responsibilities that keep the ex involved in the protagonist’s life? Has the ex moved on, bringing new personalities into the mix that could create issues for the character? Was there abuse, infidelity, or another damaging event that would cause more than the usual bad feelings? Whatever the factors, this relationship will bring with it emotional baggage and inherent conflict, making it a good one for our fictional characters.
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.
Remaining friends after the breakup
Spending holidays or vacations together to maintain stability for the children
Continuing to cohabitate after the breakup (to save money, until a new job or apartment can be found, etc.)
Maintaining a civil relationship because of a shared goal (raising a child, owning a business together, etc.)
Agreeing to make certain important decisions together, such as when a child should get a phone or start dating
Putting on a happy face and hiding the negative emotions that crop up when the ex is present
Ignoring each other when the two people come in contact
Being dependent on the ex (pining after them, responding to every overture of reconciliation, continuing to seek them out for help, becoming obsessed, etc.)
Refusing to be in the same room together
An inability to be together without fighting
Forcing friends and family to choose sides and cut ties with the ex
Using people and circumstances to punish the ex (by seeking custody of the children, withholding alimony payments, etc.)
Running down the ex to friends or children
Actively sabotaging the ex
Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
One person wanting to reconcile while the other is determined to stay apart
Differing desires surrounding a shared goal or asset
One person adopting a live-and-let-live mentality while the other wants to exact revenge
One person still wanting to control the other
One person wanting to reveal the truth about their relationship while the other wants to keep certain things hidden
One’s ex wanting to move far away with the kids
One person harboring feelings for an ex who wants to remarry or date someone else
Both people pursuing the same job, home, seat on a board, etc.
Clashing Personality Trait Combinations:
Apathetic and Passionate, Controlling and Timid, Needy and Independent, Honest and Evasive, Forgetful and Meticulous, Impulsive and Sensible
Negative Outcomes of Friction
A relationship getting so bad that the two can’t be in the same room
Missing out on opportunities because friends have to choose one person over the other (not being invited to a wedding, etc.)
Bitterness, anger, and an inability to forgive making it hard for the character to move on
Reluctance to move into new romantic relationships
Losing the moral high ground—e.g., the breakup may not have been the character’s fault, but the way they respond in the aftermath drops them to the ex’s level
Losing family and friends over the breakup
Children seeing the way their parents fight and modeling those behaviors
Losing something else that’s important (a pet, custody of the children, one’s home, etc.) because the character couldn’t behave civilly
Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
A child’s rebellion or unhealthy coping practices (drug abuse, unsafe sexual practices, self-harming, toxic relationships, etc.) requiring an intervention or rescue
Recognizing that a truce must be negotiated for the sake of the children
A financial difficulty that would be solved by them continuing to live together
A business opportunity that is perfect for both of them as a team
A post-apocalyptic scenario that, for survival to be achieved, requires the teamwork of both parties
Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Growth
The character realizes the part they played in the breakup and take steps to change
With distance and perspective, the character is able to see the ex for who they really are and recognize that the breakup was the right choice
The character learns to control their impulses and desires to maintain a respectful relationship for the benefit of the children
The character’s need for advice and support in the aftermath pushes them to reconcile with an estranged relative or friend
Being freed from a toxic person enables the character to pursue their true dreams and goals
Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
A Fall from Grace, Beginnings, Betrayal, Borders, Depression, Endings, Family, Freedom, Hope, Journeys, Love, Perseverance, Pride, Refuge, Sacrifice, Stagnation, Suffering
Other Relationship Thesaurus entries can be found here.
Need More Descriptive Help?
While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.
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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.
Topaz Rossi says
Excellent article that will really help me with my current WIP
BECCA PUGLISI says
So glad to hear it!