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: an in-law relationship occurs when a marriage or like-union occurs, bringing two families together. The partners in the relationship join the family of their other half and a bond of respect, tolerance, and (hopefully) love comes about. But while the partners choose one another, their family members “come with the package” so to speak, meaning personality or ideological clashes can often cause friction.
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.
Showing genuine interest in the other’s passions, likes, beliefs, etc.
Engaging in polite conversation
Complimenting the other (on house improvements, a garden, a choice of car, etc.)
Asking about the other’s family members, job, vacations, activities
Pitching in to help when asked (childcare, helping with a move or repair)
Avoiding contentious topics to keep the peace
Offering advice, encouragement, and praise
Asking the other for their opinion or to weigh in with experience
Offering help without expectation or strings
Sharing stories about the loved one in common
Gentle information-gathering about possible changes, or areas of concern
Telling jokes or sharing funny stories
Discussing current events, politics, popular movies, books, or pop culture
Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other family events together
Sharing meals or enjoying an outing together
Talking about kids (if there are any)
Prying into the other’s business
Offering unsolicited or unwelcome advice
Being judged by the in laws and feeling that one doesn’t measure up
Suspecting the other is holding back information (or lying) due to a grudge
Believing the other is trying to drive a wedge between the character and the loved one in common (a husband and wife, a mother and daughter, etc.)
Guilt trips: You never come to visit, Sarah’s other grandparents always get her for Christmas and we never do; Why do you always stay at Bill’s house and never ours when you come to town; If you loved me, you’d invite me along on the trip, etc.
Reminding the other of their mistakes or bringing up a past embarrassment
Snide remarks, haughtiness, talking down to the other, arguments
Pushing or shaming the other to adopt beliefs about religion, politics, or ideology
Forcing other relatives to take sides
Asking for something that’s inappropriate (money, to lie for them, etc.)
Going behind the other’s back and then lying about it
Interfering with how the character raises their kids
Thinking the other’s rules are stupid and so refusing to respect them
Making the other feel small (only begrudgingly offering aid or financial support, etc.)
Making demands and ultimatums: If you want to see your grandchildren ever again…
Ignoring the other’s boundaries
Voicing disappointments to make the other feel bad
Sharing gossip about the other to purposely lower their esteem and cause rifts
Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
A parent who doesn’t like their child’s spouse seeding discord in hopes they break up
Believing the other is a threat, which leads to constant friction
Control issues (over how children are raised, how the other lives, choices that affect family members in common)
The in laws wanting to have a say in everything and the character wishing for autonomy
Disagreements over where to settle down (in laws wanting the couple close when the couple doesn’t share this desire)
Clashing Personality Trait Combinations: Controlling and Independent, judgmental and oversensitive, stingy and generous, proper and rebellious, inflexible and spontaneous, nosy and private, gullible and intelligent
Negative Outcomes of Friction
A tug-of-war over the loved one
Unwelcome family drama that ruins a special event (a wedding, for example)
Refusing to attend family events if the “other” is there
Problems with an in law causing problems in other important family relationships
Developing anxiety and/or struggling with self-worth
Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
When a loved one is in trouble and family members rally
If there’s a crisis and everyone sets aside their differences to help
When an intervention needs to happen (addressing a drug issue, hoarding, etc.)
When the support and love of a child/grandchild is the focus
Discovering something in common that brings the two together (a shared interest or passion, a shared trauma that leads to deeper understanding and respect, etc.)
Showing a unified front when the family is targeted by others
Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Change
The passing of valuable knowledge and insight helping the character navigate a tough situation
Feeling part of a family if this is something they lacked growing up
An opportunity to experience a different type of relationship and grow because of it
Having an opportunity to do things differently (a do-over with a son-in-law when they are estranged from their son, for example)
Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
Alienation, A Quest for Knowledge, Betrayal, Borders, Coming of Age, Death, Disorder, Endings, Family, Friendship, Illness, Instability, Knowledge, Loss, Love, Peace, Perseverance, Pride, Rite of Passage, Sacrifice, Teamwork, Unity
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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Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.