Writing about relationships — whether romantic or not — in fiction is hard, but I think you can make it a little easier if you think about that relationship as a character.
Character development is perhaps the most important step any writer needs to take before embarking on a story. The needs and wants of a character drive plot, create conflict and help readers sympathize with the character and his or her story. A writer has to flesh out those needs and wants with concrete details about the character that convince the reader of their authenticity. If you give your character experiences, emotions and physical attributes that make these needs and wants plausible, the reader will buy into the fiction and care about your story. Why is your character angry? He lost his job. She can’t throw a ball like she could when he was younger. His daughter doesn’t call him as much as she used to. She struggled with learning how to read and it still affects her confidence years later. Characters are driven by these challenges and when you write against these conflicts, your characters come alive.
The same holds true for the relationships that characters form, whether in friendship or romantic love. There has to be something between those people that bonds them together. And that relationship should evolve if it is central to the plot of the story. As the characters change, so too should their relationships.
I recently read “Wormwood is also a Star,” a novella by Andy Stewart that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is an inventive and enjoyable story, part murder mystery and part romance. Although I liked it a lot, something was missing. There is a romantic relationship at the center of the novella that the author hasn’t fleshed out.
The characters are having an illicit affair, and Mitka, the female protagonist, is torn between her passionate love for Vitaly and her sense of obligation to her husband Yuri. This triangle has a lot of things going for it, but one essential piece is missing. I never saw any explanation in the story for why Mitka had fallen in love with Vitaly.
Vitaly has some paranormal attributes that make him intriguing on the surface. But he’s mostly a flat character. In fact, he’s a cipher. He’s a teenage boy who is emotionally unsophisticated and expresses almost no needs or wants throughout the story. He has a wound, in the form of a sister who committed suicide. But we only perceive that tragedy through the eyes of Mitka. Vitaly never really expresses any feelings about this loss throughout the story, except at the end of when he expresses a desire to be reunited with his sister.
The author never presents a moment or a feeling or an experience that explained why these two people were together. Mitka was simply in love with the boy who was more than a decade younger than she was. Perhaps the relationship was about her own pathos. Perhaps Vitaly was meant to be a cipher and so the relationship was meant to be one-sided. Still, the affair rang hollow to me. The passion they had for each other seemed inauthentic. And it kept me from truly buying into the novella.
Overall, Stewart’s novella is a good read, but that flaw in the story’s core relationship held me back because most of Mitka’s actions throughout are driven in part by her love for Vitaly. It’s not the only relationship that drives the story. Her relationships with her father and husband are also pivotal. They are also more well-developed, which makes them work.
In my in-progress novel, I’ve been fleshing out some central relationships between characters. Some are romances. Others are friendships. Still others are mentorships. I find that the more time I spend treating these relationships as characters, the more realistic they are. And as those relationships develop, they drive the plot. One of my characters finds himself torn by loyalties to two different mentors. As I strengthen each of those relationships, the dramatic tension for the character is heightened.
I’m bolstering the portrayal of those relationships with tiny details. A couple lines of dialog here. And kind gesture there. A promise of reward here. A punishment there. These things flesh out the relationships and make them characters in their own right. The relationships develop their own narrative arc. I don’t feel comfortable pushing my plot forward until I’m convinced that all of the relationships intertwined throughout have a firm foundation. If I neglect this step, I’m convinced that my readers will not buy into the story.