Why the love? Give your characters a reason to want each other

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.

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The Red Wedding still hurts! Why?

I finally watched the Game of Throne episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” and even though I knew what was coming it was still painful to see it happen again. I’ve read A Storm of Swords three times, so I was prepared for what was to come. I’d seen this horror before in my mind’s eye. But watching it play out on the screen was a surprisingly emotional experience. I think this is interesting, because I was never particularly emotionally attached to the characters who suffered the most during the Red Wedding. So why should it be such an emotional experience to read or watch it unfold? I think it has to do with George R.R. Martin’s genius.

SPOILERS FOLLOW!

First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Red Wedding is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga. Major characters die, the balance of power in the ongoing struggle for Westeros shifts tremendously. The King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are murdered, as are many Stark and Tully bannermen and soldiers. It’s a disaster.

When I first red that chapter ten years ago, I was shattered. But why? I was never particularly attached to Catelyn Stark, who had been a primary “point of view” character in the first three books. She hated one of my favorite characters (Jon Snow). She undermined her son’s authority by freeing Jaime Lannister. She sparked a war by kidnapping Tyrion Lannister. Cat and I weren’t close.

And Robb? Readers of the books know that Robb is a much more distant character than he was in the show. Martin never writes from his point of view. When he goes off to war, falls in love, and gets married, there are no point of view characters with him. Martin always maintains a narrative distance between Robb and his readers. We are much more emotionally attached to characters like Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, and even Bran Stark, despite that silly, three-eyed crow business. And everyone loves Tyrion, But I never loved Robb and I never loved Catelyn. So why did it hurt so much when they died?

Here are the reasons:

  1. The Red Wedding is a major violation of the cultural norms that Martin created in his world.  Martin’s world building is fantastic. His readers are well-versed in the laws of hospitality and honor in Westeros. Before Walder Frey and his co-conspirators murdered the Starks, he offered them guest rights. This is the formal act of offering bread and salt to your guests. If they accept it, then you are both bound by the old gods and the new to do no harm to each other. Frey violates that sacred right when he kills Catelyn and Robb and so many others (Umbers, Mormonts, Mallisters, etc.)
  2. The fall of Stark also boosts the Lannisters. Martin has done a wonderful job of crafting a villainous family in the form of the Lannisters. Even though readers love Tyrion from the outset and grow to like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand and learns humility, we still hate House Lannister. Cersei is a witch. Tywin is jerk. And Joffrey. Ugh! Joffrey. Worst. King. Ever.  Robb and Catelyn’s deaths seem to let the Lannisters off the hook for cuckolding King Robert, murdering Ned Stark and everything else. The Starks won’t be able to take their revenge, which we’ve been craving for thousands of pages. Now, someone else might come along and teach them a lesson (If you’ve read all the books, don’t spoil it for the TV-only folks. We know something is coming). Still, we wanted to see Joffrey and his kin answer to Robb for their crimes. Now it isn’t going to happen.
  3. We don’t love Robb, but we do love House Stark. We care about House Stark and what it stands for. We love Arya. We grow to like Sansa as she gets over being a brat. We love Bran. We love the wolves! These characters are complex. They have flaws, but they are also fundamentally interesting and sympathetic. And we want to see things turn out well for them. We want them to get home to Winterfell safe and sound. The best hope for that was Robb Stark. He was winning the war, until he screwed up and broke off his betrothal to House Frey (cursed be that name). When Robb dies, our hope for a happy ending for the Starks dies, too. The north is shattered. Bran is the next in line and he’s paralyzed. In the medieval world of Westeros, a pre-teen boy who can’t walk won’t be able to lead. Rickon is a toddler. Jon Snow is a bastard. Our hope to see some measure of peace for this family is gone.  Martin has chosen his key characters and we readers have invested emotionally in them. We love Robb Stark’s kin, but we don’t love him. But we hoped Robb would redeem and protect his house and restore order in this world. Alas, it will fall to someone else to fulfill that. Dany Targaryen and her dragons are still on the loose, so… we’ll see.

Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love.  But Martin knew that Robb wasn’t the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed. The order that Robb was supposed to restore was thrown even deeper into chaos. Readers like me were hooked forever. I will never give up on these books until I see someone set things right in Westeros. Let’s hope Martin’s endgame gets us there.