Welcome back writers! Yes, we’re back after last week’s Labor Day holiday, and ready to talk about writing. With a rather curious topic that ended up on our list after an online discussion from a writing forum triggered an observation across a number of stories. Today’s topic might be a little odd, but it is one that’s worth investigating because it is one where often writers can go off the rails.
But first, prior Beta Readers watch your inboxes today! The call is going out! Those who have left comments, you will contacted directly shortly thereafter. Starforge is coming closer!
Oh, which does lead to one other bit of news: Previews! And not just chapter previews and excerpts, though there will be those. In the coming months, we’ll be doing some lore dives into the setting after the events of Jungle. For example, we might take a look at a few other colony worlds. Or have a short spot on HL1 skinsuit armor. So look for those in the coming weeks!
Now, with that taken care of, let’s talk about writing. Specifically, today we’re talking about writing characters. I know some of you might have taken the title today as your long-term relationship with writing (and maybe we’ll put that on the list for what’s ahead), but that isn’t what we’ll be covering today.
No, today I want to talk about writing characters in a long-term relationship. As stated above, this topic was inspired by a writing forum I was lurking on, and while I don’t recall the exact conversation that shuttled me in this direction, what resulted was a sitting back and a contemplation on the variety of stories I’ve read over the years that have either built-up or introduced characters in a long-term relationship.
Or rather, the number of stories that don’t sell it. Don’t get me wrong, there are stories I’ve read that do this quite well. But for every story I read that does know how to sell this, I’d have to say I’ve read a counterpart that does not know how to sell this. Where the only way any “long-term” relationship exists in any capacity is in the narration or the characters telling the audience that it does. There’s nothing to show it. The characters themselves don’t even act like it.
So, today we’re going to talk about showing long-term relationships with characters. We’re going to talk about where a lot of these stories go wrong, but also why, and what mistakes the author is making that cause these characters’ stories of love or companionship fall flat. And, naturally, we’re going to talk about how to turn that around, and deliver characters that don’t just say they’re together, but truly sell it. And we’ll even talk a little bit about how you can use this as a narrative tool.
So hit that jump, and let’s talk about long-term relationships.
I think to start off we’ll talk about where a lot of stories go wrong, which I alluded to above. Let’s look at the mistakes made by many young authors, and then look at how we might go about fixing them. Oh, and for clarification, we’re talking about stories currently where characters are presented as already having been in a long-term relationship.
Now, as an aside, this doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship. Which is, unfortunately, one of the first things a lot of writers get wrong these days, in every medium from fanfiction to Hollywood. There are plenty of ways characters can be in long-term relationships that aren’t romantic at all. Working partners, for example, a duo that works really well together and are good friends,, but have zero romantic inclinations (believe it or not, it happens).
These are very real. Friendships are a relationship that isn’t romantic. A work relationship can be the same way. A very common flaw that crops up frequently that is, at least on some level, connected to today’s topic is writers assuming that any long-term relationship must be romantic. This simply isn’t true, and it either shows a lack of awareness on the writer’s part, or an unfamiliarity with real-world relationships.
Aside over, let’s get back on track. So, where do a lot of writers go wrong with a long-term relationship? Well, this may sound odd, but the most common mistake I see is not actually having one while claiming otherwise. Effectively, you have a new, young writer who sits down and says “Okay, I’ve got these two characters and they’ve been together for years.” who then proceeds to have the characters or the narration tell the audience that. Which isn’t bad. It’s tell, but remember that show vs tell is a balance, not one or the other. There’s nothing wrong with a character having some reason to say “Ricardo and I have been working together for seven years. I’ve never had a better partner.” That’s a very solid, straightforward line.
However, this mistake I then see these new writers make is usually one of two. They either A) never do anything else to reference the supposed relationship other than remind the audience of it by stating it at them frequently—IE, “But chief, we’ve worked together for seven years, we’re great!”—or B) only show it by making it be romantic and have both characters demonstrate things in the most bland but predictable fashion possible—IE, “Yes, I know we should be solving a murder, but let’s continue making out in this closet like we just met!” This latter one gets much, much worse too, often as if the young writer in question has grappled onto the idea of “show” a long-term relationship, but only knows of one way to show it, and thereby reduces all the interaction of the two characters to being sex-related.
And look, yes there are relationships out there that are just that. But they’re not the kind of relationships these young writers seem to think. A long-term relationship of just this type is instead often written to show how one-note and disconnected the characters are from one another.
Okay, by now I’m certain many of you are seeing a common thread here with where things go wrong. They’re either telling the audience of their long-term relationship, or they’re showing it via only one hyperfocused angle. An angle that happens to be very easy to write and very forward to the audience.
And that’s where things have gone wrong, because the truest long-term relationships, romantic or otherwise, aren’t reinforced or found in large, showy flourishes. They’re found all over.
Note that I say “all over.” This is true. I’m not discounting the large, showy moments, from a working partnership to a romantic relationship. Plenty of people will show their character by, for example, welcoming a long-time friend in an overly dramatic manner that they know their buddy is okay with. But these big showy moments aren’t the only way people show relationship knowledge between them, and if we neglect that, we will end up presenting a companionship that might feel showy, but lacks substance and subtlety.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s go for one of the most common relationships seen in fiction: The romantic one, with a long-term couple. Long-term romantic couples are extremely popular, so by the same token it should be no shock that many of the poor examples I’ve read of long-term relationships are also regarding relationships of a romantic nature. And these relationships come off as poor because they lack the underpinnings of a real relationship would have. The showy moments might be there, like the ever audience-pleasing make out, or the declarations to others of “how much we love each other.”
But it’s the subtle things, the substance, that’s lacking. Not just the “small romantic moments” like holding a hand or a touch on the shoulder. The things that a long-term pair would know about one another. A basic example would be who wakes up first in the morning. A couple spending a lot of time sharing a bed would know who rises first out of habit. There would very likely be romantic association with that morning ritual, but there’d be the knowledge underpinning it.
It’s little things, subtle things, that I often see so many stories with a long-term relationship forgetting and never showing. Worse, sometimes I’ve seen the opposite, stories in which characters claim that they’ve been in a long-term relationship (romantic) for years, but act otherwise as though they were two strangers, not even knowing basic things about one another.
And yes, this can be done to make characters and audience suspicious that someone is faking their relationship, or hiding something. Perfectly serviceable red flag that something is out of place.
However, I’ve seen a lot of stories play this straight and expect the audience to just go along with a relationship that doesn’t at all appear to have any reality to it.
So how and why does this occur? One of the core reasons behind it I’ve noticed, a theme across these stories, is that the characters can’t know one another because the author doesn’t know them. They themselves haven’t taken the time to dig deeply into what makes their characters tick, what their drives, wants, and habits are. And so because they don’t know it, the characters don’t know it either.
Secondly, they don’t think to develop those aspects of the characters either. Because make no mistake, it’s entirely possible to discover-write two characters in a long-term relationship and make up these small subtleties as you go, building upward into two characters that know one another very well. But young writers often don’t think about the small stuff. They fixate on the large, showy things. The stuff that “tells” the audience there’s a relationship going. And they forget the small details.
Ultimately, this results in character relationships that are bridges without foundations. They may look impressive at first glance, even incredible. But they won’t bear the audience’s weight. Once pressure is put on them—not in story, but externally, through expectation—the lack of foundation will show for what it is, and audience’s belief in the validity of the relationship will crumble.
Okay, we’ve talked about problems. Now let’s talk about solutions! If you’re worried that you’ve crafted characters with this sort of flawed long-term relationship, it’s not over. Editing can do wonders in this regard. But also, moving forward, you can take steps to ensure that the relationship between your characters is more concrete and believable.
First, if you’re going to put two characters into a long-term relationship, consider what kind of relationship it is—for example, perhaps they’re work partners, a different relationship than a romantic one—and then what that means they will know about one another. Not things that people would pick up over a day or two of knowing someone, but months or even years.
Furthermore, take that knowledge, big and small, and factor it into how they work so well together. For example, if you have two private investigators, one of whom has a very weak stomach, the other might carry breath mints and offer one to the other after they’ve vomited. Sort of a “I know my partner” moment.
It can be even more subtle than that, like the two of them automatically deferring to one another for their specialties during an investigation, and then asking one another for anything they missed.
Little things. Interactions. Stuff that shows the audience that these two just aren’t partners in name, but people that have worked together long enough to have a synchronization. An understanding. That they recognize the little things about one another and in turn act on them.
Now, this sort of approach can be applied to two characters that are going to enter a long-term relationship as well. Knowing our characters inside and out is good practice. Showing that the two in question also know one another in that way is exactly how we want to show our readers that two characters are partners that understand one another.
But what about characters that enter a long-term relationship, such as romantic, over the course of the story? Can we use these same concepts to make that feel more grounded and real with our readers?
Of course. The difference will be that said characters will start not understanding or knowing the details of one another, but then learn them as they grow closer. It won’t just be the flashy, easily noticeable stuff. It’ll be the little details.
Now, this is tricky to get right. Often because a relationship like this takes time to develop, so you can’t just dump it on an audience in a chapter or two and expect it to be believable. Presenting a long-term relationship is one thing: There were can show it straight-up and have the audience nod and move along. But developing one takes time, whole books, in fact, and that means doling out those little things and big things in a consistent, believable manner.
However, the same rules of understanding your characters and then putting that understanding into place so that it can be shown applies. The difference is that you’ll need to show your characters learning it or figuring it out (don’t forget false starts) over time, building up that trust and understanding that will be the foundation for their relationship.
I do want to emphasize “time” here. This sort of discovery of someone, even someone we immediately hit it off with, does take some time. If you don’t give that time to the characters or the reader, it’ll come off as rushed.
Additionally, if you’re the type that sees this spiderweb of supportive cabling and thinks “I can write a story where it goes wrong and they fall apart in the end” you are correct. There’s plenty of space in this growing process to send things awry and either rip the characters apart or bring them closer.
At the core of it, to best sell a long-term relationship, be it as a successful relationship, a relationship that will be successful, or a relationship that has been successful for some time and will continue to be, you need to know your characters as well as they know one another. The more they know, the more you need to know so that you can show that understanding. Show that foundation.
If you don’t have that, then you have a relationship that captures the surface elements that can be very attention getting but lack substance without any foundation. Or a relationship that the audience is told exists, but doesn’t demonstrate itself in how the characters act, speak, or behave outside of that constant tell.
Again, you can use that as a narrative tool. I’ve absolutely encountered stories that have done this as a narrative clue that something was amiss with these characters claiming to be long-time partners.
But far too often I’ve encountered stories where there’s none of that show. None of those small, subtle details that real lives and relationships have.
So, if you’re looking to write long-term relationships, know your characters, inside and out, and then show that relationship. Capture the subtle, small details of two people working, being friends, or even lovers for years.
It’s a bit more work, yes. But the payoff is more than worth it.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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