Relational Inequalities in Fiction Writing

So today I wanted to talk about relationships.

No, this isn’t just for Romance books. This is about all relationships–your antagonist and his second-in-command, your hero and her best friend, and even the protagonist and the antagonist (chances are, if they’re fighting each other for any length of time, they have a relationship, albeit a bad one).

When people are in relationship, they come in with expectations. Hopes. Goals. They want something from the relationship or they wouldn’t bother having one. They’d just move on. The protagonist could find a new villain to fight by moving to a new city (or find an isolated spot to live where there are no villains–the arctic, anyone?). The villain could kill off the second-in-command. The hero and her best friend could get into a fight, or just stop talking and drift apart.

But one of the biggest, unspoken challenges in a relationship is what happens when different people want different things from the same relationship. The most commonly discussed of these is the age-old “what happens if a girl just wants to be friends and the guy wants a romance, or vice-versa?” but there are other kinds of relational inequalities and they can be just as problematic.

In his splendid book on relationships, C. S. Lewis looks at four loves

  • Affection–a comfortable caring for familiar persons or acquaintances, not because of their qualities, but because they are around.
  • Friendship–the deep interaction between persons who are drawn together, side-by-side, from a common interest.
  • Eros–not just sexual chemistry, but all the exclusiveness of being in love and absorbed with another person.
  • Charity–the love of a person for God.

Most fiction writing will focus on the first three, because unless you have a character who is a true Christ-figure and serves as God-incarnate, the relationship of characters with God can be hard to show (even in Christian fiction, most of it would be internal).

But between affection, friendship, and eros you have a lot to work with.

heart of pins by Wax115

All of us have been in positions of relational inequality. We’ve known people we’d like to be friends with but we just didn’t click. They were content with affection and we wanted more. (And clearly, we can have affection for people we haven’t even met; hence all the Facebook posts when a celebrity dies).

So what happens when your main character wants her mom to love her, as a friend–to be interested in her life, her doings, her choices, but the mom is only fond of her, as her daughter? Or when a friend starts falling in love with you? Or when someone you loved, romantically, slips back into just affection and nothing more? Or, worst of all, when your family, friends, or companions don’t even like you at all?

There are a number of possibilities, in no particular order:

  • Understanding that someone else, someday, may fulfill the post instead. This is probably the healthiest option, but won’t necessarily add drama to the story.
  • Frustration. This leads to being grumpy, dissatisfied, and short-tempered without the character ever facing what’s wrong…at least, not for a good many pages.
  • Repeated attempts to earn the “missing love.” This can lead to a mindset of “If I only do this, maybe X will love me,” when the truth may be that X does love the character…just not the way the character wants.
  • Resignation. This probably would lead to depression and apathy, but it’s an option.
  • Envy.
  • Competition. If you can’t join them, beat ’em…by having closer friends, a better romance, a nicer group of acquaintances. It would lead to some spying on the originally coveted bunch, just to keep tabs, but would certainly add conflict.
  • Revenge. This is undoubtedly the nastiest option, but it’s certainly on the table, whether the character plots the downfall of the one who won’t cooperate (“how dare they not be my friend?”) or goes after the “chosen one” (or ones, as the situation demands–there’s a recipe for a serial killer, going after all the people who wouldn’t be more than an acquaintance. Hmm….)

There’s no way that every character in your story gets exactly what they want, relationally, from everyone around them, so the next time you’re working on a story and things feel a little flat, examine the characters’ relationships. Who are their friends? Who are just affectionate acquaintances? Who do they love, romantically, and where are there relational inequalities? Then, once you find them, look for ways to show these inequalities, and presto…you have drama!

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Wax115, Creative Commons

5 thoughts on “Relational Inequalities in Fiction Writing

  1. Excellent ideas for character building. Another type of relationship inequality to consider is where two friends (or relatives) have an imbalance of power or resources.

    When I was in college most of my friends didn’t have a car. Anytime we wanted to go to town we had to persuade our one car-owning friend to take us. Although he was very generous in shuttling us, we always felt beholden to him in other situations as well.

    –Joel Thimell

    Liked by 1 person

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