Establishing Relationships

Whether we’re writing new relationships or long-term ones we need to establish and develop them. Each relationship has its own jokes, shorthand, and history and we need to show this through what characters say and do. This is further complicated by the fact that characters in large friendship groups will interact with different friends in different ways. A popular example with be the three friends where Friend One is in love with Friend Two who’s obvious, while Friend Three is the confidant for both of them. This dynamic appears in early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the dynamic of Willow, Xander and Buffy; however, in this instance as the characters evolve this dynamic completely changes and Willow and Xander realise they love each other but not are not in love.

To do this we can use telling such as a character saying, ‘this is my friend’ or a character or the narrator telling a story about the friendship. Whatever a writer’s opinion of telling it’s likely they will use these methods at some point; we sometimes need to be direct because showing some elements can take us too far from the story. For instance, we might have two characters discussing a memory of a wedding which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot but shows us how long they’d known each other and what their friendship is like. Yes, I used the word show there in relation to telling. Why? Because although these two characters are telling us about this event by discussing it they are showing us their friendship; what they remember of each other, laughing at shared jokes, rolling their eyes at the foolish things they did and so on. We could show the wedding in flashback and have a few pages revealing these elements of their relationship or we can show the same in a few lines of banter. This is why it’s not always as simple as saying we’re showing or we’re telling.

Problems can arise when we use telling. Shall we separate out this type and call it direct telling? When the narrator just tells us what happens in the narrative; for example, this happened then that happened. We could have the narrator say ‘they had a lot of fun at this wedding, got drunk, danced together and fell over’. This isn’t unreasonable, we can do it, the problem appears when direct telling tells us something but we don’t show the characters interacting in a way that says they might do that. We don’t have to show them getting drunk, dancing and falling over, nor do we have to make them a character that we might assume would do that. We need to show a relationship where we could, for instance, believe Character A could persuade Character B to get so drunk that when they danced the fell over.

We do this by showing the way they interact together is different from the way they interact with others. It’s unlikely these best friends will have the same conversations they will with other characters. Rude jokes would be a conspicuous example; people edit what they say based on who they’re speaking to, if they don’t know how what they say will be received they’re less likely to make a joke about the shape of a piece of fruit. Two friends who know the boundaries of their relationship might giggle over the shape of a piece of fruit, sometimes without even saying anything because they both know they’re thinking it.

Similarly to friends are more likely to touch each other, such as a pat on the shoulder to say ‘good joke’. Alternatively if Character A knows Character B doesn’t like to be touched they’re less likely to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, if they persist in doing something they know makes their friend uncomfortable this tells us something else about the relationship.

Here is where direct telling’s problem can become an advantage. We can tell the reader that these two characters are friends and then contradict this by showing how they behave with each other. For example, one character doing something that they know makes another character uncomfortable says they’re obviously not a good friend: are they going to redeem themselves or are they going to prove to have been false all along?

It’s important to remember when we’re creating these relationships we have to show and not only tell the reader the relationship of these characters because it will make them more vivid in the reader’s imagination.


Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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