Writing Realistic Relationships
Relationships between characters are at the heart of all stories, and crime novels are no different. In this week's #TuesdayTip, I want to look at how we can write realistic relationships.
First of all, I firmly believe that you can't write a relationship unless you know the people that you are writing about. This is as true of minor, secondary characters, as it is of long-standing, series regulars. So before you start writing a scene, think about who will be taking part.
How two people interact depends on a range of factors.
With that in mind, it's worth considering the types of relationships that occur in real life.
Lovers / Spouses / Exes.
These relationships are so often at the heart of dramatic fiction, and for good reason. In a crime novel, where the aim is to dig below the surface, it's worth spending some time building up the layers for key couples/former couples.
(Note that I make no assumptions about whether these relationships are same sex, opposite sex, or non-gendered. I will be writing a future blog about writing LBGQT+ characters, but the questions below should be true of any relationship).
So ask yourself a few questions:
These are amongst our closest relationships, rivalling even that between lovers and spouses. These people have known us for many years, and we have evolved and aged together. Even in close, loving relationships, there is often emotional baggage that will forever colour how we interact. They know what makes us tick, and what buttons to press. They have often seen a side of you that nobody else has, such as temper trantrums.
How have the relationships evolved? Do the chcaracters 'regress' to childhood patterns of behaviour when they meet up with them? Do old memories and feelings resurface?
Friends are like family - but different.
Think about the people you grew up with - they know all your secrets; including the ones that you kept from your family. They know about your likes and dislikes and what makes you laugh.
Are your characters still in touch, or have they perhaps drifted apart? What happens when they reunite? Again, do they regress?
Then there are new friends.
A new friendship group, perhaps as a result of moving, or going to university, can be an opportunity to reinvent yourself.
Would old acquaintances recognise the 'new' person, if they were a fly on the wall?
Then there are your work colleagues.
We often spend more waking hours in their company than we do friends and family. Sometimes they become best friends, other times they are people we (barely) tolerate. Even the most open and friendly colleague is probably showing you a different face than that seen by their closest loved ones. I am sometimes struck by how a colleague's social media posts often seem to be that of a complete stranger. Doubtless they feel the same way about me.
Is the relationship friendly, antagonistic or neutral? How did they meet? How often do they see each other? How much do they know about your character? Do they know things about the person that might be unexpected (eg something they overheard or saw)?
So, what if all these different people meet?
Weddings are unique occasions when two families and circles of friends meet, often for the first time. I've written before about how people often regress when they meet up with childhood friends. What happens when your character finds themself sitting on a table with people they went to school with, people who shared a flat with them as a student, and the people who know them primarily through work? How will your character deal with that?
In a crime novel, a police officer interviewing acquaintances of a victim or suspect might get different responses depending on who they interview. Who should they believe?
Things to keep in mind
Keep the relationship consistent - but remember, relationships evolve.
This is not a contradiction! For there to be a change in a relationship, there needs to be a catalyst. That catalyst could be something as inevitable as the passage of time, but as a rule if two workmates are warm and friendly one day, then cold the next, then something must have happened. This is the assumption that your readers will make, so take care not to lead them down the garden path by being careless - they won't appreciate it.
Don't forget the importance of relationships between secondary characters.
A couple of lines is all it takes, but it will help round out a character and make them realistic. The touch of a spouse's hand on their partner's shoulder can tell the reader lots about their relationship without ever being explicit.
Two people may have an entirely different view of their relationship.
There are plenty of people sideswiped by the unexpected ending of a relationship that they though was going fine. Or consider that sudden explosion of anger after a few too many at Christmas, when you realise that your constant 'joking' about your sister's weight was actually only funny to you...
Then of course there is jealousy or unrequited feelings.
So how can you write realistic relationships?
Observation is key:
Look at friends and family. Pay attention. Is there a relationship in your life, or someone you know, that matches the one that you are trying to write?
Of course, this comes with a big health warning - think carefully about how comfortable you (or they) will be if it becomes apparent who the character is based on.
For that reason, it may be safer to take note of how relationships are dealt with in books and on TV. Soap operas are pretty much nothing but relationships, but of course the quality and realism varies. Choose wisely! As a reader or viewer, you probably have a gut feeling for what works and what doesn't, so follow those instincts.
So, what are your thoughts about writing relationships? Are there any really good examples that you would recommend?
Feel free to comment below or on social media.
Until next time,
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
Disclosure: I am a member of both the Amazon and Bookshop.org affiliates programs, meaning that I get a small commission everytime a book is purchased using links from my site.