Storymakers 2015: Meaningful, believable relationships in stories

Here’s another post about lessons from LDStorymakers, this one including my own “light bulb” moment at the conference. On Thursday, my agent emailed me suggesting that the next step in revising my manuscript is to deepen the relationships between the characters. I started thinking about how I would do that and, honestly, not feeling very sure about how to go about it. My very first class on Friday at Storymakers was Sarah Eden’s class on defining relationships, and while the rest of the conference was great, it would have been worth it for me just to go to this one. It was a light bulb moment and gave me the formula I needed to make the relationships in my manuscript do more.

Among other things, Sarah Eden talked about how all deep, realistic relationships are about needs. Characters are in relationships because it fulfills some need for them, but it also might keep them from facing a shortcoming they need to overcome. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Bingley’s friendship fulfills Darcy’s need for someone who tolerates/accepts his social backwardness and Bingley’s need for guidance from someone with a level head. In order to grow, they have to face these shortcomings. Darcy needs to develop his own social skills, and Bingley needs to learn to make his own decisions. As the characters grow and change, their relationship must change as well.

Ms. Eden pointed out that the real, internal change that is the hallmark of realistic characters in a well-developed story must have an external reflection, including in the character’s relationships with others. Some relationships will strengthen and deepen, some will shift (i.e. from friendship or even antagonism to romance, from mentor to friend or enemy), and others will become more distant or dissolve altogether. Some may not change on the surface, but the underlying dynamics will be different (such as in family relationships). The external changes have to be a natural outgrowth of the internal changes, but if they don’t take place, the internal changes seem less real, and the characters and their relationships ring false or shallow.

This way of evaluating relationships has me super excited to get back to work on the relationships in my manuscript. I already know my characters well–their strengths and weaknesses, the “wounds and wants” that motivate their actions–and their relationships do change in the story, but now I have a tool for examining those relationships and their growth. I can ask myself at the beginning of the story what each relationship means to them–what needs it fulfills–and in what ways their relationships are “unhealthy”–providing a crutch for their shortcomings that will have to be removed. I can make sure their relationships reveal more to the reader about who they are. Then, I can make sure the shifts in their relationships by the end of story reflect their internal struggles. Doing so will hopefully help my readers (and my agent 🙂 ) feel like the relationships are deeper and more real.

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