In Writing About Characters, Are We Neglecting Relationships?

I’ve been thinking lately about how much craft and practice I’ve devoted to characters—their traits, their goals, and their development arcs—compared with how little I’ve ever pre-planned the relationships that tie these characters together. In my experience, fictional relationships seem always to arise organically from a given configuration of characters, setting, and plot, although there’s no reason to expect that this would always have to be the case.

What would happen, I’ve been wondering, if I created a set of relationships first and built the characters afterward? Could I plan a series of relationship arcs first and most importantly, and then build a plot to bring those relationships about? What would such a story look like if I set aside my character profiles and worked instead from a set of relationship profiles?

One result would be that things get complicated quickly. You can see why by drawing character dots and relationship lines to connect them. Two dots can be connected with one line, representing two people connected by a single relationship. But three lines are required to connect three dots, six lines to connect four dots, and ten lines to connect five dots. A story with even just a dozen characters would contain over sixty relationships among them!

Now, consider that each of these relationships is an entity that evolves and changes over time, and plays off of other relationships in the same way that characters play off of other characters. Friendships are strained. Romances blossom. Family dynamics turn this way and that. And each character is defined by multiple roles in an interactive social web that’s larger than the sum of its parts.

If that’s not enough to make your head spin, think of the null relationships, representing strangers. Every pair of characters who pass on the street will have second- or third-level social connections in common. A character on the bus is connected in some way or another with each of other passengers without even knowing it. But once we’ve mapped those connections, we can develop the scene in a more realistic manner.

Relationships exist at a higher level of abstraction. But I suspect that if a writer were able to work effectively at that level, the payoff would be a more emotionally satisfying story. Some authors may already do that, at least subconsciously. But if this were common practice, writing manuals, workshops, and teachers would focus more heavily on relationships rather than just on characters.

Or maybe a relationship-based story would be unwritable or, worse, unreadable. Maybe the better solution is a hybrid approach that sees in each character the effect of numerous relationships, and develops the more important relationships as characters in their own right, born in a first meeting, growing and maturing over time, and possibly dying through neglect or trauma.

If you write, do you focus primarily on characters or on relationships? If you teach writing, do you encourage your students to develop the relationships between their characters? Let me know in the comments!

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Greg R. Fishbone
Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series from Spellbound River Press. He lives in New England with his wife, two young readers, and a pair of stubbornly illiterate cats. His latest project is writing and editing the Mythology in Verse website.