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Fantasy Relationship Building: From Real World to the Page

When I mentioned at the end of my last article that I was looking for some ideas for future columns, our esteemed Overlord suggested that I tackle romantic relationships in fantasy. Never content with confining myself to just one idea, I thought, “hey, why not look at some of the relationships we’ve come to know and love in fantasy and see what’s good and bad and dysfunctional about them?’

Fantasy-EmbraceThus begins my new series: Fantasy Relationship Building.

I think some fantasy authors hesitate to write fully fleshed-out relationships. I know that I’ve read fantasy where I was just not feeling the love (or hate, angst, tolerance, bitterness, etc.) between characters. I think that authors all have their strengths and weaknesses, and when an author is really good at plotting or world-building, it can be easy to let character development (and, consequently, relationship building) slide a bit. Many times, the author ends up telling us how characters feel about each other rather than showing the relationships.

I also think fantasy can easily fall into several traps where relationships are concerned, and I’ll look at each one in turn as we discuss various specific relationships. However, the one overarching relationship trap that I see in fantasy is the “these people are together because they’re supposed to be together” trap. Now, with the exception of a blood relationship, no relationship in a story world should feel forced or convenient. If two people are meant to have some kind of relationship that’s important to the plot, the reader needs to believe there’s a compelling reason for the relationship.

Now, what I’m not saying is that you can’t use coincidences. I think coincidences are a fine plot device, especially in fantasy. And really, in our own lives, we see coincidences all the time, right? But what I am saying is that if you put two people together as friends, lovers, spouses, army buddies, students, whatever, and if those two people need to function together in some fashion to move the plot forward, then we need to believe that their relationship is based on genuine love, affection, admiration, bitterness, annoyance, or even downright loathing. You can’t just put two people together in some way and then have them be instant BFFs the next time we see them together. Show us how they got that way.

So, what are the particular challenges to writing compelling character relationships in fantasy?

• Poor character development. For me, character development is the fun part, and this is my area of strength as an author, I think. I like to get in the characters’ heads and analyze them, find out why they make the choices they make, figure out what they’re afraid of, and on and on. But if characters are a challenge for you, or if you tend to write more plot-driven or setting-driven stories, this is a huge obstacle to overcome when writing compelling relationships.

To write compelling relationships requires that you have a good, deep understanding of the characters involved, and that you translate that understanding to the page in the first place. Character development is a whole other topic that I’d love to tackle one day, but suffice to say for the moment that it goes far beyond physical descriptions and a particular tic or two. You, as the author, need to understand your characters on a far deeper level. Analyze them.

• Plot-driven relationships. Another challenge is one I alluded to above—the need for certain people to be in certain places and have a certain relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s part of plotting, but where it falls apart is often on the relationship end. We get the “instabond” effect where two people are immediately in love or instant best friends or whatever. When you’re building a new relationship in a story, there needs to be some lead-in. Even if you have to skip over a span of time, don’t just return to those characters and tell us that now they are in love. Show us the attraction at first, skip the time, and maybe show us how things have progressed.

• Showing vs. telling. Which leads me to the third big challenge—showing vs. telling. I think this may be the biggest challenge of all, partly because it’s a big writing challenge no matter what part of the story you’re looking at. Showing vs. telling is just something you have to practice. When it comes to relationships—any kind of relationship—showing is especially challenging, because you have to show something that’s intangible. Love, hate, loathing, indifference—they’re all emotions, and emotions manifest themselves in a hundred different ways. The key is to figure out which way your characters’ emotions manifest in the physical world and then SHOW us those manifestations.

• Wish fulfillment. Hey, we all have wishes for our own relationships. We all long for siblings, parents, neighbors, friends, spouses to meet our every need. That’s normal. The problem for authors is that we sometimes forget to separate those wishes and desires from our characters’ wishes and desires. The problem is that your characters don’t feel as authentic. You don’t want them to feel like made-up people to your reader. You want your reader to see your characters are real-life people with real-life problems (even if there’s a dragon bearing down on them). I’m not saying you can’t write healthy relationships—I think you should. I’m just saying don’t write perfect ideals that are really more about your own wishes and desires than about your characters’.

Next time, I’ll look at the romantic relationship in fantasy and discuss what works and what doesn’t. Update: Here it is.

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16 Comments

  1. Avatar Jo Hall says:

    Good article, looking forward to the next one. Are you intending to touch on family relationships in fantasy in this series? That’s one I’d be interested to read…

    • Jo, yes, I intend to do that. I think sometimes fantasy authors overlook family dynamics, and that’s a mistake, I think. I find some of the richest characterization comes from the relationships my characters have with living parents and siblings.

      Glad you liked the article!

  2. Thank you! I printed this to keep with me as a reminder and tips to use.

  3. Avatar AE Marling says:

    Very true. Nothing feels as cheap as an instant relationship*, (*just add plot necessity). Just read a fantasy that involved that, actually. At best, I interpreted the feelings between the two characters as lust and nothing greater. Ultimately, the reader wants time for a bond to grow, through shared hardships, commonalities, and kindnesses given.

    • AE, that’s my hope for my characters. I want them to choose to be together, even if they are “destined.” And then when they are together, I want them to struggle with a lot of the same things we struggle with in our own relationships, you know? Like, how does the loss of a child or a financial hardship impact a marriage, or how does a touchy relationship between parent and child grow into something functional?

      I have a theory that the relationship is a character in itself–that it can grow and develop with time just as the characters involved grow and change.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Avatar D.T. Conklin says:

    Amy, why do I feel like you wrote this for me? :D.

    Yes, the world revolves around me. Haha, it’s a great article; thanks for writing it.

    • LOL. I promise I didn’t have you, specifically, in mind when I wrote it. I PROMISE! 🙂 Actually, I’ve read tons of literature across all genres that suffers from poor relationship-building. Fantasy isn’t the only culprit. 🙂

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  6. Avatar James Kelly says:

    I think the key to writing about anything is having analysed it and examined all the working parts so that you can build a fictional one that isn’t just a carbon copy of the real-world original but something that’s a believable entity in its own right. Unfortunately I think most writers are quite superstitious and perhaps unwilling to examine their own relationships too closely in case doing so somehow breaks the magic that make it work!

    • Oh, that’s an interesting thought, James. I also think that dissatisfaction in real-world relationships can lead to the wish fulfillment type of relationship, while other times, that same dissatisfaction can lead to a thinly disguised psychoanalysis on the page. Really, neither approach comes across as realistic in the story world. Analysis doesn’t break the magic, as you point out. Rather, it makes the magic more believable.

      • Avatar James Kelly says:

        I couldn’t agree more with your dissatisfaction idea. Sometimes you can really tell that the author is transcribing a scenario from their own life and “fixing it” to be how they wished the real thing had been!

  7. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Speaking of instant relationships, has anyone seen the movie THOR? I thought the ‘romance’ between Thor and Natalie Portman to be abrupt, jarring, and frankly unbelievable. It developed way too quickly and my suspension of disbelief walked out of the theatre. I’m not even going to mention the fact that Thor’s Thorness (and the diction he uses) disappears after a single day. Argh.

    • Khaldun, I haven’t seen it, but I think that’s a perfect example of what bugs me in book relationships. I think wherever you begin the relationship in the book (or movie), it should progress naturally from that point.

      Of course, the standard disclaimer of “your mileage may vary” applies. What one person finds too rushed, another person might think is too drawn out.

  8. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Oh. My. God! My favorite subject! I work on characters for months ahead of time. If it is character driven, then they have to be allowed to drive your novel. Every decision they make, based on who they are, will change your plot. You will have to create a world that will have allowed them to come to be as they are. Wrote a short article–nothing so long, which I am looking forward to reading–on mythic scribes. It is the second article down on the home page: http://mythicscribes.com/

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