The Quality of Connections

A shifting link between characters marks the most promising relationships in fiction. On the one hand is the dramatic imperative for conflict. If the characters aren’t fighting over something, readers will quickly lose interest. On the other hand is the human need to matter to someone else. Many protagonists are mavericks, but if what they are doing doesn’t affect others, they might as well be battling shadows in a cave.

When you are outlining a novel, or even while a draft is developing, the choice of what type of tension you want determines how much room you will have to expand the relationship. In this post I’ll focus on a romantic connection. Let’s say an office guy and gal are hot for each other from the get-go. In that configuration your basis for development is limited. They should just find an unoccupied conference room and go for it. But how much interest will the reader have in repeat visits to that room? There are only so many interruptions at a frustrating moment you can use before the gambit becomes tired.

The ripping off of clothes is most satisfying after the characters first have had to strip away what’s inside. A woman whose husband has died, for instance, carries a longing for the partner that blocks her ability to become involved with another. She sizes up the different things the new potential partner does in terms of what her beloved did. Certain conflicts may be more heightened than others. If her dead husband used to make her laugh, and the newbie is a serious sort, she’ll be looking for an ironical comment that doesn’t come, and she’ll be disappointed that the newbie didn’t see the humor in the situation. She may keep that negative reaction under wraps at first—why dampen the delightful sensations of attraction for that?—but when eventually she complains to him about it, who is going to change?

This example is only one of a panoply of choices you can make deliberately before Romeo ever meets Juliet. How can you set up the obstacles in such a way that they remain problematic? How can you make them unique—i.e., fresh to the reader? Going one step further, can you draw up a hierarchy of friction points? Then you can knock off the minor ones earlier, saving the real beasts for later.

Exercise: Draw up a list of qualities for both characters with the maxim “It must irritate the partner” uppermost in mind. Now consider what qualities each of them hold most dear. Flirtatiousness, for instance, is something a partner can learn to live with as long as what he holds most dear, faithfulness, is never in doubt. But at what point in the book does he finally have no doubts?

“We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.