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Writing Real Relationships: 4 Strategies Starting With What You Know

Fleshing out character relationships can turn a good story into a great one. Here, Kris Spisak offers four strategies for writing real relationships between your characters.

Sure, your characters exist next to each other on the page, but crafting relationships that feel real can be a different story. But the goal is to focus on your story, so what’s a writer to do?

(Bring Your Secret Skillsets to the Page)

As with so much in storytelling, you already have the depths inside you to write relationships well. Have you had a family? Friends? Neighbors? Those you didn’t understand or didn’t get along with? Those who you admired?

Excellent. You’re officially ready to capture authenticity, no matter whether you’re writing fact or fiction. The bonds that tie us and that strain us can be complicated, but the key to understanding them (and writing them well) can sometimes be simple.

Here are 4 strategies for writing real relationships:

1. Relationship Depth via Aligned or Opposing Motivations

Ask yourself about a character’s motivations. With the life they’ve led so far, how do they seek to achieve these goals? Do they see someone else as a help, a hindrance, or a bystander? The beginning of a relationship often begins here, but let’s take this a bit closer to your own experience.

Think of a moment of conflict in your life (big or small, in childhood or more recently). Who was involved in this conflict with you? What did you want? What did they want? How did both of your interests work for or against your cause? How could you bring parallel or opposing desires like this onto the page to empower the authenticity of your connections? Remember, battles can create powerful bonds, in life and in literature.

2. Relationship Depth via Your Powerful Moments of Connection

Some writers might think the only way to pull from one’s own life in their work is to capture exact places, characters, or happenings from lived experiences, but your creative possibilities go far beyond your memories. Instead, reconsider transformational relationship events.

Think of a moment in your life where a connection transformed in some way. Perhaps an acquaintance became a true friend. Perhaps a stranger became a love interest. Perhaps a family member opened up like they never had before. Perhaps someone you thought you knew did something that bothered you. How could you use the energy of that memory to inspire a moment on the page with as much depth as the reality? Remember, characters shouldn’t just exist together; their connections should shift and swing as the story unfolds, just as in life.

Writing Real Relationships: 4 Strategies Starting With What You Know

3. Relationship Depth via an Exploration of Your Bonds

What does a relationship look like in its subtleties? Heads leaned together? Hands held? Shared sticker collections? Knowing exactly how one prefers their tea or their guacamole? Do characters speak to each other in a certain way or fall into old habits?

Relationships—whether romantic, companionable, spiritual, or familial—are as unique as the individuals involved, so think of specifics of your own relationships (or those you can easily observe) to capture organic moments on the page.

4. Relationship Depth via Your Own Internal Struggles

Have you ever wanted something desperately but part of you knew it was a terrible idea? Have you ever acted in one way during one stage of your life but been guided by different forces in another era? What if you split your own desires into the motivations of two different characters? You know both sides of the coin well, so why not explore them both fully?

Seizing upon your own internal struggles can make for powerful conflicts your readers will feel because your passions can easily come through. Writing your own truth doesn’t have to be a singular experience. We are complex and multifaceted. Our unique characters can spring to life from precisely these drives.

*****

Characters fall flat when they are only echoes of life, specters of reality, existing but not fully fleshed out. Yet when you mine your own life for authenticity in your writing, true glimmers of genuine relationships emerge. It’s these glimmers of authenticity that allow not only powerful bonds within your story but also powerful bonds your readers will feel with your work. Relationships drive so much in a writer’s life, so isn’t it time to fully embrace them?

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