If this post didn’t already have a title, I would’ve called it, “The Good, the Bad, and the Really-shouldn’t-have-gone-there”, because relationships can be agonizing and messy just as much as they are amazing and joyful.
Though to clear it up: this post isn’t about the romantic, smooch-and-gush relationships. Well, a little, but not a lot. To ignore them completely is silly considering how much most of us desire them and how deeply they touch us. Rather, this is more about the broader perspective. While I do write romances and incorporate romantic relationships into many of my stories, I’ve found a great deal of inspiration from the world we create with our families, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and – dare I say – enemies. Although more than that, there’s the world we create within ourselves; that which we open up and allow people to enter … if we have the courage.
All The Little Things
When I thought about what to say, a list appeared, revolving around things that affect relationships. In thinking about characters and how they get on, I’m starting to think the thrill is in exploring the things that shape their relationships from the inside-out. It’s no secret I love character-based stories. Admittedly, I can be a cruel author, running characters ragged until they wish to be on the end of a short rope. There’s a lot that can go wrong, right, or the grey spaces in between.
In some ways, part of this goes back to what I learned in grade 7 (or was it 8?) about conflicts: Man versus Man; Man versus Nature; and Man versus Himself. Out of everything I learned that year, those have stuck and I dust them off from time to time. They’re written on my subconscious and long-term memory, coming out in every which-way like loose notes and un-stucked Post-its inside the story folders my subconscious keeps. (It’s a strange world in my head.)
Although in terms of the larger relationship topic, it isn’t always about “versus”. There’s also “with”. Where we are in the larger picture is a mix of both, no different than most things and the principle of yin yang. (Ooh, ah, I’m having a moment!) Whether we’re talking about ourselves or outside of ourselves, there’s a lot going on between the two.
As Depeche Mode Says … People Are People
How characters behave and think and feel when in a relationship with other characters is a key point of characterization. Often, a character will think and act (and speak) differently depending on who else is around.
– Alice LaPlante, “The Making of a Story” (2007)
Let’s spend a moment on our inner worlds. They can be fragile and shatter easily like glass on one day but be hard as titanium the next. Sometimes we love being in that world but sometimes we loathe to hear our own thoughts. With so much complexity shoved into our heads including pathways, neurons, and signals, sometimes it’s a wonder we don’t all lose our minds and have to hard boot daily.
Though these worlds grossly impact everything, including the relationships we have with ourselves and others. So many things affect our inner worlds: forces which allow us to build and thrive, and other forces which bring destruction and just get in the way. Our experiences, personality, biology … all things that shape our inner world and carry onwards into our relationships.
One of my favourite things to explore is personality. I can’t help but try to inject as much personality as I can into a character, whether they’re quirky and fun, or moody and mean, or any combination from the finite list of traits. A lot of this goes back to “writing what you know”: paying attention to all the people you meet and picking out not just the differences, but the similarities. Then, there’s working all of those traits into the conversations and actions between others and watching how person A’s traits work with/against person B’s. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. Especially if someone suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, perhaps the only personality I cannot combat. There’s really no coming back from it and it can epically, horribly, and depressingly mess up relationships (enter personal experiences). What great inspiration for an author, exploring the frustration of such a personality and the havoc it wreaks.
Though I was watching the BBC’s “Sherlock” and thinking about how Sherlock’s personality is a fantastic study in how personality and inner worlds affect our relationships (thanks Arthur Conan Doyle!) His character provides a stark contrast to what we’re used to, provided by Watson. I think it’s brilliant and probably should start recommending the every author spend some time with Sherlock Holmes in his various forms.
Though it isn’t just about personality. There’s also the affects of mental and emotional states. How we’re feeling (depression, elation, stress, freedom, doubt, certainty, shame, pride, and so forth) changes our relationship with everyone – ourselves, others, how we see the world and how we see others in the world (enter paranoia, fear, love, hope … so much there). From a writer’s perspective, it’s a vast ocean and powerful tool, shaping characters and stories, providing impetus for everything that happens.
From the first story I wrote at 6 years old, I remember it was driven by the character need to find what he lost. He was so emotionally affected by loss that he needed to do something. Since then, the emotional thing has stuck around and is where a lot of my stories tend to hit hard. There are a lot of personalities, sure, but the emotional and mental states are where it’s at.
And then there’s a route that I’ve never gone up: the affect of memory loss through amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease (or dementia in general). These strike up a sense of major loss all the way around and the fear that what was will never be recovered. It’s frightening and powerful. Maybe one day I’ll explore this but for now, I find it best expressed in a couple songs that move me to tears pretty much every time: “Dancing” by Elisa, as well as “Come Calling (His Song)” and “Come Calling (Her Song)” by Cowboy Junkies (the two versions of the same song represent the male and female sides of a couple dealing with the impact of Alzheimer’s).
Before I move on, I thought I’d touch on something inspired from an episode of Project Runway (All Stars season, 3×04) I watched recently: bullying, mostly because the judge brushed off the contestant’s story with, “Really? Who hasn’t been bullied?”
I thought it’s something worth mentioning because it speaks to the emotional and mental impact on the people involved – their opinions of themselves and others, as well as the relationships of the bullied with others (mistrust, fear, sorrow, stress, a sense of forcing jealousy…) and themselves (doubt, self-deprecation, misery with being oneself, stress from trying to be someone else and striving to be “perfect” and accepted when there really isn’t any such thing). It changes things, not to mention what happens the other way, affecting the person doing the bullying. Like any relationship, it goes two ways.
And yeah, I’ve been there myself, making it fodder for storytelling. Some of that “write what you know” bit. I was made fun of during my entire stint in elementary school for being too weird and unlike everyone else (maybe “too” imaginative for their liking). In high school, I was harassed for wearing winter boots of all things … because, apparently, it was cool to be a Canadian kid with cold, wet feet making fun of the girl with dry, warm feet thanks to weather-appropriate footwear. What difference did it make to anyone? None, but I was constantly harassed and called “Boots” as if it were a derogatory term whenever I passed by or was in class. It made me feel like crap and added stress on top of the regular adolescent junk.
So where has this gone? It’s being channeled into inspiration for a YA trilogy under one of my other names, throwing a misfit girl together with a popular guy in a world they know nothing about. And I’m sure there will be more of this intertwined among future characters because and every relationship of every tone is fair game – every one has something to show, something to say, and shapes the characters involved. I’m letting my freak flag fly, no different than I did as a kid. I just can’t help myself.
Family and the Family We Choose
This is a big one. Then again, it’s the first type of relationship we encounter (besides our relationship to the natural world … but I digress since I’m feeling the people angle). There’s a lot to be said – and done – with familial relationships. Sometimes families exist in a story and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re the main focus and drive everything; sometimes they’re nothing but a shadow in the heart of a character or a seed of influence motivating them with the quietness of a whisper, even if they don’t realize it. It’s also one of those things in which we can all find inspiration and harness to create real characters and stories. In a way, it connects us all just as much as it makes us unique.
Some families aren’t so good and is a wonderful place to find inspiration, delving into the darkness and letting it out. While our literary friends like Hamlet have their issues, it’s much closer to home. I’ve heard too many stories and seen too many things on a personal level to just ignore. So I let it creep into the written word, and sure, sometimes it’s a matter of dealing with frustration from not being able to fix it. But I’m also a fan of diversity and throwing in all the bits and pieces to create new families is part of storytelling. Crappy families are good for characters, allowing them to grow or wither as the story goes. Personality traits, emotions, self identity, behaviour, decision making … all influenced by family. They’re good for plot, too.
One of my favourite YA novels, Master of Murder by Christopher Pike, involves a broken family. It’s dark. It’s unhappy. But it’s real. Marvin’s mom is an alcoholic. His father is violent and doesn’t live with them any more. Marvin leads a secret life and feels for his kid sister who’s bright and full of sunshine despite the crap. That’s his life and he makes something of it. It’s not the only reason why I love the story but it helps.
But then there other families that are great, in real life, literature, and visual mediums – and they’re just as good for characters, plot, and story. I might be biased, but my family is pretty rockin’ and I could gush about how awesome I think my relatives are. But I’ll just hop to a couple of references instead. One of my favourite depictions of family is in the TV show, Gilmore Girls. The mother-daughter relationships are fantastic and say a lot about choice and influence. But in the literary world, we can thank authors like Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of beloved stories like Anne of Green Gables and The Story Girl), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) for glimpses into families that aren’t so terrible. Their positivity is uplifting and very real for so many readers and writers, alike. And that’s a beautiful thing, the idea that families are good and there for each other, even with the quirks and the fights and the bad decisions. In the end, we all want that. The acceptance. The love. Somewhere we belong, where we’re understood. Somewhere we can be ourselves and that’s okay.
From early on, we learn about these relationships. If it isn’t our need and dependence for our parents to be safe and grow (aka survival), we’re taught by stories. For those of us who grew up reading, watching, or listening to fairytales, we learn early on how messed up some families really are. I mean, a step-mother who’s trying to kill you, parents who abandon you … the list goes on.
But wait, there’s more. There’s the family we choose and the families created out of nowhere. Stories like Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings where something special blossoms from smaller relationships and individuals (also in Terry Brooks‘ Shannara series). Along the way, they discover more about each other and themselves. Or another example from TV: Farscape, where family is created from a group of escaped prisoners over time. Or there’s the Harry Potter series, which has family written all over it. The familial and familial-ish relationships that come out of the shenanigans and fight against Voldemort are fantastic, and not just among the kids. I love what goes on with the adults and how they’re all connected, whether friends or foe. Like the story around Sirius Black, which I find touching and bittersweet.
In any event, this family thing is everywhere and offers a lot to storytellers. As writers, we can’t forget about it.
Just like we can’t totally forget about the romance.
That Thing We Call (Romantic) Love
It’s no use
Mother dear, I
can’t finish my weaving
You may blame Aphrodite
soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy
– Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard in “Sappho” (1986)
Yes, I’m going there. Especially since the last project I worked on was a romantic fantasy (and the reason why I’m behind on this post, ironically). Although the quote is from someone most people wouldn’t know: Sappho, a Greek lyric poet from the isle of Lesbos. I discovered her work in high school and thought it was lovely even though it’s available only in fragments (except for 2 poems, apparently). But there’s beauty in the fragments, a brevity that can make the reader think and glimpse imagery in a matter of, say, four lines:
Afraid of losing you
I ran fluttering
like a little girl
after her mother
There’s more, but I won’t dwell. Let’s just say that Mary Barnard’s book makes me sigh wistfully.
What can I say that we don’t already hear from written word, visual medium, personal conversations, and inside our own head? It’s a main theme in every storytelling medium – but rightfully so. It speaks to the need that we (read: most of us) have to be wanted, desired, known intimately, and cared about by someone. It’s that part of us that always wants/needs to have someone in our corner. And what about that delicious surge of joy we feel when we see a person we love romantically (or persons, not to forget the poly* crowd)? It’s a good feeling, something we crave, even if it is a matter of chemical reactions and balances.
One of my favourite love songs is “Anniversary Song“, again by the Cowboy Junkies, which has some beautiful lines:
Well, I never thought that I would be the one
To admit that the moon and the sun shine
So much more brighter when
Seen through two pair of eyes than
When seen through just one
Have you ever seen a sight as beautiful
As a face in a crowd of people
That lights up just for you?
… yeah, I do. And I’m a sap. That’s equally why I tend to fuse romance into my stories, even when they’re twisted like What Must Be Done (more to come when the anthology is released!). And while it’s an epic fantasy with sword and sorcery, the Blood & Heritage series is full with this love stuff … but I won’t go far into it (“Spoilers!”, as River Song would say). Though I will say that this quote from Marc Chernoff applies rather well to several of the characters:
Let someone love you just the way you are – as flawed as you might be, as unattractive as you sometimes feel, and as unaccomplished as you think you are. To believe that you must hide all the parts of you that are broken, out of fear that someone else is incapable of loving what is less than perfect, is to believe that sunlight is incapable of entering a broken window and illuminating a dark room.
It’s a lovely sentiment, full of hope and more. I love it. Share it, far and wide. I’m sure we all feel this way from time to time. I know my characters do. What can I say … I love the wounded ones.
And maybe that’s part of the inspiration in being an author: taking the broken and mending them, one scene at a time. Because we can.
Wrapping This Up
The dynamic interactions between the Canterbury pilgrims show us literature as part of the texture of everyday life, as moulding and being moulded by human experience, ideas and emotions. The tales represent the imaginative and linguistic frameworks through which human beings make sense of their lives, their place in the cosmos and their relationships with each other.
– Jill Mann, “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer (2005)
Relationships are everywhere and in so many varieties, flavours, sizes, states, colours, and however else something can be classified, labeled, categorized, or otherwise described. They’re integral to stories because no character acts in isolation, not ever. There’s always something acting on them or with them or within them. Friends, family, self, nature, enemies, frenemies, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers … There’s so much potential to explore. So much to run with. So much to say.
As I’m trying to find a way to close this out, I’m reminded of two books. One is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which I still haven’t read but I will. Bit of a brick but it remains fascinating and messed up, going back to the family bit up there ^^^.
The other book is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which I have read. The storytelling is phenomenal and the characters are brilliantly hilarious, including their relationships. My favourite is Major Major Major Major. The guy reaches a (sad) point where he can’t take being in the room with other people and so he jumps out the window. You can always take a meeting with him but he’ll never be there. But that’s just one teensy fraction of the novel. Most of the novel focuses on the main character, Yossarian, and his relationships – especially since he’s convinced someone’s trying to kill him. I recommend everyone read it at least once, especially authors. Just for something completely different.
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