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I’ve just finished reading Normal People by Sally Rooney. I absolutely loved it for a variety of reasons, but one thing that really stuck out was her exploration of a relationship between a young man and woman, and its evolution over time. It went a lot deeper than many other books I’ve read recently, and really got me thinking about the art of writing relationships in literature.

Writing relationships – what are the key things?

Why the book worked so well for me was its examination of key themes that often come up in romantic relationships, such as:

-        Lack of balance / power play

-        Communication (or lack thereof)

-        External factors that affect how people interact with one another

It’s important (I think) to keep these things in mind when writing about relationships between people; not just lovers, but parents and children, siblings, neighbours, friends. They give your writing so much more depth and colour.

Keeping the reader’s interest

What is it that keeps people’s interest when it comes to relationships? A basic exploration of two people interacting with each other is unlikely to spark much intrigue. There are so many answers to this question, but here are just a few suggestions:

-        Their history. What’s led the characters to this point? Is there a reason, for example, why Mrs X is so horrible to Mr Y? Did they have a different sort of relationship in the past? And how did Mr Y meet the quiet but fascinating Ms Z?

-        The frisson. Does Mr Y like Ms Z, but can’t possibly make his feelings known? Is this suggested through the unsaid, rather than their dialogue? Is Ms Z sick of how Mr W treats her back home, and is the atmosphere there getting steadily more combustible, in various subtle and alarming ways?

-        The future. Is there a sense of inevitability that Ms Z will throw Mr W out of the house, due to his behaviour? Or can you spin this 180 degrees and completely take the reader by surprise? Do you just know that Mr Y and Ms Z will get together, despite the fact that they really shouldn’t? Or is their relationship doomed to fail?

-        Others around them. Other characters may impede the relationship or support it. What about if Mr W is violent, and attacks Ms Z? What if Miss V, a friend at work, secretly assists Ms Z in her clandestine love affair? What about if Mrs X suddenly gets badly ill, and Mr Y has to look after her? How will this affect things?

That’s quite enough of these random ‘one-letter’ characters, but it gives an idea of how important it is to think of how they all interact, and where it will ultimately lead them all. The reader needs to be given an idea of this very early on, so they keep turning the pages.

But the book isn’t about relationships…

The novel might not necessarily be focused on a single relationship, like Rooney’s Normal People. However, if it’s got characters in it (which I’m presuming it has), then relationships will be a fundamental aspect of it.

Exploring relationships isn’t limited to serious, literary tomes either. In my Dr Ribero series, for example, I like to delve into the dynamic between Kester and his father, who was absent most of his life. There’s resentment there, and some anger too, which is a contrast to the general light-hearted / silly tone!

Drawing from life experience

It’s totally up to you whether you pull your own personal experiences into the equation. To continue with the example above, my own father was absent for a big portion of my younger years, and undoubtedly, that fed into the writing. Certainly, experience can enrich your writing, and make it more authentic.

However, I personally think it’s okay to write about a relationship dynamic that you haven’t experienced. In The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller, I write about a dead man desperately trying to remember details about his wife – and just to clarify, I’ve never experienced being dead. Ha!

Avoid the tropes

And lastly, try not to settle for the standard stereotypes. It’s okay to examine the dynamic between a downtrodden wife and her abusive husband, for example. But don’t make her the classic timid, frightened woman without a mind of her own. And likewise, don’t make him the merciless, anger-filled tyrant. People are much more complicated than this in real life, and it’s vital to reflect that.

To spice things up or not?

Sex and violence are two themes that always seem to run alongside any exploration of a relationship. It’s hardly surprising… humans seem to be fascinated by both these things! I personally think that both have their place in literature, but don’t just chuck them in for the sake of it. Readers are pretty sophisticated these days, and realise when a sex-scene or act of violence has been winched in there to grab their attention, or add shock-value.