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  • Writer's pictureTessa Barron

Fiction Writing: Shallow Relationships and How to Write Yours Better

Updated: Jan 19

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As much as I enjoy Robert Jackson Bennetts's stories and worldbuilding, one aspect of this latest series, the Founders Trilogy, is lacking. His relationships.

Side note: I do want to mention that I did genuinely enjoy these books. I am critical of certain elements but don't think that even these few things detract from the story so much as to overshadow the good.

After reading book 1, Foundryside, (Amazon affiliate link) I wrote "I Love You Because You're Here," a sentence that sufficiently encapsulated the depth of feeling in the title's central romance. I promised in that post that I would expand on it (or take it all back) after reading the second instalment. Well, it may have taken me a year, but I have finally picked it up and concluded that I was not wrong.

It didn't change my mind, though I didn't find that primary relationship disappointing this time. It was OK. I'm not going to commit any more words to it than that.

However, a new forced-feeling relationship seems to have risen its ugly head. This time between the male character, whom I thought would be the love interest in book one and a new character.

This is less of a relationship and more of a promise of a relationship. I'm going to make a prediction here and say that this "relationship" will be used in book 3 as a means to save the male character from his fate. No more spoilers than that. I wouldn't usually mind that a relationship was preloaded in a previous book. In fact, I recommend it.

It's the way this one was done I have a problem with. Shorefall (Amazon affiliate link) was not used to grow a relationship that will come to fruition in Book 3 (Locklands [Amazon affiliate link], which I have not read yet. It's sitting on my shelf). As in, to show the relationship growing in real-time, rather we are effectively told from the outset that the pair had a past relationship that we did not get to see.

Bennett merely tells us, "Hey! Listen up. There is sexual tension here. It'll be important later, OK?" Even then, all of that is discovered through another character's pov and has no bearing on any decisions made by anyone, let alone the love interests.

Actually, I can't recall the male character, Gregor, thinking about the woman in his POV sections at all.

Again, I could be wrong. Perhaps it turns out they were not in a past relationship, and RBJ will turn the story on its head, and she will be revealed as his long-lost sister or something (which would be even weirder, considering how they were set up). And other readers may totally disagree with me, but since I already wrote on this topic in a previous post, I'm not going to argue my opinion.

Instead, I want to get into how to write interpersonal relationships well so that readers actually care about them when you need them to. How to make them well-developed and satisfying.

For those who have read "I Love You Because You're Here," Steps 1 and 2 will be review, so you can skip to Step 3.

Step 1: Write the relationship into the plot.

A good plot is not just a sequence of random events but interconnected. Plot points need to be cause and effect to make coherent sense. We all know this.

But then why do so many writers fail to connect their character's relationships to the plot? It is not enough that your character has friends, a love interest, or even family members. Those relationships need to be woven into the story. They need to have a purpose beyond just being there.

The people in your character's life need to affect their decisions and must be affected by those decisions. Most importantly, they need to destroy the story if they were to be taken out of it.

Irreparable damage.

If they are not important enough to affect the plot in this way, you guarantee that the reader will not be connected to them either. They will be a waste of time for your character and the reader.

Step 2: Make your protagonist's arc dependent on the relationship.

Taking the last step even further, it is not enough that a protagonist's relationships be integral to the plot, but also their character arc. This is especially true of the love-interest relationship but also holds for many other kinds.

Not every relationship in the protagonist's life can be integral to their arc, that is a little unrealistic for the average word count. But there is always at least one relationship that is up for this task. The parts of your story do not happen in many little vacuums but are connected to each other. The arc is no different.

Just as it should ruin the plot if this relationship were taken out, so too should it make your character's transition from one state of being to another impossible.

Step 3: Show each step of the relationship in real-time

If there is one place in your story where you strictly apply the techniques of Show don't Tell, it should be with developing your character's relationships. The reader needs to be experiencing all the learning and growing about the relationship with the character. Otherwise, they won't be able to feel what your character feels. And that translates to not caring.

There is no worse fate for a writer than readers not caring.

Try not to summarize the essential aspects of your character's relationships. Keep interactions with them in the immediate scene, and you are well on your way.

I have had authors tell me that they don't want to do this. They don't want their fantasy/sci-fi to turn into a romance story because that is not what it is about. Their reasoning is that the relationship becomes TOO important.

Which then begs the question: Why is there a love interest in the book at all?

9 times out of ten, these interactions build to shallow subplots that end in a gratuitous sexual encounter, though there are always exceptions. But, please, if the relationship in your novel isn't significant enough to spend this kind of time on, consider cutting it entirely.

Step 4: Keep emotions genuine, believable, and front and center.

There is no point in writing fiction without emotions, and there is definitely no point in writing a fictional relationship without them. The reasons we interact with each other are almost always emotional.

Yes, we create practical relationships—we do need things from people. We need to include these types of reasons in our books to have motivations that make sense.

But the relationships we develop often have nothing to do with reason and practicality.

The relationships we cherish fulfill not only a physical need (I'm not talking about sex here) but also an emotional need. The relationships in your character's life need to show these emotions to be believable and relatable.

But I should also say that this is one of the problems I had with Bennett's new series. The characters didn't seem to have too much of an emotional connection; when they did, it was told to us rather than shown.

You must show us these emotional connections through acting. Make your characters good actors, and they will never have to resort to telling us what they feel.

Step 5: Use the narrative to help show how your character feels about a relationship.

If you are writing in omniscient POV, maybe skip this one; it's possible to do, but a longer explanation is needed. Check out my post on writing narrators here.

This one should be easy for those writing in 3rd and 1st POVs. Get deeper by making sure descriptions of characters reflect how your POV character views them and not how they should be objectively viewed by the reader.

For instance, if you have a female character who is quite homely, but the POV male character is infatuated with her, he would beautifully describe her. What are the things he sees that give him a different opinion of her? If his view of her changes over time, how does the way he sees her change over time as well?

In The Immortal Serpent (Amazon affiliate link) by K.E. Barron, there is a scene where the love interest of the POV is cleaning in the river. He watches her with embarrassment.

The passage goes:

"Anwarr burst from the river in a different location, whipping her long white hair back and gasping in delight. Rising sunlight illuminated the water droplets as they glided down her bouncing curvature, so slow and smooth, it was as if even the elements reveled in the feel of her skin and refused to let go. She made no attempt to cover her breasts as she stood waist-deep in the water directly in her line of sight. He was invisible to her."

I worked with her on this passage—to use it to show Jeth's feelings for Anwarr without having to say it. The reader understands from the selection that Jeth is thinking about touching her skin, but he doesn't need to say it or think it.

Notice that the descriptions of how the water drips down her skin are not an internal dialogue of his. His "internal dialogue" is integrated into the exposition, narrative action, description—everything.

BONUS STEP: Anticipation.

I spend pretty much all my spare time (which can be a rare thing) animating just for fun. I have been doing this since I was 14 or 15.

A rule in animation says that to make any action believable, an animator must draw the character anticipating it.

For instance, if you throw a ball, your arm goes back before it goes forward. If a character stands up from a seated position, they will brace themselves on it first and lean forward before coming up.

Every action is preceded by an anticipation of the action, usually in the opposite direction.

The same goes for storytelling. And I'm not talking about the action here, but interpersonal relationships, remember? Animators do this to give their characters an impact on the screen (and it looks weird without it, believe me), but it can also give your story more emotional impact.

This works for everything from romantic relationships to death scenes to twist reveals.

So how is it done?

Easy. Make your emotional cornerstones stand out by anticipating them with an opposite emotion. Killing off a character? Add a sweet moment between them and your protagonist before you do it. Are the two love birds finally going to confess their love for each other? Have something happen that makes the reader worry they won't get together after all.

This technique has been used for as long as the story has existed to bring energy to emotionally impactful moments. You can too.

Hopefully, this post was helpful. That is really my goal here.

If it was, consider sharing it with a writer you know, thanks.



Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.