Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 57: Dead-End Relationships

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 57: Dead-End RelationshipsOnce upon a time there were two characters. They got along very well, cared for each other very much, always had good advice for one another, and always, always, always had each other’s back. The End.

Oh yeah, and even though it’s hardly worth mentioning, there was also this subplot character, who once betrayed one of the main characters, even though he loved her and even though he only did it because his conscience demanded he do it.

Main Character #1 (who we’ll say is a tough young woman orphaned in wartime) just happens to be haunted by this minor subplot character, thinks about him all book long, and is constantly talking about him to Main Character #2 (who we’ll say is a crusty old military buddy of her dad’s who has stepped in as a beloved father figure).

But… this is a subplot character, remember? So mostly that’s all they do: talk about him. What’s really important is this nice little relationship between tough orphan girl and her loving mentor.

Or is it?

Seriously, which of these relationships sound more interesting? We could even reverse the romance angle: the girl has a happy romantic relationship with her supportive husband, but she’s haunted by the father figure who betrayed her. Hmm, still looks like that intriguing little subplot relationship is way more interesting than the super-duper, happy-dappy ideal relationship on which this book keeps trying to focus all its attention.

So what does this mean? That your characters should never have healthy relationships? That healthy relationships are never going to be interesting to readers?

Certainly not.

But what it does mean is that if your story is trying to focus on a “dead-end relationship,” you may be missing out on some of your story’s best opportunities for entertaining readers and deepening themes.

What Is a Dead-End Relationship in a Story?

A dead-end relationship is one that doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t evolve over the course of the story. It’s static. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, since not every relationship in a story needs to be dynamic. Most protagonists will require a support system of sorts (like our tough-girl hero and her Generalissimo father figure). These may be mentor or sidekick characters, who offer the protagonist feedback about her problems and advice about how to make forward progress through the plot.

You simply will not have space (either within the exploration of theme or the actual word count) to turn all of these relationships into something deeper. As a result, they will be comparatively shallow relationships. These characters probably won’t be following thematic arcs of their own, and they will exist primarily to provide contrast and direction as the protagonist navigates the choppy waters of more interesting relationships.

And right there, you can see the problem with dead-end relationships in a nutshell: however nice they may be, they’re simply not very interesting.

Why Dead-End Relationships Are Endangering Your Story

Relationships are the heart and soul of fiction. By no small coincidence, this is because relationships are the heart and soul of the human experience. Even for the most introverted among us, our lives are defined, limited, expanded, enriched, and endangered by all the other people bumping in and out of our spheres of existence. Even stories that focus on a protagonist’s relationship with himself are still stories that cannot escape the importance of other people’s influence upon that protagonist.

This means choosing the right relationships for your story is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.

Stories can feature multiple meaningful relationships, each an insightful commentary upon the others, in an ever-deepening web of thematic complexity. However, even the most complex stories will almost always focus on one primary relationship that crystallizes the thematic premise and catalyzes the protagonist’s personal growth.

This is the relationship that defines the story, and it must be chosen with care.

Think about it. Who is the primary relationship character in your work-in-progress? It might be a love interest, a parental figure, a best friend, even an antagonist.

Now consider what would happen if you shifted that focus to a different relationship character. It might make your story worse; it might make your story better; but, for certain, it would completely change your story.

If you inadvertently choose to focus on a dead-end relationship, you will inevitably weaken your entire story—your protagonist’s character arc, the potential of your premise, the purpose of your plot, and the persuasiveness of your theme.

5 Signs a Dead-End Relationship Is Dead-Weighting Your Story

So how do you know when you’ve accidentally bypassed your story’s juiciest options and instead chosen a hapless dead-end relationship? Here are five likely signs.

1. The Main Relationship Is Boring

This isn’t so much the cause, as it is the effect. But it’s the surest sign something has gone amiss somewhere along the line. The very nature of a dead-end relationship—static and without conflict—means it’s never going to do much of interest. It just sits there on the page, as the two main relationship characters perform a lot of purposeless rambling around, while talking a whole lot about a whole lot of nothing.

For Example:

Tough-girl Charlotte Magne was orphaned in the early days of World War II and grew up among the French Resistance, which was headed by her father’s crusty old buddy Beau N. Parte. She loves old Beau like an uncle, and despite his occasional grumpiness of manner, he loves her right back. She pines—against her better judgment—for the apparent traitor Lt. “Le Fou” Yette—and discusses it on a frequent basis with Beau, who does his best to tactfully advise her about what she should do if ever she meets poor Lt. Yette again.

2. The Main Relationship Isn’t Doing Anything

The main reason a dead-end relationship is boring is because it isn’t focused on forward progression within the plot. Because there’s no dynamism within the relationship, it has no forward momentum, no ability to affect the plot in itself, and precious little likelihood of being affected by the plot.

For Example:

Every once in a while, Charlotte and Beau will go out and skirmish with the enemy. He’ll give her a comforting pat on the shoulder. Maybe she’ll even dare to affectionately kiss that shiny bald spot atop his head. They’ll spend a couple scenes wondering together why Lt. Yette could have betrayed them, then a couple more sleeping and eating between skirmishes, then repeat.

3. The Main Relationship Doesn’t Ask a Question

The lack of dynamism in any relationship is usually because it asks no questions. For example, what a dead-end relationship does not do is ask questions such as:

  • Does he love me?
  • Can I trust her?
  • Why won’t he ever talk about his childhood?
  • Why does she always make me so spitting mad?
  • Why does he have to want something different from what I want?

The characters both feel they completely understand and can depend on the other. There are no mysteries here. There’s no need to figure out the other person—which means there’s no goal for either character within the relationship—which means there’s no conflict—which mean, so what?

For Example:

Charlotte understands good old Uncle Beau inside-out, just as he, in his taciturn way, understands her. Not much to think about there. They’re each quite comfortable in the knowledge that whatever may happen in the war, whatever that dastardly Lt. Yette may do next, they never have to worry about letting each other down.

4. The Main Relationship Doesn’t Change

In a dead-end relationship, everything is always great. The characters like each other, get along, and are confident that the relationship will continue to provide for them just as it has always done. They might (if readers are lucky) be working toward a common goal, but the goal, its obstacles, and the resultant conflict are entirely exterior. The relationship between these characters will be no different at the end of the story than it was at the beginning.

For Example:

Charlotte and Beau are a trusty team, fighting successfully alongside each other all book long, until… Lt. Yette shows up and (gasp!) kills Uncle Beau. Charlotte is heartbroken. She holds poor bleeding Beau in her arms while he gasps out, “I love you, my dear,” and then kicks the bucket. So, yeah, the exterior relationship did change, but aside from the fact that Charlotte is now really, really sad (and really, really mad at Lt. Yette), her relationship with Uncle Beau didn’t change a lick from beginning to end. There’s no irony in his dying words, no unfinished business between them to haunt her or inspire her to be a changed person in the aftermath.

5. The Main Relationship Character Is Static

It’s kind of a chicken/egg thing: the main relationship character in a dead-end relationship is static because the relationship is static, and the relationship is static because the character is static. Dead-end relationships are almost always an indication that your minor characters are little more than cardboard cutouts, there to serve the external plot and give your protagonist as yes-man to talk to. That, in turn, is probably a sign your protagonist herself is edging dangerously near to being a too-too precious Mary Sue, who is never challenged in her beliefs or actions by any of the supporting characters or external plot events.

For Example:

Old Beau is the quintessential soldier: gnarled, gruff, rough, tough, blustery, but with a heart of gold under it all. That’s who he was back when he took his old war buddy’s poor orphaned daughter under his wing, and that’s who he’ll be to the day he dies. He brought Charlotte up to be his best soldier, and most of his advice for her these days is gruff praise for her accomplishments and bland admonishments that Lt. Yette never really deserved her anyway. She humbly demurs now and then, but, mostly, she believes him.

5 Questions to Discover the Most Dynamic Relationship in Your Story

By now, I hope you are well and properly scared of featuring a dead-relationship too prominently in your story. But how can you make sure you’ve chosen the most dynamic duo for your story’s main relationship?

Start by answering these five questions.

5 Questions to Find the Rght Relationship Character for Your Story

1. Which Minor Character Do You Like the Most?

Most of the time, the right relationship character will present himself upfront. For me, my initial story ideas are almost always the result of two characters appearing center-stage in my imagination and starting a conversation. But in the event you’re not sure which of your awesome characters to choose, consider which you like the most. Which character will you enjoy spending the most time with? Which relationship dynamic will be the most fun to explore?

But be careful: You might find yourself in love with the idea of the relationship more than the unique and individual character himself. For example, it’s far too easy to write a vapid love interest and believe he’s loverly just because he’s Prince Charming. Good characters are always much more than the role they play.

2. Which Minor Character Is Interesting Enough to Be a Protagonist in Her Own Right?

Whenever you have a minor character so fascinating it’s all you can do to keep her from taking over as protagonist in her own right, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a wonderfully dynamic character on your hands. This is the kind of character who has ideas and goals of her own and will never be content to simply nod and smile for your protagonist’s benefit. This is the kind of character who will create interesting relationships because she’s already interesting in her own right.

3. Which Minor Character Is the Best Contrast/Mirror of Your Protagonist?

Supporting characters exist to deepen your story’s thematic argument. Even at their most individualistic and realistic, they are fundamentally archetypal symbols, representing the different facets of your protagonist’s journey via your theme.

The main relationship character is the most important influence upon your protagonist’s arc, which means you need to choose a character who is either a strong contrast and/or a mirror of who your protagonist was, is, and/or is becoming. When placed face to face with your protagonist, which of your supporting characters will inspire the deepest and most interesting questions about your theme?

4. Which Minor Character Will Create Conflict and Growth?

Do not choose a main relationship character whose chief function is to agree with your protagonist and tell him how wonderful he is. Even if the main relationship is a loving one, it should not be a fundamentally affirming one. You want to choose a relationship character who will create conflict and, as a result, inspire painful but necessary growth in your protagonist—and who, in turn, will probably also experience reciprocal growth as well.

This is relational dynamism. This is the kind of relationship that will not only be interesting in its own right, but which will forcefully and meaningfully impact your external plot.

5. Which Minor Character Is On-Stage the Most?

Finally, you will usually want to choose a relationship character who will be physically present and able to interact with your protagonist for most of the story. The Lt. Yette character from our examples may indeed have been a more interesting character than the well-meaning but flat Uncle Beau, but he never shared the stage with Charlotte until the very end. A relationship that is only talked about can’t drive your story, however interesting it may be in its own right.

***

Avoiding dead-end relationships will help you identify and eliminate countless other potential story killers—not least among them a dull plot, a lack of meaningful conflict, insipid characters, and flat themes. If you can take full advantage of your story’s main relationship, you will be that much closer to taking full advantage of the story itself.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How does your story’s main relationship character make your story (and your protagonist) that much more interesting? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Another thought-provoking posting, thanks again.

    My personal take on this is that it’s possible to prevent a relationship going into a dead-end by giving the minor character their own agenda. For example in my Jane novels Ian is the very strictly professional officer who is the perfect foil for Jane, but secretly he has romantic feelings for her. The black-hat guards only joined up because there was nothing else interesting going on, and have watched too many action movies. Jane offers to help get them sensible jobs in a factory.

    The point is that I try to avoid characters becoming flat by giving them all their own agendas, something that for them is important even though it may have nothing to do with the main plot.

    • Joe Long says:

      That’s what I was thinking. Poor old Uncle Beau is a man after all, and it’s been such a long time, and Charlotte is now such a beautiful young woman – who would never think of him in that way! They have a mission to accomplish, and now she can’t stand be alone with him. She has to make a choice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The moment a minor character becomes a person in their own right, rather than just a tool of the plot, all kinds of good things start to happen.

  2. Talking about the trusted loving relationship that can always be counted on made me think of `Rescuers Down Under’ and poor Bernard with Miss Bianca. In the end we find out that that’s how she sees him -she loves Bernard and knows she can always count on him to come through, BUT she also takes him for granted and flirts with other mice (charming Jake into acting as their guide.) Its a dynamic relationship, even though they start out deeply in love with each other and continue to be in love to the end of the movie where Bernard finally achieves his goal of asking Miss Bianca to marry him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ahh, poor Bernard. I haven’t thought about that movie in a long time! But, yes, good example of how what *could* have been a dead-end relationship between Bianca and Bernard wasn’t allowed to be.

      • I have massive nostalgia for that movie. What I love most is that Miss Bianca doesn’t suddenly see that Bernard is competent and heroic. The big reveal is that she’s ALWAYS seen him that way. It’s Bernard who doesn’t see himself as a match for her.

  3. Ms. Albina says:

    Great Article
    My characters Leilani and Zane are married in Lotus’s book. Lotus and Delphino are just starting their relationship. I am also right now I am doing another novella about Leilani’s great-grandma a mermaid named Pearlei Regina and the creator goddess Maia who lives in a 13 room palace with her messanger goddess Arella. If the character is in a palace then do I need to describe all the rooms or the one room the character is in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Only the room the character is in, and only a few pertinent details to help readers imagine it for themselves.

      • This was something I struggled with in the early days until my coach showed me how to make a few details define the space.

        For example there is a scene where Eva comes to Jane’s cabin on a big spaceship. Jane sits her in the best of the three chairs, next to the big window. Then she gets out a filter coffee machine and fetches water from the bathroom.

        Without describing anything we have shown the reader that the cabin is big enough to have three chairs and an en-suite bathroom. Also the technology is sufficiently advanced to put a really big window in something as difficult to make as a spaceship. In other words it’s pretty luxurious.

        The principle I believe is “the part shall speak for the whole”. Describe enough bits to let the reader fill in the rest.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Okay, Thank you.

        Have you heard of that with the characters Pearlei Regina, daughter of Marina and Jordan Dylan? I mean for my characters.

        Do you do that with your characters?

  4. One of your best articles. This makes or breaks a novel.

  5. Rebecca Hill says:

    Great article, as always! It’s always a relief to see that my outline is ticking a couple of boxes in avoiding mistakes like this – I love exploring the tense and changing relationship of my protagonist and her antagonist through all its stages – enemies, reluctant allies, trusted allies, and so on… They each push each other to change into what the other needs which will also allow them to overcome the major conflict in the story. This article has really inspired me to explore how I can exploit their changing relationship to mirror and highlight the changes needed to ‘win’ overall and to better reflect the deeper themes. I love your blog and your books – they’ve helped me so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cool beans! Great relationships are all about evolution: the relationship forces the characters to evolve, which, in turn, lets the relationship itself evolve.

  6. Great post!

    I’m just wondering what happens in a story if there is no main relationship character. For example, if the main character has the world against them and the obstacles keep mounting and can only be defeated by the ingenuity and bravery of the main character. Granted, that looks more like an action novel rather than a romance, but still. Does there have to be a foil for the main protagonist? Can main interaction be between the main character and their inner thoughts and feelings?

    I’m working on a novel right now that has that kind of dynamic and I’ve written just under half of it. I wonder if I should introduce a new character from the start or just go with the internal deliberations of the main character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although there is certainly the occasional story that is basically just about one character, most stories will be better off allowing the thematic premise to express itself through the protagonist’s relationship to at least the antagonist and probably a main relationship character as well. More here: How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story?

  7. Hey Chief,

    Great article. I totally agree with this. The books I remember most not only have great characters, but dynamic relationships.

    I don’t think anyone wants to write about the Brady bunch, necessarily. Yet even they had conflict! I’m always worried exactly how to pull this off. Guess the only way is to learn by doing it.

    Thanks Kate!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I definitely agree about dynamic relationships–whether they’re romantic, parental, between siblings, friends, or even enemies. That’s where we really start finding out who people are.

  8. Jess Costello says:

    Yet another thought-provoking post! 🙂 And perfect timing, too – I’m quickly approaching the end of the first draft of my WIP, and deepening character relationships that might seem forced or shallow is definitely something I will be working on in my (probably many) revisions. Thank you!

  9. “Relationships are the heart and soul of fiction. By no small coincidence, this is because relationships are the heart and soul of the human experience.”
    Deeply true words those are.

    Perhaps one reason dead-end relationship are so bad in a book is because they’re virtually nonexistent in real life. There are very few people who we don’t have at least some small level of conflict with, especially those we care for most.

    This article brings to mind the current scene I’m at in the last book of Wheel of Time. After presenting a detailed political document, Rand, one of the main main characters (there are a few), finds himself directly opposed by his three … wives … I guess that’s what they are (don’t ask, it’s a long story, literally). It makes for interesting relationships as these three women love him dearly but are often found fighting many of his decisions, usually for his own good.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point about the nonexistence of dead-end relationships in real life. Even the minorest of minor people in our lives is a completely dimensional and very major person in his own life.

  10. When you were talking at the beginning about two main characters just talking about a 3rd character, I thought, what if that 3rd character was already dead? An overbearing parent who had too much influence on their lives, for example, or something that triggered memories of that person. There’s no way to get a relationship going with that person. How do you handle that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key is to make sure that the still-existing relationships are dynamic. Optimally, you want *all* the relationships in your story to breathe with life.

  11. J.M Barlow says:

    Very solid advice here. The supporting cast can be every bit as important as the lead. I try to make the most of my character relationships – similarities that bring them together is a force that is equally opposed by fundamental differences. This includes the antagonist(s) and contagonist too.

    I just looked out my window and it’s started puking snow…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think we might even go so far as to say that a protagonist can only be as good as his supporting cast.

  12. Catherine says:

    A thought-provoking and helpful post, as always.

    I have a quick question: In my current WiP there are three main supporting characters–the heroine’s sister, with whom she has a very challenging relationship, the potential love interest, and a character who initially starts out in an antagonistic role, but shortly after the midpoint he switches sides and becomes her reluctant ally. He is by far the most interesting character next to my MC, and actually has taken over the role of protagonist in book 2 for that reason. He’s the character who winds up talking the MC out of her pit of despair at the 3rd plot point. I hadn’t initially planned on her relationship with him being the main relationship of the story, but after reading this post I’m realizing it probably has to be.

    But where does that leave my other two characters? Both her sister and the potential love interest (let’s call him PLI) have backstories that are connected with the MC’s and have important emotional consequences for her in regards to her arc and the theme. They’re complex in their own right, and play a role at distinct points in the story. For instance, PLA is the catalyst for the beginning of the story, acting as both the hook and the character who pushes her forward toward the first plot point. Her sister, on the other hand, is the character who has been a thorn in her side most of the story but by the end she relents and winds up saving the MCs life at the cost of her own.

    Is it ok that these roles are fulfilled by three different characters? I should probably add that the MC is following a flat arc, so she’s instigating change arcs in these three characters while they in turn test her Truth at various points.

    Goodness, I guess that wasn’t very short.
    But thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Preferably, you want each character in your story to bring some different to the table. All three can be major relationship characters, but they should each be helping/hindering the protagonist in different ways and illustrating different facets of the theme.

  13. This was a very good post about dynamic relationships. I think that if as an author we would allow our characters to live, breathe and be not only a character but their very own entity and take on the old mad scientist role, such as I wonder…….. You know like I wonder what Jody would do if she was caught doing this at this time or if James would be so brave if miss love interest found out about so on and this and that.
    My point is that the more alive and real the characters we work with become to us as the author that much more real and alive they will be to the reader. If they are nothing more than robots that follow our every command rather than a bunch of rebellious little brats that we just can’t seem to figure out than our writing will certainly reflect it.
    There is a Japanese family in which my Main Character in my Sci-fi Work in Progress becomes antiquated with because of some unmitigated circumstances. In this family there is an 8 year old girl named Suzuko who has to Manitra’s dismay formally adopted her as her new big sister. Her former sister died about two years ago. There are a few scenes where she is hiding and spying on Manitra, and one in which she witnesses her awesome martial display which is somewhat of a mix between the force and the bending style from the Avatar cartoon series called Zhan Lyn. Point being is while Manitra sees her as a bother I make sure that Suzuko as well as the reader realize that she is slowly worming her way into her heart. Due to a tragic event in her past Manitra keeps her distance from letting anyone get to close to her but after a scene I’m in the process of getting to the suffering of Suzuko will be a major turning point in how Manitra views Suzuko and it will also help Manitra to come to terms with some serious issues that she has. One of those issues is not realizing that her pursuit of vegenace happens to leave a lot of collateral damage in its wake, which is part of the theme of this story.
    To be honest I’m still figuring out just who Manitra Darshner really is as well as many of my other characters. Sometimes I’m not sure how far Mrs. Darshner will go considering that she is pretty much a loaded gun in almost any situation. One way I keep her under control is by putting her in situations where her awesome martial prowess is the worst option to resort too, like when she is clunking along in a pair of Strappy sandal heels in an emerald green chiffon dress attending a masquerade Gala and being the butt of many jokes as the more affluent behold this poor wretched soul. I didn’t know if she would lose it and obliterate her mockers or tolerate it enough to get the answers she was there for. I’m pleased to say for now she is tolerating things.

    • Sorry everything above is all squished. I edited it in word and didn’t realize that eliminating those double spaces would mash it altogether but thanks for reading it anyhow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one of the reasons I love well-done child characters. They’re so dynamic and offer so many opportunities for helping us think outside the box on story possibilities.

  14. Spot on. No relationship is completely devoid of conflict. For example, my older sister and I are extremely close. We love each other, and I’m sure anyone who looked at our relationship is quite healthy. But do my argue? Oh, yes. Do we make each other spitting mad at times? Absolutely. Do I occasionally look forward to the day when we no longer live together, rather than dreading it? Uh-huh. The issue is not that the protagonist can’t have healthy relationships, but that all their relationships must be realistic- and that means conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would even go so far as to say that the best relationships always have conflict. It’s what keeps them vibrant and growing, as long as the conflict is handled in a healthy way.

  15. Oops… *would say it* is quite healthy.

  16. Wonderful advice. One trap I am trying to avoid is assuming that the relationship between my main character and her love interest is automatically interesting — just because it’s the love interest! Sadly, no. It still needs to have a hook to grab the attention, or a complication, or at least reveal something truthful about human relationships in the particular way it plays out. I’m reminded, to be honest, of hearing people’s sweet stories of “how we met” or “how we got engaged” — tales that are often very touching if you know the people, but not particularly interesting in themselves. In real life sometimes the course of true love does run a bit too smooth to make a good story.

    • Right. I once met this drop-dead gorgeous redhead, got a little too forward, and she felled me with a left hook. Fair enough.

      We’re coming up to our 30th wedding anniversary.

      That’s why my characters’ love lives involve on occasion screaming arguments, firearms, emergency surgery, and falling in the river Trent.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, good for you! That’s a trap I see far too many writers fall into–whether they’re writing full-on romance or just a romantic subplot. Romance, just for the sake of romance, is rarely all that interesting. The love story is, in fact, one of the most archetypal of all stories–which means it’s always about something deeper and more symbolic than just what we’re seeing the surface of two people’s attraction to one another.

  17. Joe Long says:

    I like to categorize each character’s role in the story in the outline process.

    I have the protagonist and antagonist, and other lead characters are the love interest, the sidekick (her brother) and the mentor. Other than the first person narrator, these likely get 80% of the action in the story. The rest is divided up among the recurring and bit characters who don’t need as much depth. I started making a complete list and it’s around 85, but only around 15 are lead, supporting or recurring.

    Digging deeper into the details, there’s more than one love interest. Besides the one he caught, there’s the crush he never connected with and the new girl who come’s along after he’s already committed (plus some others). Each of them has a different type of relationship with the protagonist.

    I did write two mentor characters. The first was guy in the neighborhood who’d been a friend since kindergarten, but he went off to school in the fall. That’s where the protag then hung out with his out of town friend who went to the same college. Despite having similar roles, they have different characteristics and viewpoints. The first is quite blunt, while the second is dating a preacher’s daughter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good approach. I like to use Dramatica’s archetype list (with a few tweaks) to see how my cast is lining up, which, in turn, helps me identify which characters may be repetitious or extraneous.

  18. Sara Baptista says:

    Thank you for this! Dead-End Relationships are so entangled in stories that are a hidden problem. In fact, only if I read the excerpts where the characters interact, only then I notice if the main character questions that relationship.
    Relationships are like stories, in real life we want our lives and relationships to be good and calm, but a novel cannot be that.
    Thank you again, K.M. Weiland for the reminder!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Often, I’ll start a book that does a great job in the beginning, only to peter out because it doesn’t have anywhere for its relationships to go.

  19. Spicy.

  20. This is so good. It also brings up the point of flat minor characters who exist simply to be the love interest of a major character. Something that I’ve done in my own writing, sadly.

    But yes, you almost have to treat relationships in fiction the same way you treat a character or a storyline (give it an arc to grow on) so that it doesn’t appear static. I hadn’t thought of that before, so thanks for another great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a trap most of us fall into from time to time. Usually, it’s a sign we’ve grown too interested in the external trappings of the plot, instead of letting the characters *drive* the plot.

      • Exactly. For me writing is often imagining the characters “on set”, letting them run, and taking dictation.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think of it like being a director. You have your script going in, your sets set up, make-up and costumes and props all ready to go–but you have to be ready to see what your brilliant actors ad-lib.

          • Exactly. However I get occasional outbreaks of character insubordination, especially with Jane. Sometimes she is a much better person than I am, and when I try to give her a chance to do something underhand she yells at me, and tells me to think again.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Hah. It’s fun to write both characters who are better and worse than ourselves.

          • Exactly. Jojo has no morals at all, and can tell you exactly when and why she abandoned them. Writing Jojo when I’m alone in the house with her is really scary. I half expect to be found dead at my desk with a 9mm slug in my heart.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Hah. Well, if you don’t show up for a while, we’ll know what happened. 😉

  21. You always put out amazing content, but this post is something exceptional.

    I’m still learning about good post structure, but this is an amazing example of implementing a lists (a powerful tool) in a non-list post. Do you do this intentionally, or is it an instinct you’ve developed over the years?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I find that the vast majority of authors (myself included) start out with a rough but instinctive understanding of structure. But truly mastering it takes time and practice, as we make our subconscious knowledge into conscious knowledge and then translate it back into a (comparatively) effortless subconscious approach.

Speak Your Mind

*