Character Relationships

Edmund Leighton

Edmund Leighton


One question that has proven invaluable in our journey with autism is:

"How will this affect the relationship?" 

I find myself asking this question over, and over, and over again. The "this" in question might be anything from implementing a new therapy option, to making a particular change in our daily routine, to insisting on the consumption of vegetable matter at the dinner table.

It's a question, in fact, that lives constantly in the back of my mind, because when the relationship is healthy, when there's a good rapport between my son and me, cooperation happens; progress happens; peace, and love, and joy happen. I can push a little harder, and ask a little more, and wait a little longer--and that's how we move forward.

When the relationship is bad--CHAOS. In capital letters. And it won't go away until the trust is rebuilt and the relationship is fixed.  

This doesn't mean I never lecture my son about eating his vegetables, or unexpectedly reorganize our plans for the day, or insist that he participate in therapeutic activities that push him out of his comfort zone. It just means that I need to balance those kinds of things with positive interactions--a smile, a favorite entree once in a while, watching an episode of Phineas and Ferb with him, or sharing in his triumphant excitement over the defeat of the big boss in his latest video game. And it means sometimes "giving" a little to maintain that balance--maybe on a day full of massive disruptions to the routines that help him feel safe, lima beans are not so critically important. It means that I am constantly taking the temperature of our relationship and making adjustments. And asking the question: 

"How will this affect the relationship?"

I'm finding that this question also comes in handy with creating well-rounded characters in my writing and developing convincing relationships between them. As my characters move through the world of their story, I find myself automatically asking how this choice, or event, or conversation is going to affect the relationships between the characters. Will it build, or destroy trust? Will it deepen affection, or erode it? How much or how little? 

And, as in real life, the answer to the critical question of howthe fictional relationship will be affected is better understood when I ask a follow-up question:


To really understand how a particular choice, or event, or action will affect the relationship between me and my son, I need to understand him as a unique, individual person. I need to know that for this particular person, a hug is not usually a positive experience because of the tactile over-sensitivity that's part of his autism. So offering a hug might affect my relationship with him differently than it would affect my relationship with my very cuddly daughter. It's impossible to really understand the "how" unless you also understand the "because."

The same is true in writing fiction. To really understand how a relationship will be affected by whatever is happening in the story, it is vital to understand the nature and history of each of the characters in the relationship, as well as the nature and history of the relationship itself. The same event will affect different relationships in different ways. To illustrate, let's look at an example in which one person hands another person a piece of fruit. Consider the effects of that simple action in the context of three different relationships: 

Relationship 1: Annie is packing her lunch for school; so far she has a bologna and cheese sandwich, and a packet of potato chips. Her father hands her an apple. 

Relationship 2: Snow White has just finished cleaning the dwarfs' cottage and is resting on a bench in the sunshine just outside the cottage door. An old peddler woman hands her an apple. 

Relationship 3: Adam is relaxing in his garden paradise. Eve hands him an apple.

In each relationship, the act of one person handing another person an apple takes on a different meaning because of who the characters in the relationship are, and because of the history of each relationship--and therefore, the same action will affect each relationship differently. Understanding the personality of each character in your story, and at least a little bit of the backstory that will inform their choices, helps in creating more convincing and consistent dynamics in the relationships. 

In real life, I use these questions--how will this affect the relationship, and why--to maintain a stable, constructive relationship between me and my son. In fiction, though, the goal isn't always to preserve and stabilize the relationships between characters. Sometimes the author's goal is to escalate conflict, increase tension, and throw the characters' world into chaos. As the author, you can choose which direction to push your characters--but only if you understand how each choice would affect the relationships, and why they would have that effect on those particular characters. 

Whether you are pushing your fictional world to a climactic crescendo of chaos, or restoring the balance in the denouement, understanding andshowing the effects of the action of the story on the relationships between the characters helps readers relate to the characters, and draws them further into the story.