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Monday, April 18, 2011

A Necessary Fluency

A woman tells her husband she's starting a diet, and the next day he brings home two gallons of ice cream and a box of Oreo cookies.

A man calls his daughter and they talk for an hour about how bad his son (her brother) is behaving, things going on at the son's job, and what they think about how the son is raising his kids.

A woman dreads visits from her mother because her mother will look all over the house to find fault with her housekeeping, then spend the rest of the visit giving helpful "advice" about how she's spoiling her new baby. The woman has argued with her mother about that negativity, but the mother then sobs that she's only trying to help and will sulk for a week.

If you're a writer, you're going to encounter all these situations. More to the point, you're going to have to create them from whole cloth.

Therefore, and this may sound obvious, if we don't understand the basics of relationship dynamics, we cannot write realistic fiction. In fiction, character is where the rubber meets the road. And character expresses itself in relationships.

The first instance is something called a push-back reaction. Everyone does it. Why? Because we're comfortable with our loved ones just as they are. And therefore when a loved one makes a change, even a good change such as going back to college or beginning a diet and exercise program, we unconsciously make it harder for them to continue that path because we don't want the relationship to change.

The second instance is called triangulating, where two people have a relationship at the expense of a third. It keeps everyone's feelings carefully tamed but prevents any actual growth, and of course it prevents a genuine relationship between the two conspirators and the person on the third point of the triangle.

The third instance doesn't necessarily have a name, but those two clearly need to have a discussion. The problem is, whenever they fight, they fight in a way that reinforces the negative dynamic rather than addressing the actual problem (that the woman is ready for adult autonomy and her mother doesn't want to let go.)

A writer needs to become fluent in relationships. This isn't optional. The same way a writer needs to learn to manage dialogue, setting, punctuation and complex sentence structure, a writer also needs to become fluent in boundaries, push-back reactions, triangulating, and how to have an effective argument (although a lot of your story will probably have arguments of the ineffective, status-quo-reinforcing kind.)

Read self-help books. Read books about motherless daughters (Hope Edelman), about raising adopted children, about setting boundaries in relationships (Townsend and Cloud). Browse your used book store and pick up What Color Is Your Parachute even if you're not going to look for a job for ten years. Read books about basic psychology (our own Carolyn Kaufman has one of those!) and dealing with sociopaths (Martha Stout).  Read, read, read.

If you're unsure, then start with The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner, which is where the above examples come from. Even if you don't write these specific dynamics, knowing how the human heart operates can only improve your fiction.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the inimitable Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Claude Forthomme said...

Great post and I completely agree with you!

But a question comes to mind: why on earth would ever a writer of fiction get into writing fiction without a sure grasp of characterization, relationships and story archs?

These are at the very heart of any good story and story-telling is what fiction writing is about! Or it is what it should be about, I guess...

Deb Salisbury said...

Brilliant post! It's funny; I can see those relationships in my own life, but didn't think to put them in my fiction. I'll work on that.

Bert Johnston said...

This seems obvious, but it is all too easy to overlook it. Thanks for the prodding. It will make me more observant of relationships and thus feed the well out of which I write.

Jane said...

Claude, I've read too many stories that were written for the "kewl" factor. "Look, it's a story about a ray that nullifies gravity!" "This is a story about how vampires can pop in and out of black holes!" "I wrote a coming of age story about how a guy tries five different kinds of drugs on the same night!"

Stories based on a conceit may well overlook relationships and characterization because the author is so taken with the idea he or she wants to explore. I've seen it in literary-type fiction too, where an author wants to use words beautifully, or wants to expound on a philosophical ideal, but the character's relationships with others are stilted or missing entirely.

Anne Gallagher said...

Thank you for this post. To me writing is ALL about character dynamics, where they come from, why they do what they do, say what they say. What makes that person who they are inside.

You're right. So many books I read have the characters doing and acting a certain way, but without us knowing why. The author doesn't dive deep enough.

catherinemjohnson said...

Dive Deep Enough would make a great title for a craft book about characterization :)