Sometimes there are relationships in novels that just feel flat, and try as you might you just can’t get them to come alive. The characters themselves might be interesting, but when they get together somehow things just don’t feel like they pop.
I’m here to help.
Much like with individual characters, the key to spicing up relationships is bound up motivation and conflict. Here are some tips.
Give the characters different motivations
Two characters moving in lockstep don’t tend to be very interesting. It’s much more interesting to watch two characters grapple with different visions for the future and different plans, even if they’re allied on a quest or feel romantically toward each other.
Even two characters who have the same goal (saving the galaxy, say) might have different reasons for pursuing it. One might want glory, one might want fortune, one might want to restore peace and quiet.
Always know what your characters want! And no two characters should have precisely the same underlying motivations. Make sure these differences come to the surface.
Make the characters more active
It’s not enough for characters to just have a motivation, they need to be actively going after that thing. If one or both characters in a relationship are passive, the relationship itself is inevitably going to feel lifeless.
A great relationship in a novel starts with two characters who aren’t afraid to go after the things that motivate them.
If your characters are both going after the things they want they almost can’t help but have an interesting relationship because those differing underlying motivations will result in interesting conflict.
Put obstacles in their way
Too many romantic relationships I read progress in a very neat and orderly progression from first attraction to passionate love.
The best way to show two characters falling in love isn’t to beat the reader over the head with their immediate and easy passion. Instead, throw a whole bunch of obstacles in their way! False starts, misunderstandings, temptations, the outside world interfering… it can be anything, just don’t make it easy.
When characters have to move heaven and earth to be together and make sacrifices, it feels much more earned than a perfectly straight line from first attraction to wedding bells. Characters who have to work for it demonstrate their attraction to each other through their actions and it’s far more palpable.
Show the contrast in their values
When you think of some of the most interesting duos in literature, often they are two characters who have very different ways of moving through the world.
Much as with great villains, a contrast in values will bring interesting dynamics out of both characters. The relationship puts their worldview to the test.
If a relationship lacks some jazz, think about how you can give the characters different worldviews that come into conflict.
Always end scenes in a different place than they began
By far the most common and problematic issue I see with relationships in novels is when there are two characters who always have basically the same interactions over the course of the novel. They may have a fun relationship and crack some fantastic jokes, but if their essential dynamic doesn’t change from the beginning to the end, it’s going to feel static and not that interesting.
Every single scene between two major characters should end with their relationship in a slightly different place than it was in the scene before. Ideally this will be a series of ups and downs with increasing intensity over the course of the novel.
Always, always think about how you can introduce conflicts and resolutions that deepen over the course of the novel.
Do you have any advice for spicing up relationships in novels? Let me know in the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Nordic summer’s evening by Richard Bergh