Hi readers! This post is by the incomparable Jessica Woodard. She, like I, loves fairytale and myth and writes great stories on that topic with a romantic bent. Also, July 31 is the last day to enter for the giveaways on Amazon and Goodreads! Get a piece of that. And enjoy this post!
I should just stop now. I’m never going to top a title like that.
Relationships are hard to write. It’s funny, because in a very real sense all the stories in the world are stories of relationships–with our families, with our partners, with ourselves–they take many shapes. Given that they’re such integral parts of our lives, and given the old adage that you should write what you know (and the possibly implied corollary that that’s the only thing you really can write) one might assume that any one of us could churn out a credible relationship in print.
And yet, in any given story, it is frequently the relationships that are hardest to bring to life. How do you paint in words those moments that cement a childhood friendship, so that it lasts through a future that carries both sorrow and joy? How do you describe the confusing, ecstatic panic of falling in love? How do you sketch two sisters so that you see beneath the banter to the bond, and the knowledge that either would rather die than let the other one down?
Too often, I think, storytellers cheat. They play on our widely-held cultural signifiers, hint at emotional content, and then trust the reader to fill in the rest. It’s a phenomenon I see across genre and across media. We all know these stories:
The thriller where the main character and the sidekick share no real knowledge of each other or their habits when they’re not racing to avert a worldwide apocalyptic event–yet somehow when it’s all over they kiss, realizing they’ve found their soulmate. Deus Ex Bangeration. The hand of god which shoves two people into bed together, and somehow solves everything.
The romance where a spark of chemistry and one or two snarky interchanges leave the heroine willing to die rather than forsake her one true love, aka the man she just met a week ago. Deus Ex Obsessia, in which simply refusing to give up even when it’s odd and a little creepy eventually lands you everything you thought you wanted.
The action comedy in which two people become best friends mainly through an ever escalating series of events in which they annoy the crap out of each other. Deus Ex Siblus Sangrius, where living through an intense event can turn even your most hated enemy into family.
Of course, this only works because we, the audience, just accept it. Because that’s how stories work. Person meets person, hijinks ensue, and with very little further interaction person and other person become friends/partners/lovers/smizmars… whatever. We’ve got a whole culture built around the idea that all you need is intense chemistry (positive or negative, really) and a truly chicken-shit attitude regarding emotions in order to live happily ever after. The culture feeds the stories and the stories feed the culture, until it’s hard to tell which is the egg and which is the unhealthy-relationship-promoting dinosaur in this scenario.
What? Dinosaurs laid eggs. It was a perfectly valid metaphor.
Anyway, as a storyteller myself, I struggle with this. On the one hand, I want my characters to act like they have a modicum of adult sense. On the other hand, I want them to be (at least somewhat) realistic, and regardless of how silly it is, so many of us believe in lightning-strike connection. Perhaps we’ve been taught to behave this way by the stories we consume, or perhaps the stories simply reflect a truly bizarre human habit–I couldn’t say. What I can say is that in writing, as in life, I think the solution is both simple and terrifying. We make things real–we make them honest, and true–through intimacy.
But opening up your character’s head–or, for the more poetic among us, their heart–is like opening yourself up. We write ourselves. Maybe only a facet of ourselves, but if we tell you what they think and feel, then we’re telling you what we think and feel. It’s like doing an emotional strip tease for anyone who decides to read your work. Honestly, it’s no wonder so many of us fall back on Deus Ex Bangeration.
It’s safer. Less scary.
But less real, too. Less worth it. Intimacy leads to connection, and connection is what brings us back for more. In writing, it means we can fully invest in the character, because they become our champions, our avatars in a mythical world whom we follow, anxious to know how these champions fare in their trials.
In life, connection means we get to see where we overlap with those we love–all the wonderful weird ways we delight one another by sharing common ground. We get to see the gaps that can be filled however we want, or left open to allow breathing room. We get to see the specific places where we meet up perfectly, brushing together until they blend seamlessly from one to the next.
This is the story I think we all enjoy reading–the scarier, harder one, naturally, but also the one that is more satisfying than any incarnation of Deus Ex Bangeration.