Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 57: Dead-End Relationships
Once 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?
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 allof 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 mustbe 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.
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 DoingAnything
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 ideaof 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.