Character Relationships: Til Death Does Them Part?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how to develop character relationships in writing. I’ve never been a romance writer, and I’ve only read a few romances in my time. I tend to lean more towards science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are always plenty of romantic subplots in sci fi, fantasy, and plenty of other genres. They just aren’t a primary focus, and they haven’t been something I delved into in deep detail in the past.

Like in many other works, my own series, Arcana Revived includes a couple of romantic subplots. The primary one is between the main protagonist, Gabby Palladino, and her love interest, Callia Gainsborough. To avoid spoilers I won’t go into too much detail about their relationship, but suffice to say it’s something that is developed in an ongoing fashion across the first few books I’ve written in the series so far. The more time I spend developing their relationship, the more I have to consider what elements make for a good relationship in fiction.

One thing that comes to mind is that most characters who end up in a romance plot seem to start off single, and their relationship sparks sometime early in the course of the plot. When I think of the various romantic plots I’ve read about, almost none of them involve characters who start off already involved at the beginning of the story. In fantasy series, some of the most prominent that come to mind are Richard and Kahlan from the Sword of Truth series, Rand and Min/Elayne/Aviendha from the Wheel of Time series, Caramon and Tika from the Dragonlance series, and dozens of examples in the Xanth series (many of which include interspecies romances between various fantasy races like humans, centaurs, zombies, dragons, and demons). Each of the examples involve couples that weren’t romantically involved at the beginning of the book, and the majority of them are characters who didn’t even know each other before the story began.

Based on these, and other fictional couples, it seems that part of the appeal to romance stories is developing the initial attraction and building up tension. Indeed, the “Will they or won’t they get together?” question seems to be a common trope that’s also seen across television and movies. It also seems that this tension can be played out across several stages of the relationship, from “Will they or won’t they kiss?” to “Will they or won’t they have sex?” and even “Will they or won’t they break up?” These questions link back to a basic conflict-building technique: give your character a goal, then put obstacles in the way of that goal to keep them from achieving it as long as possible. The first goal might be getting their love interest’s attention, then once they’ve achieved that the next goal may be a kiss, and so on and so forth. The tension and conflict of the relationship can, in such a way, be built up and carried on for quite some time.

The question, then, is how do you know when a romance is complete? The few romance novels I’ve read seem to go through several stages: courtship (developing interest between the characters), buildup of the relationship, a crisis (something that almost ends the relationship), a resolution, and finally an ending that implies there will be a “happily ever after” for the characters.

Is that “happily ever after” really the end, though? Aside from the potential for future conflicts related to marriage, children, and the various troubles that life throws at people, how do you know when the “story” of the relationship ends? It’s a bit of a different question than knowing the ending of the other conflicts I see in various stories. A mystery might end when the murder is solved, an adventure end when the treasure is recovered, a fantasy epic end when the evil wizard is defeated, and so on. A relationship, however, is an ongoing thing; if the relationship is expected to continue “ever after,” then it wouldn’t truly end until “death do us part.”

This thought brings to mind a topic I first read about in the book Radiant by James Alan Gardner. The plot of Radiant involves a character named Youn Suu traveling with another named Festina Ramos, as they try to solve the mystery of a dangerous planet and the alien powers there. In addition to the primary conflict, there is an additional conflict between these two characters based on their backgrounds and viewpoints. Youn Suu is a Buddhist and her viewpoints in the novel are largely inspired by Eastern cultures, while Festina’s viewpoints are more in line with Western cultures.

The difference between Eastern and Western cultures comes up frequently throughout the book, but one particular aspect is relevant to this discussion about character relationships. Gardner (writing in Youn Suu’s voice in first person) describes the difference between Eastern and Western heroes and the way stories are told and how they end (p. 84):

There’s nothing dearer to my people’s hearts than an admired soldier who refuses to break some minor Buddhist precept and, therefore, dies horribly. The more pain and mutilation, the better. In Eastern legends, death is always part of the story. Even if a hero dies peacefully at a ripe old age, you have to include that death as part of the hero’s tale. Many Western champions just vanish into the sunset or “live happily ever after,” as if death passes them by . . . but in the stories I heard growing up, the time and manner of a hero’s death were never glossed over. Often, they were the whole point.

While this concept is described in relation to a character as an individual, it can be applied to a relationship as well. This passage essentially describes the same “happily ever after” idea I mentioned earlier, where the audience assumes that a relationship continues without any serious problems long after the book, movie, or show has ended. If a writer were to apply this Eastern philosophy to a romance story, however, then the story would have to continue until the end of the relationship. This could either mean moving ahead to some time in the future when a couple breaks up or divorces, or following them until one or both of their deaths if the couple remains together until death does them part.

I’m not familiar with any romance novels that follow a relationship to this point, but I’d be curious to see how it would work. There are plenty of ways that a following a couple to their deaths could still lead to a happy ending. The most prominent example that comes to mind is the movie Bicentennial Man, which follows the main character and his wife right up to their death bed. They die on the same day. After spending a life together, there is a certain romanticism about the idea of a couple leaving the world together, so that they won’t have to live without each other.

I’ll be reading a lot more romance novels in the near future, especially since several of my Twitter friends are romance novelists and I’ve started buying their books. I’m curious to see how each of them ends . . . will their romances simply have a happily ever after, or will death do them part?

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14 thoughts on “Character Relationships: Til Death Does Them Part?”

  1. I keep ending my books with them finding their true love and well it not being happily ever after… and I don’t know why I do that to them… because I love happily ever afters… like the one I’ve actually got out right now… most people don’t realize how completely tragic the ending really is… in fact I’ve only had one person note it to any extent… and I kind of feel bad for when my readers get the next one and realize that what seemed like a happily ever after was really devastating and kind of screws up the main character… I find it funny in the ways my characters develop relationships that sometimes throw me off… like my endings… when I start the books out I have such hopes for them… I want them to be happy… but the endings keep taking a drastic turn and BAM… tragedy…

    1. Well if a relationship ends badly, there’s still the chance that the character could find a new romance in the future, isn’t there? I suppose it really depends on what kind of “tragic” ending you’re referring to. But it might depend on whether that devastating ending is seen as something that will never change, or as something that is the ending of one story in order to make room for the beginning of the next stage of the character’s life.

      1. oh I know all that… though this one is more everyone dies and he goes insane… so I don’t really feel right having him fall for someone else… I think I’m going to have to kill him too… which makes me sad cause he’s so adorable… but that’s just how it goes…

  2. Loved this post! I have a special soft spot for introducing a pair with major unresolved tension/unrequited love, having them go through the whole story together, and then…not ending up together. Because life is often like that, and also because I’m a horrible person. It probably won’t win me any readers; ppl seem to want at least a “happily for now” in their stories.

    1. I think the great thing about happily for now is that it’s not necessarily for an entire book or series of books. Characters can fall out of love (without it eeming contrived) and then maybe each of them find someone else. Or not.

      Readers may well surprise you, they could start rooting for one ship but when it doesn’t sail (or it sinks) they may be happy that there is another.

    2. A tragic or bittersweet ending is always another option. But in relation to what i mentioned above, that sort of ending leaves open the possibility that your MC mind find ANOTHER love in the future. Do you, or would you ever, follow the character after the failed romance ends and show the reader whether or not the character ever finds another? Or follow them until their death?

      1. Sure, why not? Readers can get attached to characters.

        Now, maybe you don’t reunite the entire cast of a previous story, but just write a spin-off which follows a particular character. It can be a short tale or the start of a new epic saga.

        The limitation, I think, is not how long you can keep writing stories as a character gets older and goes through life, but how long you can hold the interest of the readers. Certainly, there’s sometimes cause to skip ahead to old age or death e.g. Rodney McKay’s stories and fast-forward in SGA S4E20: The Last Man. In a novel you have a lot of leeway in terms of wordage, but maybe not to write an individual ending for each and every character or pairing.

        I’m against killing off characters, especially if they have a romantic entanglement, but having them pass away from old age or anything that isn’t ‘Rocks fall, Benjamin dies’ is something I could live with, and the reader too.

  3. Well, I like happily ever afters, so I tend to prefer stories that have those types of endings. There is indeed something romantic about a couple growing old and dying together … but if the story is about a new, burgeoning romance, I don’t want to follow it all the way to their deaths. In my opinion, one of the nicest things about a new love is that you don’t know what’s going to happen — will it last their whole lives, or fizzle out after a decade? It’s the hope that keeps the romance alive, thus I like stories that end after the couple has gotten together, so I can hope that they have a happily ever after, even if one of them actually gets hit by a truck the next day.

  4. I think it depends on what the core of the book or series is. Quite often, a romantic relationship can be used as a metaphor for character development – representing how Character A finally learned to open up and be vulnerable or something. This can write the author into a corner if it’s a series as it’s hard to break that couple up without it feeling like a significant step backwards in the development of Character A (or Character B for that matter 😉 )

    I have read a handful of sagas that follow a family over decades, and those tend to have some relationships break down, but in those the relationship is the plot and some other aspect of self actualisation is the core (those I can think of off hand, at least!)

    Great food for thought here, thanks!!

    1. That’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t consciously considered the relationship as a metaphor for character growth or overcoming other obstacles. But now that I think about it I’ve read a lot of books where that was part of the theme or subtext.

  5. I know I commented on this before but recently I was reading this series where the relationship that got started in the first book… which had seemed so amazing and romantic… was starting to sound forced by the 4th book… I hate it when it’s like a writer has written this couple together and won’t just accept that they no longer work… one of my favorite YA series is Trylle Trilogy mostly because it’s like the first one I ever read where the guy she totally falls for in the first book isn’t the guy she ends up with in the last… and it’s just that while there are people who do marry their high school sweet heart… most of us tend to grow and change and because of that relationships change and I wish more authors, especially the YA ones, would just admit that…

    1. I’ve heard about that sort of thing a lot lately. Once the main aspects of the relationship have been explored and the tensions are resolved, there’s not much left of interest. This is why many couples on TV dramas break up after a few seasons. They can’t keep writing the relationship without change, or else things become scale. The relationship either needs to grow and evolve, or else it needs to end.

      1. yeah… I mean when it ends up with them every 5 seconds fighting or being mad at each other it’s time for it to be over… though apparently in this book it was time for him to propose because getting married would fix everything… seriously? and it made worst sense because there was some guy who loved her just the way she was and was perfect but no she has to love the guy who can’t stand how she acts… it really made me mad… this isn’t real life… this is someone writing out these scenes and they don’t see why it doesn’t make sense? so frustrating…

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