An old friend of mine (old, as in I’ve known her since high school, not wrinkly old) told me she was dating a guy we both knew in high school. My first instinct was to gag up my margarita. The guy was a tool bag, someone we hated, someone we loved talking about much we hated.
I considered that my friend may have submitted to a lobotomy at some point post-graduation and this was the reason for her sudden change of heart. Well, okay, thirty-seven years out of high school isn’t exactly sudden, but this guy was I-hate-you-for-life material.
In a word, it didn’t make sense. There was no context in which to understand this relationship without some serious ‘splainin’ from my friend. And this lack of context is something I’ve been seeing of late in the manuscripts that have crossed my desk. Memoirs can be especially vulnerable because it’s hard for an author to step outside of their own skin to adequately describe a relationship they already know like the freckles on their noses.
Regardless of what genre you’re writing, relationships gotta make sense. What characteristics meld these characters together? It’s not enough to say “Babs loves Jessie.” How? Why? It’s not unlike the questions I was asking my friend – after I got over the “ew” factor, that is. I needed details in order to appreciate that this guy had actually moved beyond the Neanderthal-jock-me-speak-in-single-syllables mentality and had morphed into something nearly-human.
The manuscripts I’ve been seeing lately are populated with relationships that have no golden thread. There is nothing discernible that connects them. I’m simply supposed to take the author’s word for it. And guess what? I won’t. If I’m not feelin’ it, I’ll move on.
It’s not just about character development, but relationship development. Just because you took care in developing your characters doesn’t mean there’s some automatic magnet that pulls those characters together. We can’t rummage around in your brain, or in my case scream to my friend, “Are you freaking KIDDING me?” You gotta thread the needle for us.
If a relationship doesn’t make sense, no matter how delicious your characters, then your readers will be less likely to engage in your book. Characters and their relationships are the foundation to your stories – fiction and nonfiction. If we can’t see the how and why to them, then readers will stumble over that disconnect.
Think about the magnetism that brings them together (I’m not talking about animal magnetism, you pervs) and the glue that keeps them together. You don’t want to tell us Annie and Joe are together, you want us to feel it.
As for my friend, she still has some ‘splainin’ to do because “Oh, he’s really grown up since high school,” doesn’t fill in enough blanks for me.