Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the twelfth chapter, “People Are Only as Interesting as Their Relationships.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful
People Are Only as Interesting as Their Relationships
I don’t write characters. I write relationships.
When I realized this, a lot of stuff started to fall into place for me, and I started to find my groove as a fiction writer. These days, I always ask myself “what’s the main relationship, or set of relationships, in this story?” and I try to build as much story as possible around either a few relationships, or just one. I can track one character’s arc, and show how they change from the first sentence of the story to the last—but I have way more fun tracking the twists and turns that a relationship goes through.
Part of this is because I think of stories as collections of scenes, and I get a lot of mileage out of writing interesting moments where people interact. I love writing a good conversation. Not to mention all the moments where a relationship shifts, or people realize that the dynamic between them has arrived at a new place. But also, relationships are the most emotionally charged thing you can write. You can only write so many scenes where someone changes how they relate to the concept of Duty, or Honor, or to their job—abstract concepts and plot devices don’t talk back, and don’t have their own perspective.
We’ve all been force-fed the myth of the Loner, or the rugged individual, and I have plenty of love for stories of a single individual lost in the ruins, à la the first half of I Am Legend. I spent most of my childhood as a total social outcast, wandering around the outer fringes of the playground making up random stories about superheroes and monsters in my head—so I definitely used to identify as a chronic “loner.” But I’ve found out the hard way that we’re all nothing without community, without friendships, without love. And during those times when our entire nation is turning into one big human centipede, we all need each other more than ever. We need our families (chosen or otherwise) and our loved ones and boon companions to support us and remind us of who we are, in the face of all the lies the world tries to tell us about ourselves.
And we need enough books about the power of human connection to build a tower that reaches to the edge of the thermosphere. We need stories about characters building rapport, and learning to see outside themselves, and finding their people, and saving each other. I want to feel the complexities and challenges—and, yeah, the horrible aspects too—of human relationships. Most of us feel isolated and separated from each other, even when we’re not doing social distancing, so I crave a story that speaks to the ways that we are all connected—even if, inevitably, fictional characters will misunderstand and betray everyone in their lives. A good summary of a lot of my favorite stories is: “Two or more people learn to see each other more clearly.”
Relationships are what I show up for, as a writer and as a reader. Anybody who’s ever read, or written, fan-fiction will know that romances and intense friendships (and frenemy-ships) are what we’re all here for.
When I was starting out as a writer, I read an interview where someone asked Iris Murdoch why she always wrote stories about romantic relationships. There was a definite note of condescension in the way the interviewer asked this question, as if Murdoch was wasting her talents writing glorified romance novels—or maybe, as if a lady novelist couldn’t hope to tackle weightier topics, such as war. Or business, maybe. Murdoch responded that love is all there is, that it’s the most important thing in the world, and the biggest topic for fiction. This made a huge impression on me, and the longer I carry on in the writing racket, the more I feel like it’s true: there’s no topic as important as love, though I’d include friendship and fellowship as types of love that are worth obsessing over.
Or if you want a more science-fictional reference, the original Star Trek didn’t become a great TV show until Gene L. Coon started deepening the camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
How to find a great love (or friendship) story
I often ask myself “what’s the central relationship of this story, and how can I build around it?” Sometimes there’s more than one relationship at the center of a story—especially when it comes to novels, which might have more than one protagonist or location. Sometimes, a character might have workplace relationships as well as extracurricular ones, and you have to track all of them.
But as a general rule of thumb, I try to pick the smallest number of relationships possible to focus on, and then build those out until they start taking on a life of their own. Relationships are like any other element of storytelling: the more of them you have in the story, the harder it is to give each one of them the space it deserves. Often as not, I’ll pick one relationship to serve as the spine of the story, especially for shorter stuff.
How do you figure out which relationship to focus on in a story? And once you’ve found the pairing(s) you want to highlight, how do you strengthen their dynamic and figure out why it might not be working? The answer to both questions is the same. You do for fictional relationships the same thing you do for real ones: 1) look for chemistry, 2) spend lots of time together, and 3) try and infuse every interaction with meaning.
Chemistry is obviously a “know it when you see it” thing—Tinder and OKCupid wouldn’t be raking in nearly as much cash if it were easy to find romantic chemistry in real life. But I get curious about a relationship for the same reasons I get curious about a single character: if there is a detail, or some piece of unfinished business, or a question in my head about a particular pairing, then I want to see more of those two people interacting. But also, the best relationship to focus on is usually the one that brings out something unexpected in one or both characters. If you find yourself writing a moment where you see a side to a character you’ve never seen before, or you say to yourself, “Wow, I didn’t know they felt that way,” then that’s a good sign that these two fictional creations need to spend a lot more time together.
But what if two characters ought to have a lot to say to each other in theory, but in practice their scenes are dull? Could be that there’s just no chemistry there, and your protagonist needs to get out there and start seeing other people. Or maybe there’s something wrong with one or both characters: like, maybe one character is too much of a doormat, or lets everybody else get away with too much. Or alternatively, if all these characters do together is fight, that could get really old. Sometimes you just haven’t found what these two have to talk about. Maybe you convinced yourself that someone was a very three-dimensional creation, when in fact they need a lot more development.
It’s always worth asking, How does this relationship help either or both characters? What do they get from each other that they can’t get elsewhere? Do they have a choice about being together—and if they do, why do they keep hanging out?
And as for “spending more time together“… I’m a big fan of just throwing two characters together and seeing what happens, but sometimes I need to put some thought into crafting moments, or reasons, for them to be together. Giving a duo a problem that they have to team up to solve can lead to some fun interactions, and so can creating a situation where they want opposite things and have to work it out. One of the best uses for plot devices is just giving characters unfinished business, or something that they want from each other.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trapping two people down a well and forcing them to talk things out. (In fiction, I mean. Don’t go doing that in the real world, because the neighborhood association might object.)
My favorite pairings, hands down, are the ones where every interaction feels meaningful—like, it advances the themes or ideas of the story, or speaks to something the characters are struggling with. Think Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, Jane and Katherine in Dread Nation, or Catra and She-Ra in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
The spikiest interactions often come from characters who are on the opposite sides of an argument (especially if both sides might have some merit). I’ve obviously gotten a lot of mileage out of this, writing a story about two clairvoyants who see the future in different ways, and a romantic friendship between a witch and a mad scientist. Any time I can give people a philosophical disagreement, or two contrasting worldviews, I get excited about watching them hash it out. Especially if their interactions are emotionally charged, and if they actually like each other.
And those last two parts are important. Nobody wants to read hundreds of pages of a Socratic dialogue between two characters who represent Progress Versus Tradition or whatever. (Okay, I might read that book. But I’m in the minority, I’m guessing.) The scenes where people hash out their disagreements should be as much about feelings as anything else, and we need to feel the characters’ reactions. Plus in real life, people seldom hold Debates using parliamentary rules. People talk around and beside what’s really bugging them, and maybe only let slip their real issues in the middle of ranting about five other things. And meanwhile, I find it exhausting to spend time with people who just don’t enjoy each other at all. Even if two characters ostensibly hate each other’s guts, and even if you’ve trapped them down a well, we need to glimpse the “fr-” part of “frenemy,” or it’s just going to be a giant bummer.
Conflict and affection: the two magnetic forces that push characters apart and then drag them together again.
Strong people dote on their friends and loved ones
I feel like writers often over-emphasize the “conflict” part of storytelling over the “caring” part. There’s a reason why Becky Chambers’ space opera novels felt like such a huge breath of fresh air: because she chose to show people caring about and nurturing their crewmates. I already ranted about the surplus of “grimdark” storytelling in recent years, but in addition to all the maiming and sexual assault, we’ve also sat through lots of characters tearing each other down endlessly. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say in recent years that they crave “chosen family” and kindness in storytelling, which is why I’m currently mainlining The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix.
In a world that’s basically a cheap mockbuster version of an apocalyptic dystopia, we all want to be strong. We want to be survivors. But you know what strong people do? They take care of their friends and loved ones, and they look out for people who need more help and support.
Human connection. It’s the whole fucking ball game.
And this is one reason I’ve taken special care to show in my fiction that men can be caring, especially cishet white men. Men can be nurturing. Men can be self-effacing and kind and vulnerable. My favorite romance novel of the past few years is An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, in large part because Malcolm is never a flaming superdick, even in the interests of ramping up the intensity of the conflict. As long as our books (and movies and TV shows) only show men being total bastards, real-life dudes will continue to take away the message that bad behavior is a normal part of being a man. And let’s kick the smartest man in the room out of the room.
On a similar note, I am here for more positive depictions of sexuality, that foreground consent and mutual respect. When people hook up, I like to see them negotiate and learn more about each other, and also use safer-sex supplies. And even when people aren’t actually hooking up, if they’re just flirting or dancing or joking around, their sexual tension doesn’t have to be creepy, and nobody needs to act like a predator. In my upcoming young-adult novel Victories Greater Than Death, nobody touches anybody else without asking for permission—except during a fight scene, natch. The same way that I care about characters who care about each other, I am ride-or-die for protagonists who aren’t creeps (unless being a creep is the point of their character, natch). There are lots and lots of ways to bring intensity and sparks to a moment—see above, re: characters not agreeing on everything—without anyone needing to groom anyone else, or act like a slime.
Relationships are also a chance to feature LGBTQ+ peeps, and to show queer romances that don’t end in tragedy for tragedy’s sake. They’re an opportunity to celebrate different body types, including fat and disabled bodies, without any shaming or negativity.
And finally, friendships can be romantic. Friendships can be as intense and beautiful as any love affair. (One of my pile of unpublished novels is about three people who are in a “platonic love triangle” where they love each other, without any sexual or romantic component.) I am here for friends who break up, misunderstand each other, betray each other, realize they can’t live without each other, tearfully reunite and team up to save each other, and then do the whole thing all over again. When we talk about relationships, it’s easy to default to thinking about partners and sexual/romantic liaisons, but friendship is life.
Regardless, any great relationship has twists and turns, heart and substance, blood and spit and tears. Anyone can write a plot twist, but showing how a relationship changes and grows is the most beautiful thing a story can do, and the best medicine during a bad moment in history.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.