Columns > Published on February 5th, 2020

Are Functional Relationships Ever Interesting In Fiction?

Dreams, “You’ll never guess who I ran into at the store,” and how much you love your wife: These are the current champions in the Boring Stories Olympics.

I’m happy for you. I’m happy you dreamt that you finally hooked up with Samantha Fox. I’m just tickled that your kindergarten teacher recognized you at the store. I’m delighted that you and your wife are doing so well.

But none of those are interesting stories.

Dreams and non-confrontational run-ins are obviously boring. But why are functional relationships such a snooze? And what can you do to make things better?

Examples Through Hypotheticals

I encourage all of you to have wonderful, boring, functional relationships in real life. And I encourage you to fulfill the excitement of dysfunctional relationships through fiction.

Maybe you’re sitting there right now thinking, “Pete, I don’t know. This seems very cynical.” Or maybe you’re one of those holier-than-thou types who think you’d enjoy a novel about a quaint, loving, reasonable relationship. I’m sure lots of us like to think we don’t feed off the misery, discomfort, or general unhappiness of others.

Fine. Let me offer you some hypotheticals that’ll knock you right off that high horse.

Let’s say you’re given a choice. You can listen to an album by a 37 year-old woman who is in a happy, loving relationship. Or you can listen to an album by a woman of almost identical demographics, but what prompted her to create her album was going through the absolute worst breakup of her life. Which do you pick?

You’re going to have a beer with a friend of a friend of a friend. You can either hear about their highly functional relationship, or you can hear about their nightmarish Tinder date. Which do you pick?

Someone is about to reveal a tattoo to you. Are you more interested in this tattoo if it’s based on a good relationship with his mother or a tumultuous one?

If someone were to graph how much they loved their husband from one day to the next, I would love to look at that graph, but if it was a flat line, it’d be boring. If it was a constant upward line, also boring. I want a sawtooth graph. Sharp, sudden changes.

Look, it's not a good thing to want the worst for your friends and family, even for real people. But in a novel? That's guilt-free shit. Put your character through the relationship wringer and kill that darling. 

Okay, Some Types Work

Functional relationships in fiction aren’t ALL bad. There are some setups where a functional relationship can, well, function.

One is aspirational. Unflawed characters (or characters whose flaws are extremely forgivable), created for the express purpose of being examples, can have a functional relationship. Because that’s the whole point. If what people are coming to your book for, specifically, is a positive example of a relationship, feel free to make it a loving, boring relationship. I don’t think it’s going to be a very interesting story, but if your goal is modeling positive relationships, writing something high-interest isn't your primary purpose.

The second is one where the relationship isn’t the source of tension in the story. Let’s say your story features a pair of young gay men who are paranormal investigators. The bizarre nature of their work, the sometimes-terrifying events, could contrast well with a solid relationship. If the relationship isn't the spotlit feature of the story, it can be solid.

The third is one where there are very clear rules, and abiding by those rules makes the relationship work. I’m thinking about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard has a good relationship with his crew. However, the relationships are extremely hierarchical and codified. There is a clear expectation of the ways in which crew members will behave towards each other. Functional, healthy relationships can work here. 

But...take each of those examples, and think about the options that open up if the relationship goes sideways.

In the aspirational case, when the relationship gets messed up, you may provide a more realistic, if less ideal example, one people can better identify with. In the case where the relationship isn’t the source of tension, think about what happens if a pair of paranormal investigators, who have always relied on their relationship to provide an anchor in a weird world, find themselves without access to that anchor? Think about how some of the best episodes of Star Trek: TNG highlight moments when the relationship boundaries are complicated or blurred. What builds better conflict than the violation of a black and white system?

Functional relationships can work, but to be honest, they’re more interesting when things go wrong. 

How Can You Fuck It Up?

Maybe you’re sold, but maybe you don’t know how to tweak your fictional relationships.

Lots of writers have the instinct to make things extreme. The wife is a shrew on most sitcoms, and the husband is physically abusive on most dramas. But in a novel, you’ve got more time. You can be more nuanced. This is one of the great advantages of a book, so think about how your relationships don’t have to be augmented by typical, over-the-top types of behavior. You can adjust the functionality of your fictional relationships without throwing a punch.

How does the discovery that a parrot can live to be very old bring up topics of mortality?

For example, two people in a relationship have talked repeatedly about whether or not they want pets. They landed on No, but then one person comes home to find their partner got a parrot, which is annoying as hell, plain weird, and will probably outlive both of them.

How does the parrot open up questions about the relationship? Are they communicating? Has something significant changed for one person without the other’s knowledge? How does the stress of taking care of this parrot add pressure and urgency to these questions? How does the discovery that a parrot can live to be very old bring up topics of mortality?

Another biggie that many experience but you don’t often see written about: an older couple who retire start figuring out that they don’t like to be around each other ALL THE TIME. Or maybe one of the two has retired and makes the other crazy, driving them up the wall because the second they walk in the door, the homebody is all over them. Maybe someone stays in the workplace much longer than they have to because they don’t want to be around their spouse THAT much.

It’s more nuanced than someone slapping someone else. You can love a person deeply and not want to spend all of your time with them. What does this open up in your story? What does the other person start doing to kill time? How do they hide this from their partner?

If you want ideas, watch House Hunters. You’ll see couples who are just finding out how bizarre their partners are. You’ll see couples who seem like they’ve never talked about what their monthly budget is like or what their interests are. You’ll see couples where someone has no understanding of the fact that their partner doesn’t want a 90-minute commute each way.

You can mess up a relationship with a pretty simple setup. Every character in your novel should want SOMETHING. When you have two characters (or three, or seventeen, or however many are involved in the relationship), all you have to do is make those characters want different things. Not opposite, not conflicting things. Just different things.

So Wait...Are Functional Relationships Boring In Real Life?

Well...yeah. Functionality is usually boring. And great. I’m sure there are lots of “spice up the marriage” folks out there who would claim that things are as exciting as they were on their first date. "Liars" is the shorter term.

Shared boredom is an intimacy that’s not easy. If you really want to test your relationship, do something boring together. Take a long-ass drive with an uninteresting or undesirable destination. Go to your partner’s cousin’s son’s high school graduation. Go to a wedding where neither of you really know anyone and where there’s not a whole lot to do. Share chores. Have an ongoing disagreement about purchasing a new vacuum.

I encourage all of you to have wonderful, boring, functional relationships in real life. They are awesome. Really.

And I encourage you to fulfill the excitement of dysfunctional relationships through fiction. You'll never have to duck under a hurled piece of dishware that way. 



About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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