Columns > Published on February 24th, 2015

Storyville: Making Relationships Feel Real in Your Fiction

Today we’re talking about how to make the relationships in your fiction feel real. There’s nothing worse than reading a story about a couple and thinking, “That would never happen.” Or, what about a father-son argument or sibling rivalry that feels out of whack, lacking authority and coherence? Let’s talk about romantic relationships especially, but other relationships as well—what you can do to make them feel layered, truthful, and unique.


One of the unique things that most relationships have are our pet names for each other. It might be something as innocent as “sweetheart” or “pumpkin” or regional like “shug” or “darlin” or specific to your interests, such as “hunk of burning love” or “Batman” or “Cheeky Monkey.” I know, some are ridiculous, but think of all of the things you’ve called your significant other (the NICE things) and how you express your affection—you could have something really original and unique to share, but even if it’s something we’ve heard before, “muffin” or “honey” or “doodlebug,” it adds a bit of humor, romance, and kindness to your dialogue. And if your story starts to turn dark, think of how that use of “darling” or “sweetheart” suddenly carries extra weight, when it doesn’t mean what it ought to. Remember Misery? What does she call him, a “dirty birdy?” At first her “number one fan” moniker is cute, her hatred of cursing a minor detail, until she turns on him, and reveals her crazy.


We’re always recording, always filing away words, and scenes, and emotions—so we can spill them on the page at a later date.

Think about the time you spend with your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend—how often do you eat and drink together? If you live together, every day, if not, maybe those special times, Saturday night out—date night. What kind of food do you love eating together? Do you like Thai, Italian, sushi, or pizza? Not only do you have the details here to look at—what you both like to eat, and how that reflects character, and the love (or hatred) in the relationships—but you can also start creating backdrops and environments that mean something. Does she bring him his favorite bowl of chicken noodle soup from down the street, or a bowl of Pho from in the city? Does he know that she hates mushrooms, but continues to order them on their pizza because HE likes them, and he wants to see how she’ll react? And then there’s drinking. What wine does she like—Chardonnay, Merlot, or Cabernet? Does he drink beer or bourbon—micro and small batch or Budweiser and Jim Beam? And how do they change over time when they’re drinking—does it lead to hot sex in an alley, or broken glasses in the kitchen fighting over money and petty jealousies?


You knew we’d get here eventually, right? I’m not saying you need to tap into every memory you’ve ever had, with sex, or any of the other categories we’re talking about today (although you CAN). You can also utilize books, films and stories your friends have told you. But if you DO have a healthy sex life, think of those hot moments—the first time you got your girlfriend to masturbate in front of you, the first time you bought a sex toy with your boyfriend, watched porn, or brought a third person home, etc. What turns on the man or woman in your story, your protagonists? Think about your own likes and dislikes, and then of course, feel free to fantasize and take it farther. Threesomes can be intense, wild, uninhibited romps or they can be jealous, ugly, painful trysts. Or so I’ve heard. The way a couple relates to each other in the bedroom is a mirror of their relationship. If they haven’t had sex in three months, six months, or a year—how do you think they’re doing? Not well. And how does that manifest itself? If they’re a new couple, doing it in every room of their new house, what does that say about them? They’re pretty into each other, right? All of these choices reveal character, motivation, and even plot.


In any story there will be conflict, and how you handle those moments, that will really determine where your story or novel goes—how we create sympathy and empathy for our characters, whether we love or hate them, root for them or against them. Gone Girl? Think of how that story changes over time, the conflicts at the beginning changing as the story expands. How do we feel about a liar? How do we feel about somebody that cheats on a spouse? Is there any situation where we’d actually root FOR a man or woman that cheats? What if they’re in a loveless and abusive relationship? What if the woman now gets pregnant? Does your sympathy change? What if it’s not his baby? One of the most exciting aspects for me as a writer is NOT plotting, but discovering things as my characters do—getting to those moments where there is tension, and a major conflict, so I can see how my characters react, and how that action (or lack of action) has a ripple effect, spreading out across the landscape, changing relationships with lovers, friends, and family.


One way you can tell if your protagonist is a jerk or not is to show how they treat animals, and more specifically, pets. Not only does it give you an indication of how that man or woman might treat a human being, but it also reveals how they deal with that vulnerability and dependency that most animals exhibit. A tough guy walks into your apartment for your date, and he suddenly softens at the sight of your kitten or puppy? Is that appealing or unappealing? A man that abuses an animal is at best a jerk, and at the worst—a psychopath. I have a main character in Disintegration who has killed dozens of people. He lives alone, primarily with a ghost of a girlfriend that appears now and then. How do I show depth in his character, show that he’s not entirely evil? He has a cat—one that he loves very much, and his vulnerability shows that he’s more than just a hired gun, still very much a human being, with feelings, and emotions, beyond his own troubles. He also witnesses a man abuse a puppy at a local park, which leads to a violent reaction, once again revealing more of who he is. So not only will these moments give us character, but they will also add something to the relationships in your story or book—another layer of either love or hate.


Another great way to see who you’re dealing with in your stories and novels are the sibling rivalries that seep into your fiction. Brothers and sisters, you love each other no matter what, right? But that doesn’t mean you always like each other. Parents—you can’t choose what family you’re born into, but how you deal with the hand life’s given you—that’s all about your character. So many stories are about family, the ways we try to be our own people, rebelling against strict rules—no dating before a certain age, home by a certain hour—church, and sports, and chores. Think of all of the ways you can show in these relationships what kind of person your protagonist is (or isn’t). When I took the challenge of my professor down at Murray State to cut back on the sex, to ease up on the violence, to have no twist endings, no death at all, you know what I was left with? Relationships—the bulk of them familial. I wrote about a grown man that has a disconnect with his father, ultimately forgiving him for being human, flaws and all; I wrote about a mother and son who bonded over breaking the rules, filling their living room with sand, turning it into a beach; I wrote about a father watching his daughter come of age, realizing he can’t control her, and never really could, hoping he’s done his best to teach her, to prepare her for the hostile world outside their home. Think of your own family life, the good and the bad, the moments that inspired you, and the dysfunction that scarred you—again, that’s all character.


When it comes to the relationships in your fiction, tap into everything you’ve ever heard, seen, or lived. It could be your favorite book or film, the true events of your own sordid past, or something that’s entirely fictional, building on truth, and then wandering off into fantasy. Why do you think so many authors talk about sitting in a coffee shop or at a park, listening to others talk, or at a party, mentally taking notes of the fight in the corner of the room? We’re always recording, always filing away words, and scenes, and emotions—so we can spill them on the page at a later date.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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