Relationships in Stories

My buddy Michael has been ruminating on relationships in stories, in all the different definitions, and I thought I would take a stab at the topic myself.

Let me begin with the punchline: Every aspect of a story can be described in terms of a relationship.

Writer to Reader

Writing is communication. Stephen King in On Writing describes it in mystical terms, as a kind of telepathy between the writer and the reader. I think there’s something to that. The writer takes the ideas in their mind, transposes their thoughts and words into some medium, and then the reader ingests those words and fills their mind and imagination with some approximation of what was in the writer’s brain. Sharing thoughts like that sounds like a kind of intimacy, and I think we take it for granted.

Taking a step back from the hyperbole, it can also be described as a one-way conversation. The writer is telling someone, perhaps many someones, a story. Just as you have a relationship between yourself and your conversation partners, so too is there a relationship between the writer and the reader.

I believe it helps to have some idea who the ideal reader of your book is. Michael and I have disagreed on this point a few times, but this time, I have some arguments to support my case.

When I write a story, the ideal reader is someone that reads English. My story might be translated into other languages, true, but there are idioms and metaphors woven into my stories that will likely have to be changed and reinterpreted in order for it to work for a non-English speaking readership. If The Repossessed Ghost were ever translated into French or German, those versions of my story would be different works, transformed to accommodate a different ideal reader.

Going further, when I wrote The Repossessed Ghost, I made other decisions that influence the best, target audience. It’s an urban fantasy set in the U.S., so the ideal reader is someone that is familiar with U.S. geography, especially New Orleans and Sacramento. Being an urban fantasy, there are certain tropes I use that would best be read by someone that already appreciates urban fantasy stories.

If we cut it down fine enough, I wrote The Repossessed Ghost for someone that likes the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. If you like Butcher’s stories, you will most likely enjoy The Repossessed Ghost. I wrote it with you in mind. I’m someone that has enjoyed those books, so I wrote it for me, too.

In starting off our conversation about relationships and stories, I think it’s only fair and correct to begin with the relationship between the writer and the reader, because if there was no relationship there, no story would ever be sold or read or heard. Even if I’m wrong on the other point, there is likely a commercial relationship, where the writer is acting as the supplier, and the reader is acting as the consumer.

Character versus Everything Else

The next level of relationships to touch on with regards to story is that of the characters within the story to… basically everything else. This gets pretty broad.

When I was younger, I remember being taught in English that there were 4 main types of conflict in literature. As I sat down to write this, I could remember 3 off the top of my head. They were all phrased as “man versus x” so I remembered them as “man versus self, man versus man, man versus nature” and I couldn’t remember the 4th.

I went Googling around and discovered that my information may be outdated. The number of conflict types has expanded. Depending on where you’re looking, there are either 6 or 7 types of conflict now.

  • Character versus self
  • Character versus character
  • Character versus nature
  • Character versus machine or technology
  • Character versus society
  • Character versus the supernatural

Those are the 6 that overlap. If you change that last one to “character versus a supernatural being” then the 7th becomes:

  • Character versus destiny or fate

None of this is science. None of this is set in stone, and there are overlaps. In Dracula, you can classify that as “character versus a supernatural being”, or you can look at it as “character versus character.” Depending on how you read or interpret Jekyll and Hyde, it could be seen as a “character versus self”, “character versus nature”, “character versus technology”, or “character versus the supernatural” story. You could rewrite the story and lean into any of those types of conflicts and it would work.

Conflict is a relationship. It’s an adversarial relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless. It’s difficult for me to imagine a story I would enjoy that doesn’t involve some kind of conflict.

Stories describe change. Perhaps a secret 8th type of conflict is “character versus the status quo,” in that the character’s relationship with the present conditions are in conflict, and the change is either the character altering their status quo, or surrendering to it.

It is my belief that every aspect of a story can be described in relationship terms. Let’s break apart the original Star Wars.

Luke is in conflict with himself and his adoptive parents, in that he wants to be responsible and help with the moisture farm, but he also wants to get away and go on an adventure. Eventually, the Empire, looking for some escaped droids, takes the decision out of Luke’s hands. Luke and Obiwan run into Han, whose relationship with Jabba the Hutt has him in deep water, looking for a way to make some quick money.

I’m skipping stuff, but hopefully I’ve illustrated the point. Every single scene can be described in relationships. Every scene in my stories can be described in relationships. That’s what a scene is.

Writer versus Everything Else

I think I could write about this topic at greater length, but I’ll stop with one more relationship, which is the Writer versus Everything Else. I’m not going to rehash what I already said about the relationship between the writer and the reader. That one is very important, which is why I started with it. Possibly even more important, though, is the relationship between the writer and the story.

As a writer, I love my stories. And I hate them. Then I love them again. Then I worry over them, the way a parent might worry over their child. I work on my stories, the way a mechanic works on a car. I grow them, the way a farmer grows their crops. And I try to promote them, so that they might go out into the world and have their own relationships with other people.

The writer may have an agent. The writer works with publishers and editors and cover artists. The writer might even have fans! Though fans are usually readers, the writer-fan relationship is different because there isn’t necessarily a story separating them.

Without these other relationships, the writer might not ever see their story make it into the world.

In Conclusion

Every aspect of a story can be described in terms of relationships. They are all important, though admittedly, some are more important than others.

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