Hi there and welcome to my extremely intermittent series on writing techniques! Today I’d like to talk about Problematic Relationships. Specifically, Problematic Love Stories. It’s Valentines Day and 50 Shades of Grey has been released in theaters everywhere so it’s the perfect time!
Ok, so you’ve decided to buck the critics and write a desperate love story about a cynical hired killer falling in love with the woman he’s been paid to murder.
Wait, no, back up. That side is the easy side. You’ve decided to write a story about a woman falling in love with a stalker who hasn’t decided whether or not they wants to kill her.
a story about an innocent girl convincing her kidnapper to abandon the side of evil because she loves him
a story about a young person falling in love with the body-stealing alien who stabbed them when they first met
etc. You’ve got a story and you’re feeling kind of worried because stories with other troubled relationships have gotten a lot of bad press recently and you just want to write the kind of story that makes your heart flutter, you don’t want to be scorned everywhere as promoting domestic abuse.
Fear not! You can write about Problematic Relationships in a responsible way and I’m here to help.
(The easiest approach is to Not Have A Happy Ending, but that isn’t what you want to do. I know it isn’t what I want to do, at least. So we’ll just put that option aside. But do be aware it’s out there.)
First: be aware of what you’re writing. Be aware of who you’re writing about. Don’t try to make your heroine an Everygirl; she’s in a problematic relationship and she’s going to thrive there because she’s got exactly what’s required to thrive. (Almost) Everygirl can appreciate a well-done problematic relationship, but Everygirl will not find said relationship personally healthy.
So know your heroine. And know what your hero is offering her, other than the thrill of danger. Is she always responsible at home and thus welcomes the chance to be bossed around by somebody she trusts? Does she feel isolated and appreciate somebody who sees the world the same way she does? Does she wear a mask and bond to the first person to notice that?
Figure that out, figure out the places where they fit together like puzzle pieces and please have those NOT just be their physical tabs and slots. If you’re going to have a happy ending, make the characters emotionally compatible as well as sexually compatible. This is going to make their decision to put up with something everybody else might consider awful a lot more comprehensible and even sympathetic!
(Bonus: figuring out those emotional cues will make the whole story better, too.)
Second: If at all possible, have your character acknowledge the relationship is problematic. It’s bizarre to be attracted to somebody after they hold a knife to your throat! Probably you need to see a doctor to make sure everything’s okay up there. Maybe your fear and attraction signals are really confused by that bump on the head? (And maybe that’s the case! Maybe that’s where it starts. Explore, have fun.) But even if it turns out that fear and attraction are just upsettingly mingled, let your character be aware that this is probably not going to be good for them.
Sometimes that’s not reasonable because you’re writing about somebody who honestly doesn’t realize that it’s a bad relationship (for whatever reasons). But that’s what friends are for. Supporting characters are great at kibitzing on other people’s relationships. Maybe they can wake your heroine up to her danger. Maybe they can point out other stories that didn’t have a happy ending. That can be a buzzkill, definitely, so I prefer to go with the self-aware characters myself. But it’s an option!
Third: Have your characters respect each other. This is really important! Maybe they don’t like each other. Maybe they do like each other but they have extremely different goals. Maybe they’re on opposite sides of a war. It doesn’t matter. They can still respect each other.
Respect, by the way, is a deed, not just a word. Respecting somebody means giving them room to take care of their own business. It means listening when they say no. It means listening, period.
Maybe they hide it. Maybe their entire deal is being disrespectful. That’s definitely problematic! But a love interest who respects his counterpart will a.) show that respect when it’s important and b.) fundamentally respect the role and person of the counterpart even while disrespecting smaller elements of his or her lifestyle. (This calls for an example: As a fashion expert, he may disparage her personal style but he’s well aware that she’s the best editor in all of the western seaboard. If he ever steps on her toes as an editor, he apologizes.)
Yes! Apologies! Apologies are often cheap, especially in Problematic Relationships. But as part of a consistent diet of respect, self-awareness and repressed passion, apologies can offset character quirks as long as that character quirk never, ever hurts the partner again.
Fourth: As a writer, own that you’re writing about a relationship that nobody should go out looking for. Maybe it works out for your characters, maybe everybody enjoys cheering for the happy ending– but your characters are one in a million, not Everygirl. Make sure that when it comes up in interviews when you’re rich and famous, you make it clear that the girls who walk away? They find love with somebody else. Because it’s okay to blow up that investment of time and love and walk away to take care of yourself. You’ll find somebody else. I promise.
Optionally: Attraction doesn’t mean a relationship has to follow. It might be a challenge pacing-wise but even if the attraction starts when a relationship would be incredibly unhealthy, have your smart, self-aware heroine hold off on letting it progress until the dangerous character in question has gotten his shit together.
(But don’t make her decide she has to stay with him until he has his shit together. She shouldn’t change him. But he can change himself after seeing himself reflected in her eyes….)
Or maybe he doesn’t change. Maybe he’s a dangerous killer, barely more than a savage animal, soothed only by your heroine’s gentle touch and YOU LIKE IT THAT WAY. Okay. Keep First, Second, Third and Fourth in mind.
Finally: (maybe? there’s probably more. This is what I’ve got today though) No matter what you do, some people are going to hate the Problematic Relationship. If you’re doing your best to make sure nobody goes out looking for that same wild one in a million happy ending, don’t worry about it. Write your romance. Enjoy yourself. Keep reading!