Relationship Driven

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After last week’s mini-discussion about character-driven versus plot-driven novels (and the difficulty involved in distinguishing one from t’other) I started thinking about what really gets me hooked in a good book. Sure I like characters that I can care about and plots that keep me turning the page, but what I most often find keeps me glued to the page is the evolving relationships in a book.

I admit, I’m a hopeless romantic, but when I speak of relationships I don’t necessarily mean the lovey-dovey kind. For me, I want to see the sparks fly on all kinds of levels – because (as far as I’m concerned) it’s conflict and thwarted objectives that make relationships between characters come to life. I just finished a very light regency era mystery/romance which disappointed on the relationship level precisely because the conflict was never really evident between the two main protagonists (that and the fact that I had to wade through pages and pages of the most ‘awesome sex ever’ escapades which defied belief). This got me thinking about what I look for in a novel when it comes to the critical relationships in the story.

One of the key relationships we often look for in a good thriller is between the antagonist and the protagonist – whether it’s a serial killer and an FBI agent or a police officer and his suspect, I want to become invested in a real ‘cat and mouse game’. I want to see a relationship develop between these two opposites that intrigues as well as satisfied. If only one of these characters is sufficiently interesting to hold my attention then no matter how much this character might drive the plot, I will probably still feel let down.

Of course, many times I am looking for a good romance to develop alongside the mystery, and this is where (in my humble opinion) many mysteries and thrillers fall down. The relationship is either way too obvious and heavy-handed or so underplayed as to be totally underwhelming. I want chemistry (!) and both the promise of a romantic relationship as well as the seeds of doubt. In a mystery series the evolution of key relationships are often the most enjoyable things to watch – though as ever writer knows, once those relationships become ‘consummated’ all too often the fizz and the thrill of it all can die.

So what do you look for in terms of relationships in a thriller or a mystery? Are you like me hooked by relationships in a story? Do you enjoy seeing these evolve over a series or do you to see character relationships as ‘second fiddle’ as long as there’s a ripping yarn to be told?


6 thoughts on “Relationship Driven

  1. Good reminder, Clare. Often when I start casting my characters, they are isolated. But then I look for ways to connect them up, either in the past or immediate present. That brings added dimensions.

  2. i love relationships in thrillers…it tends to soften the other elements of the story. and it doesn’t need to go off into the sunset…i don’t think lee child will have reacher and his collapsable toothbrush enter into a lasting relationship…but one has learned to not expect it, either. and JSB’s ty and sr. mv…well, who knows wassup with that one. but as a catholic, i know my guilt 101, 102 and 103 keep me from even thinking about that one!!! you know, the lightening bolt, and all. kathy d.

  3. Television shows, especially those with a lot of visual effects, will throw in box episodes in which two of the characters are trapped in a box for the whole episode. The practical reason for this is that it (usually) saves money, but these episodes are often seen as some of the best written episodes. These episodes are always about relationships. I agree with James Scott Bell that this is a good reminder. Action is necessary, but what makes a story interesting is the conflict in the relationships.

  4. Conflicts and relationships help add dimension to the characters and really suck me in (when handled well). I wonder, are we sometimes willing to overlook plot weaknesses if those relationships drive the story?

  5. Good post, Clare. I’m always drawn into a story that has a strong relationship or the promise of one. The sooner the writer plants the question of “will they ever get together?”, the more it has time to percolate in the reader’s mind and keep them reading.

  6. I love the ‘will they/won’t they’ stories but only if there’s genuine chemistry and the relationship isn’t drawn out to the point where you want to scream “just do it already!”

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