men are easy; it's women that are the problem
the author examines an author's relationship to relationships
by adam kraemer
Why is it that every significant thing that's happened in my life in the last two months has revolved around relationships? (That's a rhetorical question.)
I don't know if it's the time of year, or the age at which I find myself, or just dumb luck, but people seem to be getting together left and right these days. Those of us who don't have "significant others" are meeting people at parties, at bars, and in chat rooms -- and, in many cases, even seeing these people again. Those of my friends who are in relationships are moving forward with the quickness and ease of a girl from New Jersey.
I'm serious, though. I'm thrilled for my friends, but I admit I feel a bit left out. So many of them are getting engaged these days, if it were a trend, I'd still be tight-rolling my cuffs. Of course the mid-20s is the age in which people do start to get engaged, so it's not that surprising, but it's still been on my mind. And one friend of mine recently even skipped the whole marriage thing entirely and went straight from "engaged" to "pregnant," in that order. That's like the relationship equivalent of dry ice sublimation.
Even among my single friends, the ante seems to have been upped a bit. An unsuccessful night among us used to consist of looking at but not talking to any women. These days the talking part is pretty much assumed, and it's only considered unsuccessful if you don't get at least a phone number. Heck, even my recent unsuccessful nights have been more successful than what I would have considered a successful night a few years ago.
Unable, however, to come up with a nice transition which would have let me freely link my current subject of relationships with the writing advice I often like to dole out, I will just stumble around like Polyphemus and, as if I, too, were a blind Cyclops, just artlessly crunch the two together. I'm going to write about writing about relationships, and I'm not even hiding the fact that I failed at what I would have liked to have been a subtle segue. If you don't respect my writing, at least you can respect my honesty. [Editor's note: And his knowledge of Greek mythology.]
Anyway, as hard as it is to create realistic characters in writing, it's even harder to create realistic relationships between characters. You're constantly asking yourself, "would he really say that to her?" or "why would she show up to his office stark naked?" Well, maybe you're not wondering, but I personally feel that a stark naked woman always makes a story more readable. Especially if she's in my room, reading the story to me.
One solution would be to take examples from your own life, or those of people you know. If, for example, two characters are fighting, base that argument on a real incident that occurred. This guy my brother knows was recently caught in bed with another girl. His girlfriend proceeded to grab the other woman, who was stark naked (see? It works), and throw her out into the hallway without even a stitch of clothing. She then proceeded to walk back into the room a give her boyfriend a roundhouse kick to the chin. Now that's realistic. Crazy and disturbing, but realistic.
Another way to write about interpersonal relations is to really dig down deep, and find both characters' motivations. This isn't as difficult as it might seem. In a heterosexual relationship, you really only have to find the female's motivation because you can always use the universal male motivation of "I want to have sex. A lot." So that's 50% of your job right there.
Female motivation is a different beast entirely. Because women don't think like men. Men think that "would you like a back rub?" is a subtle come-on, because, hey, you're only touching her back; why would she assume your intentions are anything but honorable? With women, there's a lot more thinking and analyzing and meaning attached to things. For example, if your female character says something like, "So-and-so just told me about this new restaurant," she could really mean "I'm telling you about my day because communication is the cornerstone of our love," or "We haven't gone out in a while; why don't you take me there?" or "I want to have sex. A lot." or "My parents and all of my friends say they don't like you, and you're only going to hurt me, but rather than taking their advice, I'm going to stay with you because we have this history and my ego is rather fragile and I'm getting older and I don't know if I'll be able to find another man to father my children before I hit menopause because it's only 15 years away, and I'm jealous that all of my friends are having children, and a little worried that my boss is coming on to me, and I'm still not sure if I totally forgive you for not thanking me for taking the garbage out last week when you got home late from the gym."
You get my point. (By the way, to anyone wishing to attack me for the title of this column: It was intended as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the previous paragraph, and not a bitter attack on the female gender. Jeez.)
Another interesting thing that might help with characterization in a relationship is a back-story on the couple. Where did they meet? Was it in a chat room, during the White House tour, or at Taco Bell? Is there a difference of religion? Maybe they grew up in different parts of the country -- she says "y'all" and he says "youse." What brought this couple together? What keeps them together? I once heard that the things that first interest you in a significant other are the exact same things that will really get on your nerves in six months (her giggle, the way he parts his hair, his independence, her mother, his abnormally large feet, her interest in his life). People meet under all sorts of circumstances; just run with that.
Keep in mind, by the way, that unless you want to write for romance novels or soap operas, there is no relationship in which one partner is totally without fault while the other is from hell. Even in abusive relationships (and this goes both ways; I'm not talking just physical abuse), there are flaws in both people -- obviously in the abuser, but also something in the victim that got him/her involved in the first place and which keeps him/her there. I'm not getting into the semantics of bad relationships (that's not an argument I feel like having or a viewpoint I feel like justifying right now), but the same can be said about good relationships: everyone's got their issues. I assure you that, throughout the world, even in the healthiest relationships, people have differing viewpoints on how to raise the kids, whether the walls should be painted peach or beige, how to balance the desire to make money with the desire to actually see each other, which gods should be sacrificed to, or whether the Super Bowl is really a good time to sit down and have a meaningful conversation.
So now I put it to you, future writers of America and friends of mine who only read this stuff because I e-mail you about it, let your writing sing! Let your creations live! Let the reader revel in the reality of it all! Let my people go!
Okay, I'm getting carried away, but seriously. A book, article, or any piece of writing is only as good as the characters in it. If you cannot write a believable interaction between two people, your readers are going to notice.
I read once that a story doesn't actually have to have happened for it to be true; simply make sure that everything you write is true and the rest will take care of itself.
Oh, and if you know any women who go for the short, cute, witty writer type, send 'em my way. I'm gonna need a date for all of those weddings.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
11.8.00 @ 9:53a
I think the most interesting thing are pre and post-relationship relationships. "If I get him into bed, he's mine." "I'm going to turn all of his friends against him." "I heard he's taking that floosy to our restaurant, and I'm going to go make a scene. That'll show him." "This cryptic e-mail will do it." "I'll get him into bed, and he'll come back."
But I'm not speaking from experience.
Recently, a guy wrote a dating article for a school newsletter that was, without using names, a total slam of his ex. He's angry...
lee anne ramsey
11.8.00 @ 1:27p
While I don't pretend to be a great writer, I do think I'm a great reader. And the characters that I can relate to in some way, shape, or form are the ones I want to continue to read about. I don't have to LIKE them, per se, but I want to find something in their descriptions that makes me care about them in the tiniest bit. If you don't give a rat's ass about any of the characters, what's to keep you reading the story?
lee anne ramsey
11.8.00 @ 1:29p
Oh, and don't rush to get married. I have way too many divorced friends and acquaintances to think that marriage is like peg-leg pants.
11.9.00 @ 4:57p
Ride out the storm Adam - you'll go through a summer in your mid-twenties where you'll spend more on wedding presents than you do on beer (scary, I know!), but then things settle down again.
Go with the imagination theory for a while, rather than experience...you don't want to end up writing a book with characters getting divorced.
11.10.00 @ 9:34a
What if I do want the characters getting divorced. Most of my mom's family is divorced. What if divorce is the happy ending?
11.11.00 @ 5:25a
Greek mythology is great, isn't it? Uh, that's all I have to say. Nice column!
11.13.00 @ 11:07p
Sounds like you've got enough divorce experience to write a book, without having one of your own...
You know, maybe you don't reallyhave to have all that much detail to do a good job. ONe 'trick' that a lot of authors use is to paint certain things with very broad brushstrokes - detailed enough to set the scene, but vague enough that the reader fills in the relevent details, making it that much more vivid and personal to them.
That's what made "Bridges of Madison County" a good book, and a terrible movie.
11.14.00 @ 8:47a
Roger, I don't know if I can associate with you anymore, given your Madison-County-related statements. On the "hack writer" discussion elsewhere around here I was thinking the only writer I could be 100% sure was a hack is, you guessed it, Robert James Waller. I'll try not to let it interfere in our professional relationship.
Sigbjorn: you're so right. Greek mythology is, in fact, great.
11.15.00 @ 12:34a
Don't worry Jael, if I really believed RJW was a good author, I'd shoot myself.
A serious example would be Peter Cameron ("The Weekend") Such a vivid picture with so many words!
11.15.00 @ 10:10a
uh, duh...I mean so few words...
11.15.00 @ 1:21p
Yeah. I get people telling me all the time how they like my sparse writing.
Never read Waller. I hear Easton Ellis writes piles of annoying drivel.