Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.26: Character Relationships

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

Our characters become far more interesting when they begin interacting with each other. These interactions—these relationships—are often how our stories get told. In this episode we explore ways in which we can fine tune relationships in service of our stories.

The tools include the Kowal Relationship Axes (Mind, Money, Morals, Manners, Monogamy, and The Marx Brothers) and the differences between personal and position power.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Apply the relationship axes to a pair of your characters.

Thing of the week: The Calculating Stars, and The Fated Skyby Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Writing Excuses 13.26: Character Relationships

Key points: Beyond the character arc, with characters changing and developing, other characters get involved. That’s where character relationships come in. Some people plan them in advance, while other people discover them in the writing. Leave yourself wiggle room, and when you find two characters that work well together, let them show you great scenes and better stories. Try the Kowal relationship axes: mind, money, morals, manners, monogamy, and the Marx Brothers. Mind: intelligence. Money: what is money for, and what are your goals? Morals: what’s right and wrong? Manners: what’s polite? Monogamy: hot, burning kisses? What is our relationship? The Marx Brothers: what’s funny, and what’s not! Alignment makes compatibility, differences create friction points, tension points. Another tool is position power versus personal power. How can you introduce backstory in a relationship quickly? A shared in-joke. Free indirect speech, aka internal monologue, reflecting on the relationship. Final question: the relationship after HEA! How do you write that? The classic romantic arc is a character arc, from I am dissatisfied with being alone to they hook up. After that, don’t break the relationship, use an event arc, with something disrupting the status quo. External conflicts plus friction in the Kowal relationship axes equals story! Don’t just strut like a hawk, scratch for your own worms.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Character Relationships.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. So, we know what our characters… They have a big arc, and they’re changing, and they’re developing. Now other people are going to start interfering with that. Helping or hindering it. We’re going to talk about character relationships. This is something that I do a lot ahead of time. But I know that Dan, for instance, just kind of… Often they…


[Brandon] Mess each other up and you see what happens.

[Dan] Sometimes. I do a mix of both. I like to plan out in advance when I know, for example, that I’m going to have a group of friends. I want to know how they all interact with each other. But very frequently, and in fact the book that came out earlier this year, Active Memory, turned into a father-daughter book. Not because I planned it that way, but because as I was writing the other two in the series, that relationship became more and more interesting every time the father came on screen. So by midway through the third book, I’m like, “Okay, you know what?”


[Dan] “We’re just going to focus on this, and we’re going to do it right.”

[Brandon] I would say… I mean, I joke about being a heavy outliner, but this is one of the places, no matter how much you outline, you have to have wiggle room for. When your characters are quote unquote on screen together and you find that you write them with great chemistry, that they are working… When those two characters are on screen, you have a better scene than when either of them are apart, you know that something is going on there, and you need to be willing to run with that and explore it. You want to write the scenes that are best. You want the characters to give you the opportunity to write better stories.

[Mary] This is one of those things that we’re always talking about, that writing is a spectrum from outlining to discovery writing. This is one of the areas that I also tend to discovery write a lot. But I also have a tool that I use when I need to… Like, when I know that I’m going to need these two characters to fight, but I don’t want it to be a stupid fight. Because… Oh, I see this all the time, where the characters are fighting and I’m like, “Why are you fighting? You’re fighting… There’s no…” Or conversely, the characters who really do not get along at all, and then suddenly wind up in bed together. I’m like, “What? You’ve got nothing in common.” So allow me to introduce you to something that I call the Kowal relationship axes.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary] It’s actually named after my mother-in-law, who used it as dating advice to my husband… Or to her son. I realized that it actually works incredibly well for describing the ways we interact with not just a romantic partner but kind of for everybody. So the idea is that there are six axes along which relationships exist. The more closely you are aligned on any one of these, the more compatible you are. The farther apart, the less compatible. It… The sliders don’t have to be very far off. So those are mind, money, morals, manners, monogamy, and the Marx Brothers.


[Mary] I will grant that my husband added the Marx Brothers after he realized… After we were married, that I had never seen…


[Mary] We’ll start backwards and work our way up. Marx Brothers basically represents that you have the same sense of humor.

[Brandon] Right. You laugh at the same thing.

[Mary] It’s a very simple one. Monogamy is not that you’re both monogamous, but that you have the same idea of what the relationship is. I mean, you’ve experienced the thing where someone thinks that you are BFFs, and you’re like, “I kind of vaguely know you from work…” It’s really super uncomfortable. So it’s just you have to have… She labeled that one as hot burning kisses, which is better for the romantic stuff.


[Brandon] So they weren’t all iterative?

[Mary] No.

[Brandon] When she… You being a writer have…

[Mary] Well, it was actually… The first four were alliterative, and then…

[Brandon] Then, hot burning kisses.

[Mary] Then hot burning kisses.

[Dan] Then hot burning kisses. Which, to be fair, can stand alone.

[Mary] It’s true. So, manners mean that you have the same idea of what is polite… What is… And what is not. Morals are different from manners. Morals is your sense of what is right and wrong in the world. So you can have morals that are in close alignment and manners that are wildly off, or the other way around. I mean, that’s often why you know someone on the Internet who’s a terrible person on the Internet, and you meet them in real life and they’re so nice. It’s because your manners are really closely aligned, while your morals are wildly off. Money is that you have the same sense of what money is for, and the same goals towards money. It doesn’t actually necessarily mean that you have the same amount of money, but that…

[Brandon] For swimming through in your giant money vault, obviously.


[Brandon] That’s what you do with it.

[Mary] Yes. Obviously. Mind is that you have comparable degrees of intelligence. What’s interesting about this is that they really do not have to be very far off. So you can have people that are compatible. Like, the upper ends of all of these sliders in terms of their compatibility, but even just a little bit off… Those are the points where the friction is going to happen. What that does for you if you know that, if you know the places that they’re a little bit farther… A little bit off, it tells you what the fight is going to be about.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] The… Why would you even say that?

[Mary] Yes.

[Howard] That surprise… We are so like each other, and yet you just… That thing.

[Dan] Yeah. The… Using those, some of them being close together can also be a good reason why the characters stick together, even though the others are far apart. I mean, the Lethal Weapon franchise is almost entirely founded on the idea that their morals are completely aligned and their manners are wildly 100% off.

[Mary] They have very similar… They’re also lined up on mind and they’re also… At the beginning… What’s, I think is interesting is that they are in agreement on what their relationship is. Which is that we don’t like each other.

[Brandon] I work alone.

[Mary] Yes. For both of them. Their understanding of what the relationship is evolves together. So those sliders move in the same…

[Howard] I have a much simpler tool that I deploy much differently, which is the two scales of power. Position power and personal power. In an employer-employee relationship, the employer has position power over the employee. But a very, very charismatic, intelligent, effusive employee has gobs of personal power, and without even trying, can undermine an employer who doesn’t have any personal power. In fact, you see this a lot in workplaces, in all kinds of relationships. Where someone assumes that their personal power grants them position, or assumes that their position power grants them… For instance, friendship with everyone under them. I pay close attention to this in Schlock Mercenary, because the military organizations that make up so many… Or that encompass so many of the relationships in the books are inherently about position power, and there’s a wide array of differing personal powers in there. I need to make sure… We talked about manners. Something that you would say to a fellow grunt is not something that you would say to an officer. That… That dichotomy, I have to keep track of that, because if I get it wrong, it knocks people out of the story.

[Dan] I had… I worked in an office, and was there for the moment when the guy with all the position power realized that he didn’t have any personal power.

[Mary] Oh, hohoho.

[Dan] The office became unlivable. It was fascinating to watch that. That has just given me the dialogue to describe what happened.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which, Mary, you have a book coming out!

[Mary] Yes. I have two books coming out, actually. I have a duology, The Lady Astronaut of Mars. Book one is called The Calculating Stars. That’s coming out this month. Actually, has just come out last week. The sequel, The Fated Sky, is coming out in August, at the end of the month. The set up for the first book is basically, it begins about two minutes before an asteroid slams into Washington, DC, in 1952, wiping out… It’s actually the Chesapeake Bay, because it turns out that a water strike is way worse than a land strike. But it kicks off the space program hard and fast and internationally, with 1952 technology. So the first book is push to the moon, and second book is push to Mars. It’s a woman-centered cast, because I’ve got a lot of… Because it’s 1952, all of the women who are in Hidden Figures, all of those computers? Not only are they computers at that point, but historically speaking, a lot of them were also left over WASPs, Women Auxiliary Service Pilots from World War II. So you have a lot of people who are lighter than men, better able to handle gravitational blood pressure shifts, and who are walking computers.

[Brandon] It’s out, it’s awesome, I’ve read it, it’s great. You guys should all go read it.

[Mary] So one of the exciting things for me about this book also is that I had astronauts reading it, and we are actually going to be at NASA and do a project-in-depth about The Calculating Stars, which is the first book in the series, in two weeks. Although we will have done it already… It’s time travel, don’t worry about it. So this gives you two weeks to read the book before we get to NASA. Go ahead. Three… Two… One… Lift off!



[Howard] Was I supposed to make a rocket noise?

[Mary] No.

[Howard] Oh.


[Mary] That was a terrible joke.


[Dan] I was waiting to see. Is she going to say lift off? Or are we not going to do that? Nope, she did it.

[Brandon] Either way, there will be massive spoilers for Mary’s book in two weeks, so you should read it now.

[Brandon] Let’s… Let me ask you guys another question about relationships. One of my favorite things in books and in film and whatever is when you get two characters who minutes after interacting, you can read in their interactions an extensive history that they don’t have to tell you point by point by point, which is boring. Characters who just… You can read their relationship in moments. How do you write this? Any tips, any tricks?

[Mary] An in-joke. Just one. You don’t have to do a lot. But an in-joke, like if two characters are talking and one of them is like, “Oh, yeah, like the time with the pumpkin.”


[Mary] You don’t have to do anything more than that.

[Dan] You said you wouldn’t bring that up, Mary.


[Mary] Sorry.

[Brandon] They did that in the Dirk Pitt movie, and it worked really well, to kick off the fact that these two characters have been in lots of crazy hijinks together.

[Dan] A story that does this really, really well is Sneakers. Because there’s that whole little group of misfits and people, and one of the great things they do is the character Mother, who is always bringing up weird conspiracy theories. The first time he does that, Sidney Poitier, who’s the ex-CIA guy, he reacts before he starts the story. I mean, he starts the story, and before he has a chance to get to the weird stuff, he’s already rolling his eyes. You immediately know, “Oh, they do this all the time.”


[Dan] They have this very specific relationship to conspiracies in government, and it tells so much in the timing of his reaction.

[Brandon] That’s awesome. Yeah.

[Howard] The Rocket and Groot scene where we are introduced to them in Guardians of the Galaxy… Groot’s only dialogue is “I am Groot,” where Groot is drinking out of the fountain, and we establish very, very quickly that the relationship between these two is kind of father-son and kind of boss-employer and kind of brains and brawn, and yet there is something woven in there that we just don’t know, but it’s there.

[Mary] I think that the thing with that is not just the in-jokes, but also, tying into what Dan was talking about, that… the characters’ reaction to each other. So this is a place that you can use one of the tools we talked about when we were talking about character voice, which is that indirect… That free indirect speech, where the character’s internal monologue can be a little bit about their relationship. “Oh, no, no, no, not this story again.”

[Brandon] You see this in relationship… Romantic relationships a lot. Someone walks on screen, in a movie or television show, and you know instantly that those two characters have a history, a relationship. Often times it’s that they’re extremely cold to one another, which we read as, “Oh, something happened in the past between those two.” I would say, less is more, in a lot of these instances. 

[Brandon] Now, different topic. I wanted to make sure we asked you, Mary. You had an entire series where two characters went through a classic romance relationship, and then multiple books afterward where many people would have just stopped the series. In most movies and things, they just stop at the point where the first book ended. You wrote wonderful, awesome books about a different kind of relationship in some ways.

[Mary] So… Why, thank you. So, anyone who’s married knows that you can actually be in a committed, happy relationship… Anyone who’s in a committed, happy relationship, whether or not you’re… You can be in this wonderful relationship, and there’s still conflict. But the conflict is external. So the way I actually structured that… Okay. It took me a while to figure out. So I tend to think about the MICE quotient a lot. What I realized was that a romantic arc is structured as a character arc. The character is dissatisfied with an aspect of self, and then… That is, “I am alone.” Then they hook up. That what happens when you… For the most part is that when people attempt to write relationships later, what they do is they’re still writing a character arc, but once you’re in a relationship, that couple is now a single unit, and you have to treat them as a single unit. So when you have the “I am dissatisfied with an aspect of self,” that means that it’s all about an internal conflict between the couple. So what I did was I treated it like an event arc instead, where they were totally happy with each other, but any event arc is when something disrupts their status quo. So I made sure that all of the conflicts that were hitting them were external conflicts, and then used the Kowal relationship axes to talk about how that friction expressed itself between them.

[Brandon] I would say that one of the reasons I like this is, it’s a pet peeve of mine… Maybe that’s the wrong term… That when the two characters hook up, the story is done. Which it’s totally not.

[Howard] Or we have to make them break up so we can put them back together.

[Mary] That drives me crazy.

[Brandon] It’s the sort of thing that I feel like, as storytellers, sometimes we internalize this thing which is a complete lie. Sometimes the best stories, in fact often the best stories, are when the reader’s personally invested in both characters and personally invested in this relationship, which only happens once they are together. It’s the same sort of thing in a different way that happens with Mistborn, this trilogy. If you haven’t read it, the story that I originally wanted to tell was how do you keep an empire together after you’ve conquered it? When you’re the Rebels and you’ve blown up the Death Star and taken over, and none of you have any experience in leading an empire or whatever, a republic, how do you make that happen? It’s gotta be way harder than blowing something up, keeping it together. That’s what made me initially start working on the series. With relationships, keeping together a relationship, I wouldn’t say maybe it’s harder, but in some ways it is, right? Because you have to work on it every day. The initial euphoria is gone, and something deeper is growing and building, but that’s way more interesting.

[Dan] There’s a beautiful quote from the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander, in the fourth one, where the kid just wants to go off and be a hero. One of the witches says to him, “It’s easy for the chicken to strut like a hawk. But let’s see him scratch for his own worms.” I always think that… That is such a more interesting story to tell, is how do you actually live rather than do this one cool thing and then be done.

[Mary] I think that it’s also important to note that this is… This thing you’re talking about of working on a relationship is not just a romantic relationship. Like, if you’ve met someone at a con or just school or… And they’ve moved away, it’s difficult. You have to work constantly to maintain that level of friendship. It doesn’t just take care of itself. I think that that’s one of the things that you can do when… As a conflict point, as a tension point, is not the we want to break up, but we want to hang out and there are things getting between us. That’s the other secret that I used in the Glamorous Histories is that I gave them, both characters, the same basic objective in addition to the same basic relationship objective, which was they wanted to get offscreen to a fade to black scene.


[Mary] All they wanted… It’s like, we really want to do a fade to black scene right now, but we’re being attacked by pirates.

[Brandon] I would say… You mentioned friends kind of growing apart just because you’re no longer in the same social circles. If that’s happening to you, start a podcast with your friends…


[Brandon] Then you get to see them and hang out with them.

[Brandon] We’re actually out of time. Mary, you’re going to give us some homework.

[Mary] Yes. So take the elements of the Kowal relationship axes. Look at your characters. Decide where their friction points are. I want you to just pick two of them. Don’t pick all of them, if you want them to be friends. Decide why they’re that way. It’s not enough to say they’re… They have different manners. Like one of them is from the south, one is from Hawaii, which is…


[Mary] [garbled] and I. But pick two, decide why, and then give them an external conflict and let the friction express itself.

[Howard] Can you rattle off the axes again?

[Mary] Yes. They are also in the liner notes. Mind, money, morals, manners, monogamy, Marx Brothers.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.