Writing Excuses 11.39: Elemental Relationships Q&A, with Greg van Eekhout
Q: What is your favorite way to establish relationships? Is it through dialogue or is it through background or is it through narrative? How is it?
A: Dialogue, because it can quickly establish the relationship. Action, because it shows characters that know each other well.
Q: How do you recover when a relationship between a hero and a supporting character starts to feel forced?
A: Throw something in that messes up expectations. Banter.
Q: How do you show a best friend relationship?
A: The same as for a romantic relationship, intimacy in dialogue and a degree of physical comfort with each other. Leave out the gaze. Best friends stay together even when they fight. Best friends are the ones who are still there after everyone else leaves.
Q: When doing romance, how do you decide to move fast or slow?
A: It depends on the kind of book. Erotica? Jump in fast and stay there. Others, much more slowly.
Q: Do you try to make the nature of the relationship between characters clear, or do you often leave things to subtext? Do you use different techniques to write different types?
A: Yes. Relationships in Schlock Mercenary depend on whether people like working together, and on relative rank. How close characters are governs how much subtext you use.
Q: How do you approach writing a relationship with a transsexual character without making it stiff or unnatural?
A: Deferred. Talk to people who have primary experience.
Q: What are your favorite relationships to write?
A: Happy marriages. Functional families. New friendships. Prickly antagonists. Working relationships where characters are discovering each other’s competencies.
Q: How do I write a starting relationship, a friendship or things between two characters that the reader doesn’t even know well yet? How does someone start off with that?
A: What do the two characters need and want? Similar, so they work together, or opposed, so they work against each other? Either way, use banter as they explore how they are going to interact.
Q: How do you transform love into hate and vice versa?
A: Time. Money. Betrayal.
Q: When writing a love triangle, how do you keep from making it obvious the final couple ahead of time?
A: Make them both plausible choices.
Q: Recommendations for books that focus on familial friend relationships rather than romance.
A: The witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Mother-daughter in A Wrinkle In Time series Nancy Drew and her dad, Monica Mars and her dad.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 39.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on relationships with Greg van Eekhout.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Greg van Eekhout. Did I pronounce that right?
[Greg] Perfect. That was amazing.
[Brandon] Excellent. Tell the audience a little bit about yourself.
[Greg] Well, I’m a novelist. I write middle grade and books for adults. Science fiction and fantasy. My interests are walking on the beach…
[Brandon] And we are alive at Phoenix ComicCon.
[Brandon] Thank you to our lovely and intelligent audience here, because they have provided for us a bunch of questions which I am going to throw at the podcasters.
[Mary] Not literally.
[Brandon] Well, you can’t tell. So let’s see. Cindy asks, “What is your favorite way to establish relationships? Is it through dialogue or is it through background or is it through narrative? How is it?”
[Mary] My favorite is… Dialogue.
[Mary] Thank you for throwing that question at me, Brandon. My favorite is dialogue. Although now I’m considering that action might be a very nice technique also, because you can do… Oh, darn it. Completely missed him. Because I feel like one of the things that dialogue can do for you very quickly is establish the kind of relationship people have, by the word play, the history, the backstory. And their degree of comfort levels. You can tell that very quickly, whether they have a formal relationship or informal or what have you.
[Dan] I remember watching a TV show several years ago where one character was concerned about her own marriage and was sitting in, like at a group party, with some friends and saw her other married friend picking all of the pickles off of her husband’s hamburger and said, “Why are you doing that?” She said, “Oh, cause I know he doesn’t like them.” That clarified for her this kind of long-held intimacy that she was looking for in her own relationship. So I always try to put that kind of stuff in. Just to show through action characters that know each other really well.
[Brandon] Question here. How do you recover when a relationship between a hero and a supporting character starts to feel forced?
[Greg] I like to throw something in the works that messes up what’s going on. So if they’re breaking into a bank, that’s a perfect point for them to open the safe and actually have the guards with the guns be inside the vault. I’m a real fan of banter. So that’s a perfect opportunity for them to sort of engage in their characteristic banter. But now it’s in a context where it’s actually… Things are going severely wrong and they actually have to adjust their relationship on the fly.
[Howard] Banter is my go to. As was pointed out in a discussion that I don’t know if we actually recorded, the principle of comic drop, which we talked a little bit about during humor, which is a change in the status between two people who are talking. Depending on the relationship that they have, I may or may not have a comic drop in that conversation. Because… I mean there’s jokes throughout my writing, and I may not be able to use that tool if these two people are conversing and bantering and at the end of the conversation, they remain on equal standing.
[Brandon] How do you show a best friend relationship?
[Mary] Ah. This is… It’s… This is one of those weird ones, because a lot of the tools that you use for showing a best friend relationship are actually the same things that you use for showing a romantic relationship, which is intimacy in dialogue and a degree of physical comfort with each other. The thing that you leave out is the gaze, which is… Thinking about the potential for sexy fun times.
[Dan] I… We talked about this a little bit with Locke and Jean from Lies of Locke Lamora, but one of the things that defines them to me as best friends is that they stay together even when they fight. Which is not to say that I really fight with my friends a lot, but that sense that we are not just together because it’s easy. We’re together because we like each other no matter what.
[Greg] Yeah. I would define a best friendship relationship in terms of loyalty and forgiveness. So you can tell who the best friends are in any cast of characters, when every other character is turning their backs on a character who’s really screwed up, and he best friend who’s just as angry as every other character is the one who’s still there.
[Brandon] So, when doing romance, how do you decide to move fast or slow?
[Dan] In real life, or…
[Greg] I always go slow.
[Brandon] You gotta get there fast and take it slow. Each place.
[Mary] Oh, it’s so many men on this panel.
[Mary] It depends on the kind of book you’re writing. Like, honestly, if you’re writing erotica, you need to get to the romance pretty much on page 1. They jump immediately to sexy fun times, which they then proceed to have for the rest of the book, because that’s why you’re reading the book. With other types of relationships, that romance is going to build much more slowly. One of my favorite romances is in Dorothy Sayers, those are primarily a mystery, but the romance between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey builds over the course of multiple novels. So it really depends on the type of ride you want to take your reader on.
[Brandon] Do you try to make the nature of the relationship between characters clear, or do you often leave things to subtext? Do you use different techniques to write different types?
[Dan] That’s a whole episode by itself, it feels like. Wow.
[Howard] Well, one of the things… The relationship structure in Schlock Mercenary is dependent on two key factors. One is how much do these people actually like working together, and the other is what is their relative rank? Because there is a rigid hierarchy. I find that when I’m writing discussions between a senior officer and a junior officer or between a sergeant and a grunt, I have to take that into account because that power dynamic is… If that power dynamic isn’t there, then it stops reading military. The relationships… The military aspect of the relationship stops being believable.
[Mary] I think the other aspect of that is that how close the characters are kind of governs how much subtext you use. If you got someone that you’ve been friends with for a really long time, you know that frequently your conversation consists of single words that represent a joke that you have had between you for decades. That’s subtext. To a large degree. It’s the conversation that happens between the lines of text. So I think that one of the ways to demonstrate that you have people who are very close is to use that as a tool.
[Brandon] All right. Here is an interesting one that I’m not sure if we can answer. How do you approach writing a relationship with a transsexual character without making it stiff or unnatural?
[Mary] I would like to defer that because I do not have…
[Howard] Yeah, defer.
[Brandon] I would say that this is something you need to talk to people who have primary experience with it. Although I will say that I have watched interviews with transsexual people talking about this, and they say this seems to be of great interest to people who are not transsexual, but in the relationship, it feels very natural to them. It isn’t as big a deal sometimes as people make it. But that’s just hearsay. For questions like this, you really need to go to primary sources and talk to them.
[Mary] I mean, in general, you need to be treating characters like people. But there are specific aspects that I just do not have primary experience with.
[Brandon] What are your favorite relationships to write?
[Mary] I like writing happy marriages. It maddens me that people think that you cannot write a happily married couple because… They have this idea that happily married couples have no conflict. I’m like, “Anyone who is in a happy marriage knows that this is not true. Why is the garbage still in the kitchen?”
[Brandon] I am loving reading your unnamed secret project story that we can’t talk about which does involve tw… Characters in a…
[Mary] We can talk. But we… It’s just… It doesn’t have a title yet.
[Brandon] Okay. The lady astronaut story that you’re working on in novel form has a happily married couple and it is great.
[Mary] Thank you. That’s one of those things that I feel like isn’t modeled enough. So I love writing happily married couples.
[Brandon] You know what I really like is similar is a family unit that is functional.
[Mary] Yes! Yes. I love reading those, too.
[Mary] Cause I never get to.
[Greg] I like writing about new friendships. I find that exciting. It’s an unknown. We have no idea where this thing is going to go. It’s also a struggle, and it’s fun and it’s exciting, so a lot of my book start with a protagonist and the person that’s going to be like the Horatio meeting for the first time.
[Brandon] Can I ask you more on that? Then we’ll get to the other ones. But there was a question that said how do I write a starting relationship, a friendship or things between two characters that the reader doesn’t even know well yet? How does someone start off with that?
[Greg] I always think of it in terms of what the character needs and what they want at that particular given time. If both those characters want and need something that’s either similar so they have to work together or it’s completely opposite so they actually have to work against each other, it usually kind of sorts itself out. As long as you have… Again, banter is your best friend in that. That dialogue is going to help you sort of figure out how these two people are going to interact in a way that’s kind of exciting to explore and it’s fun for the reader to figure out at the same time. And it doesn’t feel like a lot of throat clearing, like the writer trying to figure out how it’s going to work.
[Brandon] Dan and Howard? Favorite types of relationships?
[Dan] Yeah. I love writing prickly antagonist kind of relationships. Which… That’s John Cleaver and virtually everyone he talks to, you know. His mom or whatever cop is currently getting in his way. Some… People who have to work together but don’t like each other. I love that.
[Howard] I like writing the working relationship where, in the course of that relationship, the characters are discovering each other’s competencies. Because that reveal… That reveal is just a lot of fun. That can be, if you set up the try-fail cycle right, a stand up and cheer moment that makes us rejoice in the friendship, even though the friendship was never really at threat.
[Brandon] So, let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is one of Greg’s books. Will you pitch to us Dragon Coast?
[Greg] Yeah. Well, actually, no. I’m going to pitch to you the first book in the trilogy, California Bones.
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Greg] It’s a contemporary fantasy. It takes place in Los Angeles. The idea is that wizards get their powers from eating the bones of extinct magical creatures.
[Greg] So you eat a dragon bone, you get some properties of the dragon. It takes place in Los Angeles, so you have the La Brea tar pits there. So the tar pits at one point have been rich with bones of griffins and dragons and unicorns. Since Los Angeles was sort of the center of magical wealth, it’s a focus of a lot of power struggles. But, of course, if you have bones in the tar pits, it’s not a renewable resource. So now the magic is scarce, and it’s hoarded by the very powerful. My heroes are sort of a group of thieves. They go on heists to steal the most potent and magical bones there are. The other thing is, if you’re one of these wizards, an osteomancer, and you eat the bones of another osteomancer, you get that person’s magical powers.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Dan] Ooo. I’m in.
[Greg] It’s literally… In other words, it’s pretty much like Los Angeles, you eat or be eaten.
[Howard] What’s the title again, Greg?
[Greg] The title of the first book is California Bones. The second one, Pacific Coast, comes out in paperback next month. The third and concluding book is Dragon Coast, which is right now in hardcover.
[Brandon] Awesome. They sound wonderful.
[Greg] Also at… right now only here at Phoenix ComicCon, I did a one-shot comic book adaptation which is a prequel short story to California Bones, illustrated by Ryan Cody. He is a great artist. You can get it at Ryan’s booth. This is not relevant to people who are listening, unfortunately. But right now here at Phoenix ComicCon, you can get it at table 1508 in Artists’ Alley. I just got an email from Comixology yesterday. It’s been approved, so it’s just a matter of them getting it online.
[Howard] So our listeners may be able to pick this up on Comixology six months down the road.
[Greg] Probably actually in about a month. Hopefully about a month or two.
[Brandon] Excellent. So. Next question is Mark asks, “How do you transform love into hate and vice versa?”
[Mary] No, betrayal.
[Brandon] Yeah. Betrayal will definitely…
[Mary] Betrayal is the easiest one. But there are a lot of things that… You’ll have a friend who has small annoying quirks and things like that, but…
[Dan] She looked right at me when she said that.
[Mary] I wasn’t looking… It was Howard. I mean, no.
[Brandon] Do I have to throw a question at you guys?
[Mary] No. But this is unfortunately one of those things that I can speak to from personal experience because I… I’m going to try to talk about this without specifics, but I worked with a dear friend for 15 years… Not worked with. We were both within the same industry and we knew each other for 15 years and had never worked on a project together and we were both super looking forward to it. I knew he was a problematic personality, and that on every project he would pick someone to hate, but I was always like, “You know. He’s troubled. It’ll be fine.” We would always reassure whoever it was, “Don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal.” Then, this project, I was the person he picked. It was close to a year of mental abuse and sabotage on the job. It was really awful. I now kill him off in multiple books.
[Mary] I have friends who have killed them off in their fiction. Sometimes more than once.
[Howard] That was so much fun.
[Mary] That was a delightful thing. Thank you, Howard. But it was… The thing that did it was betrayal. That was the thing that also made me realize that I had actually been a terrible person by defending him all of those years.
[Brandon] I have actually seen this. It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve seen this person, you’re like, “Oh. They do this thing to people.” Right? You’re like, “Oh, it’s this thing.” But then it turns toward someone that is close to you. You’re like, “Oh. They are the next in line.” The person doesn’t even know they’re doing it, often. But man it can be excruciating when that happens. Anyway, we can’t go into specifics on those.
[Brandon] Let’s do when writing a love triangle, how do you keep from making it obvious the final couple ahead of time?
[Dan] You need to make them both plausible choices. If a woman is choosing between two men, or a man between two whoever, make both of those love interests… Like we were talking about the half orange where they complete each other? Both of them complete you. So that makes it… That makes the conflict that much more difficult to resolve, and it makes it so you can’t predict how it ends.
[Mary] My mom actually asked my dad to marry her, and she said… She was dating more than one guy. Because this was the 60s. I asked her how she knew. She said, “The other man asked me to marry him, and I realized I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be with your father for the rest of my life.” I was like, “Oh. Okay. Notes for love triangles.”
[Mary] The… I think that thing about the… That Dan is talking about is that the choice is not clear to the main character themselves. Little-known thing about Shades of Milk and Honey. The happily married couple that goes through the rest of my series? In my original draft, they didn’t wind up together. It was the other man.
[Howard] Well, this is… That’s the Agatha Christie method.
[Howard] Don’t know who it is…
[Howard] Yourself until the end of the book.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to end with recommendations for books that focus on familial friend relationships rather than romance.
[Mary] You were just talking about familiar… You should take that one.
[Brandon] Well, that was a… On family… Well.
[Mary] Ahuh, ahuh.
[Brandon] What I was thinking about was my own, and I don’t want to…
[Mary] Oh, okay.
[Brandon] That’s like… It was our favorite to write, and so I’m like, “I like writing the Stormlight Archive because I have a father with two sons that have a functional family relationship.” That’s what… I have to think of ones that I like that do that also.
[Howard] The friendships between the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. That’s a very good one.
[Howard] I love them because they snipe at each other but they have each other’s backs to the end of the world.
[Dan] The mother-daughter relationship in The Wrinkle in Time series…
[Mary] Oh, yeah, that’s fantastic.
[Dan] Is wonderful. And the father-daughter actually, once the father comes into it.
[Mary] Actually, Nancy Drew and her dad.
[Dan] Monica Mars and her dad.
[Mary] Okay. Oh, that’s such a good relationship. You’ve got one?
[Greg] No, I’ve got nothing.
[Howard] That’s a great way to end the episode, Greg.
[Mary] Thanks. Thanks for…
[Brandon] Well, why don’t we end with a writing prompt instead? Greg, you’ve got a writing prompt for us.
[Greg] Yeah. How about take a look at the actual place that you live, the city or the neighborhood, the general region. Find some source of magic that is specific to that location that if your story were taken somewhere else, taking place someplace else, the magic would have to be different. Something endemic to where you live.
[Brandon] All right. So, thank you, audience at ComicCon.
[Brandon] Thank you, Greg van Eekhout.
[Greg] Thank you guys. This is fun.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.