Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?
In recent blogs, I talked about toxic mother-daughter relationships, toxic relationships in general, and toxic people.Toxic anything is good for writers! But once you’ve introduced these negative relationships and people, you cannot—satisfactorily—leave your reader wondering why s/he puts up with that. After all, there are planes, trains, and automobiles—not to mention boots that are made for walking!
Even if your characters don’t recognize their motives, you—their almighty creator—should know what they are AND should let the reader know.


So, why does s/he put up with it? The short answer is, it’s the best perceived alternative! People are very rational creatures, and they always make that choice. The complexity here is in the word perceived. Not everyone sees a situation the same way.


For example, the objective reality might be that a battered woman would be better off out of that marriage. But if she doesn’t see that, it ain’t gonna happen. So consider what her point of view might be. Suppose she came from a family with spousal abuse and accepts it as part of the package. Perhaps she fears for her life, or the safety of her children, if she leaves and he finds her. What if he threatened to commit suicide if she leaves and she couldn’t stand the guilt? Maybe she thinks it’s her fault—and/or, her self-esteem is so low that she thinks she deserves it. Maybe she doesn’t see a way to keep a roof over her/their children’s heads and food on the table single. Perhaps she loves him and lets him beat her because for his own twisted reasons, he needs to do so. Perhaps leaving/divorce goes against her religious beliefs. Etc. All of these reflect beliefs or values not universally held—and beliefs or values not universally held often apply to perceptions about leaving a toxic situation or relationship.


Additionally, consider the legal constraints on minors, military personnel, prisoners, employees, etc.


Perhaps your character is highly motivated to avoid conflict, criticism, gossip, embarrassment, rejection by family or peers—or even fears the unknown.


Takeaway for writers

Show the reader your character’s perspective.


Toxic People Are Great

Toxic people are great

True? True—in your writing if not in your life. You may recall that last month I wrote about the types of toxic mother/daughter relationships, and how the patterns could hold regardless of who the two people are. You’ll find that this blog is related.

Lillian Glass profiled 30 types of toxic terrors, and just the labels are thought-provoking: cut-you-downer, chatterbox, self-destroyer, runner, silent but deadly volcano, gossip angry pugilist, gloom and doom victim, smiling two-faced backstabber, wishy-washy wimp, opportunistic user; bitchy, bossy bully; jokester, unconscious social klutz, mental case, bullshitting liar, meddler, penny-pinching miser, fanatic; me, myself, and I narcissist; Eddie Haskell, self-righteous priss, snooty snob, competitor, control freak, accusing critic, arrogant know-it-all, emotional refrigerator, skeptical paranoid, instigator.

Toxic People by Lillian Glass
Toxic People by Lillian Glass

Translating this into writing: the presence of a toxic character immediately raises tension and conflict. That is their role, to make other people’s lives miserable. But spread the glory: don’t make one character carry the entire burden of toxicity. Consider a couple, apparently happy together but each toxic to other people in different ways.

Glass’s book is basically a self-help book, so she also offers 10 techniques for handling toxic people: tension-blowout (deep breathing), humor, stop-the-thought, mirror (reflecting the behavior back), direct confrontation, calm questioning, give-them-hell-and-yell, give-them-love-and-kindness, vicarious-fantasy, unplug (the person from your life).

Translating this into writing: have your characters deal with the toxic person(s) in different ways, with varying degrees of success. And the inappropriate behaviors that she advises you never to do in real life (e.g., physical violence) are perfectly appropriate—and often effective—in achieving your writerly goals.

Glass offers an exercise for identifying the types of people who drive the reader nuts. As the author, you could complete this exercise for your main characters. Identifying the consistencies might even provide insights about how to make your character(s) richer and more real.

My edition of the book was published in 1997, but toxic people are timeless! This and several of her other books are available on Amazon, and I urge you to consider whether it would be helpful to you.

Related Posts

Psychology For Writers series

Writers Need Toxic Relationships

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

More on Characters

Quirking Your Characters

Writers on Writing

What’s in a Character Name?

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen