During my twenty-eight years of writing, I’ve heard plenty of advice from other authors. One tidbit stands out: tighten the relationship between characters. I know exactly where (in Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel) and when (1995, as I wrote Reflection) I read this suggestion. It’s stayed with me all these years and I draw on it with every book I write.
I thought of how critical that piece of advice is recently, as I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In The Thirteenth Tale, the young female narrator is tasked with writing the biography of a popular elderly author. I would have found it difficult to care about either character, strangers to one another, had Setterfield not found a way to tie them together. She did this by making each woman a surviving twin: the elderly author had lost her twin in a fire, while the narrator had been a Siamese twin at birth, losing her sister during the surgery that separated them. The powerful impact “twinhood” had on each woman links them together and makes the story truly work.
When I was writing Reflection, one of my central characters, Michael, was in conflict with the town’s mayor, a woman. That was fine. But as I read Zuckerman’s book, I realized I could make the conflict better than fine: I made the mayor Michael’s cousin, instantly upping the tension as they butt heads during the story. In my recent reissue, The Courage Tree, the aging actress and the lost little girl seem to have completely unconnected storylines until their stories–and their survival–become inextricably linked. In my most recent novel, Secrets She Left Behind, the links are everywhere! Some of them surprised even me.
In my upcoming (November) re-release, Breaking the Silence, the major link is a mystery: A woman’s dying father asks her to take care of a stranger, an elderly woman with Alzheimers. Readers won’t know what the link is between the elderly woman and the protaganist’s father, but they’ll know it must exist and (I hope) they’ll want to keep turning the pages to discover exactly what it is.
I’m thinking about this advice now as I work on the revisions of my June 2010 book, The Lies We Told. The two central characters are linked not only by virtue of being sisters, but also because they’re doctors and even moreso because they shared the same harrowing situation from their adolescence.
As a writer, it’s fun to come up with new and intriguing ways to tie characters together, knowing that each link will pull the reader deeper into the story. If you’re a writer, think of how you can create new links between your characters. And if you’re a reader. . . just sit back and enjoy the story!