I don’t like the word “relationship.”
No one does.
For one, it’s a long and soft word, full of hissing and seething noises, so it’s naturally unpleasant to hear. We like our soft words to be short, the better to convey the impact of their message, like “love.” And we like our long words to have hard sounds in them so that they seem to have a foundation when they start to wobble under the weight of their syllables, like “conflict.”
But the real reason we don’t like the word “relationship” is that it’s too weak to convey the dire severity of its meaning. We have a warped definition of the word, one that conjures up images of Zach Braff agonizing through internal dialogue in a hospital cafeteria or an entire genre of books based around women standing around, waiting to see which werewolf or vampire will be the one to take her home.
I once received a review that bemoaned the sheer amount of “relationship stuff” in Black Halo. It was distinctly critical of how much time was spent getting the characters to know each other better and what they were doing as despair set in. His praise finally picked up when Lenk charged heedlessly onto a boat to save Kataria and kill people, which is when he said something along the lines of “this is what it’s all about. Not relationships, but adventure and fighting.”
I kind of sighed.
Not that I blamed him. I don’t blame any critic for their views. But even if I did, I wouldn’t have blamed him for operating under a weird (if widespread) definition of the word “relationship.”
We are raised with the belief that “relationship” is a word that means “solution.” You are not a normal person until you have a long-term relationship, according to the media. You are not a well-adjusted human being unless you have a good relationship with your family. You are incomplete until you can sit down, watch a shitty sitcom and get the “jokes” that revolve around a woman wanting a man to buy tampons and him wanting to watch football instead. And if you are not normal, well-adjusted or complete, then you surely will be once you get a relationship, because that’s what normal people do.
And likewise, we are raised with the belief that “conflict” is a word that means “problem.” Conflicts are things that do not occur naturally. Conflicts happen because someone screwed up. Conflicts are problems to be solved. We define our stories with words like “Man vs. Self,” “Man vs. Man,” “Man vs. Manatee” and the like with the implication that they will be overcome.
Conflicts are what define our stories.
But “conflict” and “relationship” mean the same thing.
The reason we don’t like the word “relationship” is because society’s definition of it as “solution” does not actually fit with what a relationship is. And what a relationship is is adversarial in nature. It is there to change the status quo, to push people toward each other or away from each other, to disrupt what is comfortable and create something different.
And that’s painful. Sometimes exceedingly so.
Because, win or lose, we don’t get to walk away from relationships unchanged. We can underplay violence pretty well in society and especially in fantasy literature. We throw in fight scenes with the expectation that victory for our heroes means the return of the status quo. The dragon is dead, so everything can go back to normal. We haven’t yet figured out a way to do this with relationships.
Nor should we.
Every story is about relationships. Every boat, sword, laser, ghost, dragon, demon or zeppelin is just a means of pushing that relationship forward.
And I don’t think I really understood this when I started writing.
I think, when I began with Tome of the Undergates, I viewed battles and relationships as separate entities. We had our fight scenes, then we had our talk scenes, then we had our fight scenes and then talking. It was easily staggered and people could skip parts they didn’t like. That’s not good writing.
In Black Halo, I think I stumbled around the truth a little. I knew that fight scenes were just dialogue with fists, that there should never be a fight scene that didn’t change the conversation in some direction. I knew that relationships were what broke people, not blood or swords. I knew that a woman turning her back on you was worse than a knife embedded in your shoulder. But I didn’t know how to express that.
It got better in The Skybound Sea.
But I think it’s only at my current project that I understand how to make “relationship” mean “conflict” mean “problem and solution.” I only now understand what it means to make two people love and hate each other at the same time. I only now understand what it means when battle is an extension of love, when swords are long kisses and blood drops are notes in a love song.
Love. Hate. Relationship. Conflict.
They all basically means the same thing: change. Change is scary. But meaningful.
“Relationships” as we know them by the society’s definition are not meaningful. Society tells us that a relationship is a comfort, a normalcy, a solution.
Were that true, we would never feel our hearts beat faster when someone took a step closer to us, we would never listen to the radio and wonder what they were talking about when they played a love song from fifty years ago, we would never lie awake at night wondering how long we could go on being alone.
“Conflicts” as we know them by society’s definition are not meaningful. Society tells us that a conflict is a burden, an error, a problem.
Were that true, we would never spend our time consumed with thoughts as to how to punish those who have wronged us, we would never devote more energy to defining ourselves by what we want not to be than we do about what we do want to be, we would never look at an enemy and realize we were still alone.
But society is wrong. Literature is right.
Relationships are everything. Conflict is everything. Comfort means nothing. Change means everything.
We just need better words for them.