An Author Can Excel and Falter When Writing About Relationships

Jane Eyre VilletteWhen it comes to depicting relationships, great novelists are not machines. That means the relationships — whether good, bad, unrequited, potential, etc. — are sometimes believable and sometimes not as much.

I thought about this while continuing my pandemic-time reading of Diana Gabaldon’s compelling 9,073-page Outlander series (I’m now on the fifth of eight books). The relationship between 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser and 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser totally works. Equal partners, both smart, both charismatic, superb chemistry, lots of passion, flowing dialogue, plausible occasional fights. But the relationship between Claire/Jamie’s daughter Brianna and historian/musician Roger periodically feels kind of forced and clunky, partly because Roger is a rather annoying guy at times.

Lightning also doesn’t strike twice in two Charlotte Bronte novels. The relationship between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre is one of literature’s great love stories, even though the characters are quite different in certain ways. But the interaction between Lucy Snowe and the partly unlikable M. Paul Emanuel doesn’t light many sparks in Bronte’s Villette.

The interaction between Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott — co-workers who are a possible future couple after four of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels — is satisfying for readers. The characters share a knack for private investigating, have a mutual respect, both have difficult pasts, and there’s that aforementioned “c” word: chemistry. On the other hand, the eventual love relationship between Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley of Rowling’s Harry Potter series seems off. Hermione and Ron are very good friends and both very nice people, but Hermione is just so much smarter than Ron to make for an equal couple.

In Isabel Allende’s 1840s-set Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers and Joaquin Andieta become enamored with each other, and there’s an intense young-love passion to their affair even as the depiction of it doesn’t click on all cylinders. But the novel’s later relationship between Eliza and Tao Chi’en feels right, even if it’s more a friendship because of the strictures of the time against interracial relationships. (Eliza is of Chilean and English descent; Tao of Chinese ancestry.)

Depicting romance in his fiction wasn’t Mark Twain’s thing, but, when he did, the results were mixed. The puppy love of the young Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes off as very plausible, while the relationship between Hank and Sandy in Twain’s scathingly hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems kind of cardboard and one-dimensional.

But the five terrific George Eliot novels I’ve read never disappoint in depicting romantic relationships with skill and psychological nuance — whether the relationships are happy, disastrous, or somewhere in between. For instance, Middlemarch masterfully dissects the depressing marriages of admirable Dorothea Brooke and sour Rev. Edward Casaubon, and idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate and shallow Rosamond Vincy; and Daniel Deronda includes the awful union of spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt. Eliot also excels at happier relationships, such as those between Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth and, in Adam Bede, Adam and minister Dinah Morris.

Still, Eliot is rare in never faltering in the romantic-depiction realm. Heck, even a novelist as accomplished as Liane Moriarty in creating good and bad fictional relationships included the not-that-believable pairing of romance author Frances and oft-crude retired footballer Tony in her great novel Nine Perfect Strangers.

Any examples you’d like to offer of other novelists who did well and also not so well in depicting relationships?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about my town’s unequally funded election — is here.

29 thoughts on “An Author Can Excel and Falter When Writing About Relationships

  1. Dave I have not read more than a page or two after my beloved POMCHI left us, my heart was shattered into pieces although She had a glorious fifteen years for the whole time.
    Bedroom is so empty, as I gave away all five beds, but kept one. Her beloved Teddy for 15 years bigger than her needs a good scrub when it warms up more and sunny.

    Anyways, not a love story but finished “The Guardians” by John Grisham.
    Library being closed I was able to hang on the the best seller for months.

    I think Dave you would love it, more when the Country has been taken over by a greedy, corrupt President. .
    The book is about a few selfless lawyers who took upon themselves working pro bono to free some wrongly convicted men rotting in jail for someone elses crime.

    Grisham was writing as an young man Post, the only investigator in The Guardians living in poverty and loving what he does with two other brilliant Women with the same mission. ..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe. So sorry again about the death of your doggie. Glad she at least had a long life. I can totally understand how it’s hard to read, and to do other things, when mourning and missing a beloved animal companion.

      “The Guardians” sounds excellent. John Grisham rarely disappoints, and his heart and many of his characters’ hearts are in the right place. (Grisham’s memorable villains are of course the exceptions.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree with M.B. Henry about Jane Austen’s creation of satisfying romantic relationships, and I also agree with the comment made by catonthedovrefell about the Fanny/Edmund pairing. It just didn’t ring true for me, either. I read one commentator (Colleen Sheehan) who said, “It is a common cant of critics that they would delight in an evening with Henry and Mary Crawford and anticipate in horror having to spend one with Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram.” 🙂 I loved all of the other main characters’ relationships, my favorite being the more mature love between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. I’d suspect you probably feel the same, Dave. As to Sheila’s comment about Georgette Heyer, I never read any of her Regency romances, but she did write some quite enjoyable “cozy” mysteries set in the 1930’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      I totally concur with all you said of a Jane Austen-related nature. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth of “Persuasion” are indeed my favorite couple in Austen’s six novels. 🙂 And that’s a terrific quote from Colleen Sheehan!


  3. Hi Dave,

    I’ve just started the third volume in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I enjoyed the first two, and am enjoying this one, though not as much as you and others. Although I am enjoying it, Blomkvist’s relationships don’t always sit well with me. His relationships with both Salander and the married Berger seem very uneven to me. But then, something about most of Larsson’s characters don’t quite ring true to me. A page turner of a book anyway!

    Completely off topic… I’ve mentioned that I’ve been a bit TV crazy during lockdown. My latest obsession is a time travel show called Future Man. It’s very silly, and more than a little crass, but it makes me laugh in a way I didn’t know was possible during a crisis like this. I was watching it the other night, and a character had come back from the 22nd century. She describes the future as being free from poverty and pollution and it’s filled with perfectly peaceful beings. And the name of this future town of utopia? Montclair, NJ 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susan!

      Although I loved the page-turning nature of The Millennium Trilogy, I see what you mean about Blomkvist’s relationships. They’re somewhat believable, but one can also see them as author constructs — sensing Stieg Larsson’s puppet strings behind the scenes.

      OMG — that Montclair reference. Wow! Some people in my town feel it’s a burg that can’t be beat, and it IS a really interesting/mostly tolerant place, but hardly utopian. If it were, I’d have little material for the local satirical humor column I write each week. 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying “Future Man” during this time! Time-travel stories are almost always compelling. Nice that this one is funny, too!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Susan, good to k now you did read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy , when the books were released, I borrowed the first one and after reading 50 some pages found it so boring and returned to the library.
      Later a patron convinced ne to ignore those pages and read them and I am glad I did.
      I always wondered if Mr. Larsson still alive what he would write about ever loyal Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist she desperately fell in lov with.

      The end was promising telling me that the story would have continued.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A good topic, as I’ve read a bit more romance lately. Typically not high on my priority list but I’ve needed some more light-hearted reading these days! 🙂 A good one I just finished recently was Me Before You by JoJo Moyes. Such a unique angle for a love story, and the relationship between Louisa and Will was very well-built, very moving, and felt very real. Although I wouldn’t call it light-hearted, as it did have me reaching for the tissues a time or two! Although I haven’t been able to get on board with Outlander as much as everyone else, I adore the time-travel love story in “the Time Traveler’s Wife.” I was a huge fan of the book, but my husband and I just recently watched the movie and I thought it fell a bit flat. So many layers that didn’t quite translate to screen for me. I also read this newer book called “the Bromance Book Club,” which I thought did a good job portraying both romantic relationships, and the “bromance” relationships between guy friends who help each other save their marriages when in trouble. I also have to give mad props to Kate Quinn for her romantic relationships, and as for the classics, Jane Austen will probably reign supreme for me when it comes to relationship writing. A very fun topic as usual Dave!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B., for those excellent examples of romances done right! I’ve never seen “The Time Traveler’s Wife” movie, but did find the novel to be original and compelling — and thought the relationship was depicted really well.

      Yes, Jane Austen succeeded way more often than not in creating satisfying relationships in her novels. And Kate Quinn is also expert at depicting interesting romances — along with adventure, intrigue, etc.!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ‘ Sister Clodagh, Anglican nun – and Mr Dean… In your locked libraries, surely Clodagh’s left the convent by now ?
    Least convincing relationship ever ? In lockdown, how many people have tried Mansfield Park again ? Still can’t see Fanny and Edmund.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, catonthedovrefell! 🙂

      And, yes, the eventual Fanny-Edmund pairing is not one of the better/most-convincing relationships in Jane Austen’s great canon. Plus they’re cousins, which I guess was sort of acceptable in that time and place but still feels wrong.


  6. Another thought provoking theme, Dave. I thought Wallace Stegner did a wonderful job in this regard. His The Spectator Bird and Crossing to Safety were very different from each other but excellent. Mature love stories 🙂 As Rebecca so wisely puts it, “But then…what comes after is more interesting, more heartbreaking, more fulfilling.” Crossing to Safety check all those boxes. I wonder how Gabaldon will end the Outlander series…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      I’ll have to give Wallace Stegner a try! I’m a big fan of mature love stories, as many readers are. Whether mature in the way the author handles those stories, or mature in the sense of the characters being mature and perhaps not young.

      One of many great lines by Rebecca (Clanmother). 🙂

      Not sure how the “Outlander” novels will end. The most recently published one was released in 2014, but Wikipedia says a ninth (“Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone”) is “forthcoming” and that Diana Gabaldon plans 10 in all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill!

      Nice when a real-life relationship works so well, whether the couple is high-profile (like the Trumans were) or not.

      Sounds like an interesting talk you gave!


  7. Very interesting discussion! For some reason, as I thought about your question of realistic relationships in literature, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” popped into my head as a such a realistically depicted relationship, it was painful to read and even more painful to watch. (Oops, it’s a play, not a novel.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Liz!

      Well, many plays are also literature. 🙂 And “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” definitely paints a realistic (or perhaps at times a caricature-ish realistic) picture of especially bad relationship scenarios.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Great topic and post, Dave.

    The 20th century writer Georgette Heyer is credited with founding a genre–the Regency romance. I started to read her books because I had heard her compared to Jane Austen. While Heyer does set her books in the same time period, which she researched meticulously, I don’t think that is an apt comparison. Jane Austen’s books are much richer. However, Georgette Heyer always creates a believable romantic couple, who have real chemistry. She always gets it right! I think it’s one of the main reasons her books are still popular.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sheila!

      Georgette Heyer sounds good and, heck, few authors can match Jane Austen when it comes to a certain kind of literature. Creating a believable romantic couple with plenty of chemistry is a tremendous accomplishment for any novelist.


  9. Ah, Dave – you have sent my mind on the idea of love and how we embrace a specific style of love, based on our value systems and what we believe love to be in action. The popularity of romance fiction is centered specifically on beginnings: the first meeting, the conflict, the circumstances, the drama and the final understanding where loved is proclaimed. Even for those who believe that they are superficial, there is much to be said about romances, because those first heady moments capture the essence of first love. As well, romance is a billion dollar literary industry that should not be overlooked because it speaks to a society that longs for love. But then…what comes after is more interesting, more heartbreaking, more fulfilling. Since you mentioned the Outlander series, have you ever read The Raj Quartet, the four-volume novel sequence, written by Paul Scott, about the concluding years of the British Raj in India, written during the period 1965–75?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! I enjoyed your comment. 🙂

      I’ve only read perhaps a dozen or so “romance novels” (as opposed to many novels with romances), but some of them were pretty good — and not always totally “formulaic.” Nice escapism/wish-fufillment.

      I’ve never read “The Raj Quartet.” What did you think of it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was a difficult read and one of the reasons I went to non-fiction. As Liz Gauffreau said to me, sometimes non-fiction makes us very very sad because we see ourselves and our wider community more clearly, more authentically. For me, it was a look at how we become a victim to cultural norms that chose to exclude rather than work together with inclusivity. How anger and jealousy can ruin lives, most significantly our lives I didn’t think of this series for years – maybe I’m ready for the story now. Always a joy to be in conversation with you, Dave.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Interesting, Clanmother. It does sound difficult — as well as intense and sobering. And I hear you about nonfiction; it can be very depressing. Though of course fiction can be sad, too, because it’s often inspired by reality. Great talking with you, too!

          Liked by 2 people

  10. I don’t recall being that impressed with Daniel’s and Mirah’s relationship in ‘Daniel Deronda’. I guess I thought that because Gwendolyn is such a compelling character that I wished Daniel would have paired up with her instead. I suppose it would be best for Daneil and Gwendolyn NOT to get together. I think Gwendolyn was probably not quite ready for a healthy relationship with anyone. I’d have to re-read the novel to see what I think now.

    BTW, Dave, if you’re still doing pandemic reading after the ‘Outlander’ books, I highly recommend the other six of George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, bobess48!

      The Daniel-Gwendolen dynamic is indeed more interesting then the Daniel-Mirah one. Gwendolen is a much more complex person than Mirah. But I still found the Daniel-Mirah romance to be believable and sweet.

      As for further pandemic reading, I’ll see. 🙂 It might be another month or so before I finish the “Outlander” series, and it will be depressing if we’re all still “sheltering at home” after that. I did really enjoy the first “Song of Ice and Fire” novel!

      Liked by 1 person

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