With his new novel Trouble out this month, author Jonathan Dodds gives us his top tips for writing about relationships

Jonathan Dodds

Jonathan Dodds

Conventional wisdom advises aspiring authors to "write about what you know". Well, we all know about relationships - we've had them throughout our lives - defining us, providing our greatest happiness - and our most painful experiences of sadness and loss. Rich pickings for fiction, then...

But I'd advise adopting such advice with caution. Fiction isn't autobiography. Invention must offer situations and characters a broad readership can identify with. (No, we're not all going to be wizards - but as children we all needed to be special, to feel we'd been chosen for a wonderful destiny). And, once our sympathies are engaged as readers, we want to be taken on a journey - hopefully an entertaining one - best of all, one leaving us knowing more about the world, about others and ourselves.

So distance from your subject helps - taking familiar feelings and relationships from your own life into different circumstances - whether a fantastic parallel world, a murder investigation, or a small, close-knit community (or, of course, a murder investigation within a close-knit community, in a parallel world...)

Some writers have even found it liberating to write about relationships from the point of view of another gender, or another era. A L Kennedy achieves both in her virtuoso novel, Day - giving voice perfectly to a rear turret gunner in WW2, and to the close male camaraderie within the bomber crew. Convincingly, hilariously, Alan Warner depicts friendship within an entirely female group - first as schoolgirls in The Sopranos, and then as young women in The Stars in the Bright Sky.

That essential distance between a writer's experiences and those of fictional characters can also be built into a book by thinking about who might be telling the story of a relationship. It could be someone the reader gradually realises is made unreliable by their own motives - like Barbara, the narrator of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal. And in Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn creates two liars alternately telling us the story of their toxic marriage.

Anne Enright takes this approach of creating a subjective view of events from different characters one step further in The Green Road, which accomplishes it - dazzlingly - in her depiction of an Irish family, gathering for (perhaps one last) Christmas together. Her novel allows each character alternate chapters over the years, so the story of their relationships with partners, with their mother, and with each other advances through their contending individual voices.

Stories are often variations on what might be, or might have been. My final tip is that this will usually be more interesting than what did happen. "What if" can be the starting-point for any writing about relationships: what if you'd taken it further than that tentative kiss? What if you hadn't stayed? If someone discovers their 'perfect' partner has a secret life? Or if your character has to investigate the disappearance of a lover, a brother, or sister...?

And that speculative "what if" can motivate characters, too. In Trouble, I wanted to depict a couple enticed into a passionate and disruptive affair by this question - a man wondering if he once gave up the love of his life - a woman tempted by all the love she's missed, by desires she can't express as wife and mother...

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