Thursday, May 9, 2013

Toxic Relationships in Romance

Shhh.... don't tell anyone this, but... I'm one of the gazillion people addicted to the Jodi Arias trial. No, this blog post isn't to stamp into that trial's fame nor my personal feelings about the trial. So why bring this subject up at all? Because the different aspects of the relationship made me think about a few things. In the trial the lawyers and witnesses often mentioned Jodi and Travis' relationship as being toxic. I agreed whole heartily when the people in the trial declared that as being part of the relationship.

But why?

I believe that every person has or has experienced a toxic relationship with another person. This type of relationship can be with an intimate partner just as Jodi and Travis but it isn't secluded to that. Today I'm going to talk about the the extra people in our lives. You know those side relationships we have with people: the neighbor we chat with over the fence, our best friend's husband, the coworker who always tries to one-up us, or maybe that one person in our life that we are drawn to, stay with a little longer but walk away feeling crappy about ourselves or whatever it was that we discussed with that person.  It doesn't necessarily mean that the person we communicate with is bad... just the relationship has toxic dynamics.

And let's look at romance novels.

What is a common theme in romance? Boy meets girl. They fall in love! The couple has a happily-ever-after.... awe. Yep, I'm a romance writer and swoon over a great love story. It doesn't matter to me if it is fiction or not. So how can we freshen up standard plot lines? After all, how many times can you read about high school loves reunited after being absent from their town and keep the story fresh? By adding the toxic relationship. Each character needs to have some good friends and/or family members, but I always add another character who makes my heroine or hero not quite feel right.

When I was going through some editing for Jesse's Brother, an editor requested I change Samantha's mom's personality. This is the biggest toxic relationship I've ever written. The relationship was a key part of Samantha's personality and the plot that I didn't want to change that element in the book. The book wouldn't have been the same without it. By leaving the toxic relationship in the story, the characters had something to overcome.

Here is a snippet from Jesse's Brother:

“I know. I sure have missed you,” Samantha lied in an effort to mend their broken relationship. She stepped forward for a hug. The strong smell of bleach and cheap perfume assailed her nose. What a relief when her mother took a step back, releasing her from the hug. Her mom glanced down at her watch. 

“I have been waiting for hours.”

 “I was late leaving but I’m here now. How are you doing? How’s Daddy?” 

Her mom ignored the questions and sailed into her own. “Are you eating well?” She gave Samantha the once over as though she was a horse up for bid. “Of course I am.” 

“You’re looking too thin, young lady.” 

“I’m fine. Couldn’t wait for my vacation from school.” She wanted to add that she’d wished her vacation was somewhere else besides J Ranch, but she bit her tongue to hold the words, and focused on fixing the issues with her family. She turned toward the house, but Mom’s fierce grip stopped her. 

“You could have come home over the holidays. We can’t believe you would abandon your family during such important times.” 

Some tidbits about Samantha's relationship with her mom: no matter what Samantha does or says, it is wrong; her mother always has something negative to say about Samantha, and Samantha goes out of her way no matter how she feels to mend things with her mother. The dynamics eventually start to change as the character evolves.

The change:

 “Are you ready?” she heard from behind her. 

Her mother, who never came into her room, was standing at the opened bathroom door. She looked nice, Samantha had to admit, in a red pants suit. The women stared at each other in the mirror. Samantha tried to get the nerve to tell her mom she looked pretty but she couldn’t. Complimenting her mother was so foreign to her that the idea formed itself into a knot in the pit of her stomach. 

“Has Noah arrived yet?” 

“Um, no, I haven’t seen him. I’m bringing an umbrella, it rained last night.” Her mother turned to leave. 

Samantha followed her out. “Maybe he’s waiting outside with Daddy,” she said softly. 

“Perhaps you should have worn your hair down this time.” 

“Maybe.” Wow. Had Mom just suggested she wear her hair down? She’d never suggested she wear her hair down in her life. Had they gone a step forward? Would her mom start accepting other decisions in her life, such as her relationship with Noah or graduating college? 

The big changing point in this relationship was Samantha realizing that her mother's opinion did matter to her. Once that happens, things really start to change between them. To read more of Jesse's Brother

But toxic relationships between characters don't have to be huge. Here is a small toxic relationship between the main character and a background character in Cross the Line:

 Instead, a young nurse pushed in a wheelchair holding a pair of crutches while a clipboard rested under her thin arm. She held out the clipboard to me and once I’d signed the paper, she said, “Your chariot awaits.” 

I could see right through her fake smile. She wanted to push me downstairs just as much as she looked forward to cleaning the next patient’s bedpan. I moved the crutches long enough to ease myself onto the chair and felt it jerk forward. 

When she jerked the chair around the corner, my side hit the armrest. “Ouch,” I said. “Can you be a little careful?” The nurse did as I asked until we reached the elevator. 

Once the doors opened, she shoved the chair forward, almost flinging me from the padded seat. I bit back a yelp that would certainly be followed by curse words directed at the nurse. Alone or not, I just wanted to be at home. With the nurse’s hand against the wheelchair during the entire time in the elevator, the doors couldn’t open fast enough. She pushed me into the hospital lobby to the entrance. 

My breath stuck in my chest as Chris rushed in through the automated doors. Gone was the clean man I’d met the day before and been intimate with this morning. Here a firefighter stood, covered in soot, and smelling just as bad. But damn, he was still good to look at. And he had come for me. My heart soared. 

“Leslie,” he said, the corners of his mouth turned into a frown as he dropped to his knees and took my hands into his. “Are you okay?” 

“As good as can be expected. Doc said I lucked out. Apparently my injuries are minor even though they don’t feel small at all.” 

The nurse behind me snapped a piece of gum. “Are you with her?” 

“Yes.” Chris didn’t take his eyes off me. “I’m taking her home.” 

Another snap of her gum. Damn, she irritated me. “Have a great night.” 

Sure thing, Ms. Pleasant. 

Can you imagine what the chemistry would be like if they'd spent any more time together? If you want to read more from Cross the Line:

So tell me about your favorite toxic relationships in fiction! 

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