If you interact with other humans, chances are you’ll end up either hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Most likely, it’s both. Maybe it’s accidental. Maybe it’s not. Most of us try not to, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. And naturally, we are more likely to hurt those we interact with more often, meaning that when we do wrong someone else, it’s more likely to be a friend or a family member than the stranger we pass in the grocery store.
As with so many things in life, in part because of its inevitability, the most important thing ends up being not whether or not we hurt or are hurt, but how we respond when it happens. Does a harsh word or a thoughtless comment destroy a relationship? Or do we find a way to work through it and forgive? Do we accept that some friendships are not worth saving? Do we decide that this one is, no matter how hard you have to fight for it? There isn’t a single right answer that fits every situation. As a Christian, I am called to love my enemies–not to mention friends or annoying coworkers–and forgiveness heals much.
But that’s a topic for another time. Today, I want to talk about what hurting each other has meant in some of the relationships I value most. And then about how my writer-brain connects that to good storytelling, because we all knew that was going to happen.
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but my closest friendships are the ones where we have hurt each other. More than once. Often deeply. We’ve said things, or made assumptions, or lashed out, or… the list goes on. I don’t have to continue it, because I know anyone reading this will have a list of their own, with specific events and particular people. And, I hope, anyone reading this will also know that the story doesn’t end there with the argument, or the silent treatment, or the unexpected ghosting.
Or it doesn’t have to.
Those same friendships I was talking about have thrived because when we did hurt each other we also forgave each other, and we worked through it. Love covers a multitude of sins. And thank God for that.
(A quick note: this, of course, does not meant that there is never a time to end things. David didn’t keep hanging out in King Saul’s court after a certain number of thrown spears; he left. He also straight up refused to hurt Saul, even when given multiple chances, which says plenty as well.)
As for how this applies to storytelling, if working through mutual injury in real life relationships can end up strengthening them, then the same is true in good writing, which aims to be an accurate reflection of the real world. Your characters, even your heroes, will not always agree. They might betray each other, or their values, or do any of another thousand things that create a rift between them. And they might realize it, or they might think they were in the right the entire time. Either way, it’s those moments that create the most compelling story: the ones where the characters end up going head to head in a conflict that can’t just be explained away, where it can’t be resolved unless something fundamentally changes.
Unsurprisingly, I noticed a particularly good example of this during my most recent rewatch of Fringe (shush, everyone’s allowed to be a fangirl every once in a while). There are a few episodes near the middle of the third season where a couple of the characters have to work through some things. The sort of things that only apply when you’re a character in a dramatic science fiction setting that involves alternate universes, but the point remains. And it hurts to watch. Because you understand both of their points of view. And you know that they both have completely valid points. And you also know that the harm done is real, and it’s not just going to vanish on its own.
And it’s resolved! The characters talk through it, work through it, and find a way to move on. They don’t just let their relationship float in whatever direction it wants, they choose to put the effort in to make it work. This could be it’s own blog post, but I can’t give enough praise for mature, intelligent characters. Conflict is so much more compelling when it’s not caused by one or both parties being idiots.
Now, I’m not going to lie. Despite knowing all this, it’s still incredibly difficult for me to work that into my writing. If several of my favorite characters aren’t getting along and are actually at odds, it make me sad. I don’t like it. I want it to stop. And it’s a lot easier to make it stop by not writing it in the first place than by putting in the work to figure out how those characters are going to have to get through it. I need to fix that. Because once I do, it’s going to make me a better writer.