What’s as Dangerous as a Fairy Tale Ending – and How to Avoid It

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Photo by Joe Penna

Photo by Joe Penna

Today’s topic comes to us from Jubilare:

“I worry a lot about the dysfunction of my characters being taken as an approval of dysfunction in relationships.…One can avoid idealizing the flaws, sure, but how does one accept that humans and relationships are flawed without sending out the message that people should be satisfied with potentially abusive relationships…without seeming to say ‘look at the nice romance you can have with people who have X dangerous flaws’?”

We have a tendency to write about seriously flawed people. Depressed addicts with childhood scars and abandonment issues. Let’s face it: they’re just more fun.

But through this, we risk giving our readers a skewed view of the world. Just as sugary-perfect princess endings can train little girls to believe their lives will be perfect once they get married, moving tales of troubled souls can lead readers to believe dysfunctional relationships are the only real kind; that the best they can hope for is to find poetry in the pain. Worse, they might even believe such relationships are romantic, something to chase after.

What guy doesn’t want to hold the manic pixie dream girl when she cries?

What girl doesn’t want to soothe the nightmares of the war-torn bad boy?

Now, some readers will romanticize dysfunctional relationships no matter what you do, just as some will find sexual innuendos, political statements, or religious dogma in places you never intended to put them. That can’t be helped.

But we have a responsibility to do what we can: both to faithfully represent reality and to give readers the courage to improve that reality.

Here are three ways you can do that when writing about dysfunctional relationships. Try using at least two wherever the need arises.

Know the signs.

Read up on the signs of abusive relationships so you know whether or not you’re writing about one. Also research the typical physical and behavioral struggles that come with your character’s flaws. Show realistic consequences; don’t pull any punches when it comes to the pain of living in an unhealthy relationship, even if your hero is the one inflicting that pain.

Show an alternative.

Use secondary characters to show a healthier version of the flawed relationship in question. For instance, if your hero’s parents had a horrible marriage, and he struggles with knowing how to treat the girl he loves, give him a happy aunt and uncle, or a best friend with a good marriage. Give him (and your readers) something to aspire to.

Include a victory.

Every story has a physical plot and an emotional one. A dysfunctional relationship is an emotional plot. Don’t just leave it as-is at the end: make your hero come to terms with these problems at the climax, have him make an ultimate decision, and lead him to at least a small victory in the end.

A note about victory:

Be careful how your hero comes by that victory. Real healing is difficult and painful; it doesn’t happen instantly. Her love alone can’t make him stop drinking. His love alone can’t pull her out of a clinical depression.

But maybe it can help them take the first step.

Got a writing topic you want talked about? Drop it in the Suggestion Box.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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7 Comments

  1. Good advice, Stephanie. There is more to writing about characters than simply being one in reality.

    • Stephanie Orges

      Oh, my goodness; you’ve put it so poignantly! Jerry, you are a machine for coming up with quotable quotes!

  2. Well laid out! Showing something to aspire to, if only in the secondary characters, is an especially good thought/strategy. Also, being honest, as always, about consequences. Thank you for addressing this!

    • Huzzah! I have been mulling it over awhile now, and these are my best conclusions thus far. It’s funny how we all deal with these problems, but we don’t always think about asking the questions – or it doesn’t even occur to us that it IS a problem – so thanks for asking the question! That’s the great advantage of collaboration.

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