Relationship Axes

The Writing Excuses podcast constantly gives me new ways to think about things that have perplexed me for years. The latest example is the July 1, 2018, episode, in which Mary Robinette Kowal explains six “relationship axes” writers can use to explore how their characters relate to each other. She credits her mother-in-law, who came up with it as dating advice for her son.

Although I plan to put it to use in my writing, the thing that stands out for me just as much is how it applies to relationships in my own life.

The framework

What it means

The more closely aligned two people – or characters – are on these axes, the more compatible they are. It applies to romantic relationships, obviously, but also to friendships, work relationships, and all the other ways in which people interact.

Mind means they have comparable degrees of intelligence. Morals is the sense of what’s right and wrong, while manners is the idea of what’s polite and what isn’t. This is why you might have a person you can’t stand on Facebook, but when you meet them in real life you find you like them – your morals are different, but your manners are congruent.

Monogamy is the idea of what the relationship is. Kowal gave the example of two characters, one of whom thinks of the other as her best friend, while the other thinks they’re just work acquaintances. You can also think of this in terms of position power and personal power in which power can derive from a person’s position in a hierarchy or from the power of their personality and presence.

Money isn’t about how much people have, but what they think money is for, and their goals related to money. Finally, The Marx Brothers is whether they laugh at the same things. I’d broaden this to whether they enjoy doing the same things.

Using the framework

As a writer, you can use any of these as a source of conflict between your characters. Think about buddy cop movies, for example. They might be aligned on the morals axis – they both want to get the bad guys – but maybe their manners are completely different, like Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold in Beverly Hills Cop. Or think about the relationship between Meg Ryan and Bill Pullman, the guy she’s with at the beginning of Sleepless in Seattle, or Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear, the guy she’s with at the beginning of You’ve Got Mail. They seem to be aligned on every axis except monogamy – Meg Ryan’s character isn’t as happy as she thinks Pullman and Kinnear are with where the relationship seems to be going – but as the plot unfolds, we discover differences on some of the other axes, and (is a spoiler alert necessary for movies from the 90s? If so, consider yourself warned) we find out they’re actually aligned on monogamy, too, since the guys are also happy to split up and let Meg Ryan fulfill her destiny with Tom Hanks.

This framework is also helping me think about why some of my own relationships work and where the tensions come from. My husband and I come from totally different backgrounds in many ways, and we definitely aren’t in alignment on some of those axes. But on others, we’re in sync, and we’ve found ways to manage (usually) our differences on the others. Looking back at my career, some things weren’t as important in work relationships, but others were critical. Manners were key; people tended to either adapt to the way we interacted with each other or leave. Morals were often a source of conflict, where team members would see things through different lenses – although that actually strengthened the results of our work, even if it made work challenging at times.

What do you think? If you try this framework for your characters (or your life), please share in the comments.




Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.