Creating believable relationships: Who are your characters’ imagos?

My husband and I made it through 23 years of marriage before certain fundamental issues caused us to decide to part as friends. I doubt we would have made it anywhere close to that long if we hadn’t, fairly early on, participated in a workshop at our church on something called Imago Relationship Therapy.

Have you noticed that you (or your friends, since it’s always easier to see it in others) tend to fall for certain types of people … who tend to have the same issues? We do this, Imago Theory says, because what makes us feel warm and loved is very much based on what we experienced from our primary caregivers when we were growing up. Yet these same things are also guaranteed to make us absolutely crazy.

Imago Theory posits that we are all seeking to heal the wounds of childhood through our choice of mate, which is what drives romantic love, but in the process we will inevitably exacerbate those wounds — cue the power struggle.

brokenheartI bring it up here because, although I am by no means an expert at this theory and its practical applications, it can also be useful to look at what drives your characters to each other, especially since what attracts people to each other is also what may ultimately heal them … if they can survive the conflicts along the way.

And conflict is the heart of all compelling fiction, isn’t it? Sometimes, but not always, with a nice healing resolution at the end.

(Those of you who know anything about typical patterns of codependency in alcoholic/addicted families will recognize similar patterns in Imago Theory.)

When I was writing The Awful Mess, I gave Mary an alcoholic father, a powerful, critical mother, and a mean-tempered alcoholic first husband for a reason. Winslow definitely has a judgmental streak, and I’m willing to bet that Mary unconsciously grooves on that, just as she manages to feel comfortable with his almost comically judgmental Bible-thumping father. But Winslow being a cop and ex-Marine also freaks her out, since it means he has the potential for violence, which is what scared her the most in her first marriage.

Similarly, I suspect Winslow is unconsciously drawn to Mary’s bordering-on-depressive, withdrawing personality (though she also has a pretty mouthy judgmental streak of her own) because of what he experienced when he was growing up.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.David’s emotional remoteness in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire echoes Molly’s experience of her own distant father, which is probably why he becomes so compelling to her when he does begin to establish a bond of affection with her. Meanwhile, Molly’s plainspoken exasperation probably echoes something from David’s wife and his mother, who hadn’t made any bones about her disappointment in him at key moments — which is why Molly’s affection can be so healing for him.

I won’t claim that I actually plan this stuff out when I’m writing (I’m a pantser, and I’m also probably too busy unconsciously working out my own demons), but once something is written and developing I do look hard at it and try to evaluate it in these terms. What are the wounds my characters carry with them, and how might they seek to heal them? (Not necessarily consciously or wisely, mind you.) Because that is one way to drive any character forward in a believable way.

If you’d like to learn more about Imago Relationship Theory, whether for your writing OR your love life, here’s a really helpful page: http://www.imago.com.au/. You might also want to check out the many books by its originators, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.

And here’s wishing you a happy, healing heart!

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS / CONCERNS?