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  • Writer's pictureJenna Moreci

How to Write Toxic Relationships

HelloOoOo everybody!

We’ve talked about writing healthy relationships. Today, we're talking about toxic relationships. Now a lot of people are confused about what makes a fictional relationship toxic. If the characters have a fight, or a misunderstanding, or one of them behaves poorly—suddenly they're toxic!

That's just not the case. Everyone fights at some point, everyone has misunderstandings, and at the end of the day, we all fuck up sometimes. A toxic relationship is deeper than a few mistakes. It's a relationship in which one or more parties are experiencing regular mental, emotional, or physical harm. The people involved aren't able to communicate or relate to one another in a healthy way, so they're often in a state of conflict. Toxic relationships can be abusive, there can be gaslighting or manipulation. Or it could simply be that they're shitty communicators, and they aren't really good at respecting one another's boundaries. This type of dynamic is extremely common, and it's perfectly valid to present it in your writing. In fact, I'd personally argue that it adds to the realism of your story to feature at least one toxic relationship.

This topic was requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, Gary. Gary wanted to know how to write a toxic relationship, without making your readers hate the main character for being involved in it. So how exactly do you write a toxic relationship? I'm gonna give you ten tips for doing just that. Let's dive in.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to also subscribe to my YouTube channel for more writing tips, sarcasm, and of course, more of Princess Butters!


Number 1: Toxic Relationships Aren’t Always Romantic Relationships

Pretty much any relationship between two or more people could be toxic. Familial relationships, friendships, business partnerships, the relationship between a teacher and a student—all that shit can get totally fucked up. I am sure you can think of some examples from your own life. For the sake of this video, I will mostly be referencing romantic relationships. However, most of the points I'm about to cover could be applied to pretty much any type of relationship.

Number 2: Know Your Genre

Different types of toxic relationships fit into different types of genres, so it's a good idea to have an understanding of your genre, and whether or not the relationship you plan to write works. If the main romantic relationship of your book is toxic, that probably wouldn't work for a romance or a rom-com because those books are designed to uplift. But if you're writing a drama, thriller, or tragedy, a main relationship that's toxic, even a romantic one, would fit seamlessly. Those genres are all about negative tension and suspense, and toxic relationships provide a whole lot of that.

Another option is to write a love story. A love story follows a romantic relationship between two or more people, and it may or may not end happily. In fact, a lot of love stories are problematic and end in death.

And of course, there's dark romance. Dark romance is a sub-genre of the romance genre that follows dark relationships, which is basically a sexy term for toxic romantic relationships. Usually, one or more characters are abusive. It could be a bully romance, or it could be a kidnapper falling in love with their victim. When you label a book a dark romance, readers are aware that there’s gonna be some questionable shit at play.

Number 3: Subplots Are a Different Story

All kinds of toxic relationships fit super well into subplots. In fact, subplots usually explore relationships of all kinds, so toxicity is fair game. Unless you have a very small cast, there's a good chance you are going to be exploring the relationships between different characters. And it's highly unlikely that all of those relationships are going to be functional and healthy.

I personally really love writing about toxic family relationships. In The Savior’s Sister, we explore a toxic relationship between Leila and her sister Cosima. I also think toxic or one-sided friendships are fun to explore because I think a lot of people can relate to them. And the best part about a toxic subplot is they can fit into pretty much any genre because everyone loves a little bit of juicy drama on the side.

Number 4: Avoid Romanticizing

Some writers are super against writing toxic relationships, and while I understand their intention, I think it's a little misplaced. It's perfectly fine to write about toxic relationships because it's realistic. They happen in the real world all the time. I can't think of a single person I know who hasn't been in some kind of toxic relationship at some point.

But there's a difference between writing a toxic relationship and romanticizing a toxic relationship. The latter is when you write a harmful relationship and present it as if it's a good thing. You're telling your readers this is what you should aspire toward in your own life, which can be really damaging, especially if your audience is young.

The key to not romanticizing is first of all, making sure you're writing in the appropriate genre as we've already covered, and second, showcasing the realistic effects of a toxic relationship. That means including elements like the disintegration of trust, growing resentment, insecurity, the development of unhealthy traits, and isolation. Every toxic relationship is different, so you need to make sure that the negative effects that occur are realistic to the character dynamic you've created.

Number 5: Ask Yourself, “Are We Supposed To Love the MC or Hate Them?”

If you're writing a romance or a heroic adventure, typically the reader is supposed to root for the MC. If that's the case, making their predominant relationship toxic may have the opposite effect. If they're the party causing the toxicity, readers are gonna think they're an asshole. But if they're the one on the receiving end, readers might hate them for tolerating all that bullshit, even if that opinion isn't completely fair.

However, plenty of books revolve around a villainous main character, like A Clockwork Orange or You. In this case, toxic relationships, particularly if they're the offending party, can drive that point home. But I'd argue that it's become increasingly common for the main character to be somewhere in the gray area. Readers don't love or hate them, they just see them as a believably messed up member of society. This is another situation where toxic relationships, even as a focal point, could be very realistic.

Number 6: Characterization

So you've got a toxic character in your book. What makes them this way? There are a bazillion different reasons why a character could behave in a toxic manner, and there are a bazillion different reasons why another character might tolerate toxicity even though it's unhealthy for them. This is when a character profile is going to be a great asset. Dive into your character's backstory, their strengths, and weaknesses, their hang-ups–what makes them the way they are today.

Using my characters as an example, Leila is tolerating a toxic relationship with her sister Cosima. Why? Leila’s biological mother, as well as the woman who raised her, are both dead and her father hates her. Her sisters are all she has, and she is clinging to them even though she realizes that what she has with Cosima probably isn't good. Why is Cosima toxic? Well, this is a woman who was ripped away from her biological family as a toddler, which can create a lot of trauma and affect a child's emotional development. Now she's living with an adoptive sister who is revered and she is extremely envious. She resents this sister for having things that Cosima will never have.

Number 7: The Slow Build

If your story is following a relationship from the very beginning, keep in mind that it takes time for toxicity to blossom. Sure, there may be red flags, but that doesn't mean that the toxic person was a walking trash fire from the start. Something encouraged your character to begin this friendship or romance. And if you're writing full-blown abuse, there's typically a grooming period. This features lots of love bombing and affection, in order to ingratiate the abuser to their future victim. Ultimately, toxicity usually doesn't happen overnight. There's a slow build to get to that point. And even when the toxic behavior ensues, you'll see moments of positivity, where the toxic person is being sweet or kind to their partner or friend. Sometimes these positive moments occur right after toxic behavior, in order to smooth things over. Other times they occur right before toxic behavior, to give them wiggle room to be a massive bitch.

Number 8: Microaggressions

The little things matter, and they can be very revealing. Microaggressions and passive aggression can be very beneficial in showcasing a toxic relationship. In fact, most of the toxic people I've met have put a lot of their toxic focus into the little things. This behavior is popular among toxic people because it's so small. Thus if the victim complains about said microaggressions or passive aggression, it's really easy to paint the victim as being dramatic, that they're making a big deal out of nothing. It puts the aggressor in a place of feeling untouchable and makes gaslighting really easy. Yes, some readers won’t pick up on microaggressions in fiction, but that's a them problem. The right people will absolutely notice these moments and appreciate that you included them.

Number 9: Research

Sometimes toxicity stems from shitty communication. Other times there's something more complex in the equation. As we've already covered, sometimes toxic relationships are full-on abuse, so you wanna make sure you're portraying the situation in an accurate way that is not harmful to your audience. Additionally, sometimes issues such as mental illness can contribute to a toxic relationship. I've known people with borderline personality disorder, anxiety, or depression, and they realized that their mental illness was contributing to how they treated the people around them in a negative way. This is a tricky subject because you wanna make sure you're presenting the mental illness accurately. Plus, you wanna make sure that you're not implying that every person with this specific mental illness, or every person with a mental illness in general, is inherently toxic because that's just not true. This is where extensive research comes into play, and I highly encourage you to hire a sensitivity reader.

Number 10: Play Ping-Pong

People always ask why a person is willing to stay with someone who causes them so much suffering, but it's not that simple. Abusers often employ control tactics that prevent their partner from safely leaving. But even if the relationship isn't abusive, toxic relationships can still be hard to leave. There's a level of codependency involved. Toxic people tend to ping-pong between the bad and the good. This confuses the victim and makes them unsure whether that person is all that bad. “She's not a terrible person, look at this wonderful gift she got me.” “He feels so bad about our fight last week, he's been showering me with affection ever since.” “Sure they can be an asshole, but the sex is amazing.” Showcasing this in your writing not only adds a level of believability but also explains to your reader why this person is staying in the situation, even though it's clearly sucking the life out of them.

So that's all I've got for you today!

Author Jenna Moreci.

A huge thank you to Gary for requesting today's topic. If you'd like the chance to have a video dedicated to you, or if you want access to tons of other rewards, check me out on Patreon. I got it linked here.


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