Character Relationships: The Adult With Distance

Yesterday, I started talking about parents and their potential impacts on characters and their development. Today I’m going to stay in that vein but take a slightly different tone, as I move on to the next step outward in a developmental relationship: the adult with distance.

At heart, the adult with distance is more of a guide than an aggressive shaper, often doubling as the “family the character chooses”. Since he doesn’t have to live with her, and since their relationship is often as much a matter of choice as circumstance, the adult with distance is usually less likely to have an adversarial relationship with the character (though this might not necessarily apply if the character is foisted off on the adult with distance by the parents). While most people expect the adult with distance to be a mentor, first employer, neighbor or friend’s parent (or similar nonrelative), it’s also a popular role for noncustodial parents and nonresidential grandparents, and occasionally populated by supernatural guardians. This is, in fact, one of the few uneven-power relationships that is realistically more often than not positive.

The greatest advantage the adult with distance has in his relationship with the character is that he has the authority of an adult without the stringent requirements of a parent. In part, this allows him to be a bit less of an authority and a bit more of an ally than the parent; after all, if the character doesn’t turn out the way everyone wants her to, isn’t that ultimately the parent’s fault? This doesn’t mean that the adult with distance isn’t trying to get the character to grow up in a certain way (how ‘right’ the way is often depends on the adult with distance’s own morals and attitudes), just that the adult with distance is “permitted” to try to use honey rather than vinegar in situations where the parent wouldn’t be. Similarly, the distance between them brings out the ability to tolerate each other’s habits more easily due to decreased overexposure, and, possibly more importantly for the character, for the adult with distance to notice more easily than the parent when the character is growing/has grown up.

If there’s an adult with distance present in a mentorly role, the character is at least as likely to mirror portions of his skills, interests and profession as she is her parents; after all, he is the one teaching her. Note that this is less likely to happen with a teacher, let alone with a helpful neighbor; possible, but not a guarantee. This goes double when the character is being pushed towards a given future by her parents, or when she’s caught between them and doesn’t want to seem like she’s taking sides; often, the mentor will have or know of a third option. (Of course, then there’s the possibility that the fact that the mentor has a third option will up the tension and inspire the character to find a fourth; stranger things have happened!)

One of the most common roles of an adult with distance is in providing a safe space and coping strategies when dealing with conflict within a household. Part of this, again, is a function of the distance and the ability to present himself as an ally to the character. When the character is feeling overwhelmed by the intrahousehold conflicts, or just trying to get away from the dustups between other members of the family, having a place to hide can be very important to her, and further strengthen her relationship with the adult with distance.

But the world isn’t just the connection to the character; tomorrow, I’m going to look at one of the oldest rivalries in the book: the one between the parent and the adult with distance. Stay tuned!


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