Character relationships are at the heart of most stories. Few protagonists successfully exist in a vacuum. Most will be contextualized by their supporting cast. More than that, the relationships between characters are often the single most interesting and entertaining element in any story.
When asking me about my own fiction, people sometimes wonder where I find my first germ of an actionable idea: plot or character? My answer is that I never know if I have a story worth telling until I have two characters talking to each other. (And, of course, that is plot at its simplest.)
Certainly, as a reader or viewer, I am usually less engaged by any one character than I am by character relationships. This dynamic is most obvious in relationship-oriented stories such as romances, but it is key in genres of all sorts. For example, the reason I love the film Warrior isn’t so much because I particularly like any one character, but rather because I am engaged by the relationship between the the two estranged brothers who will end up fighting each other. (Although let’s be honest, hot Tom Hardy doesn’t hurt.)
This seems obvious enough, but it’s surprising how often writers take for granted the importance of character relationships. I have read and watched waaaaayyy too many stories that sidelined their most important character relationships—and ended up boring and frustrating me as a result. This happens most often in series, in which authors attempt to add layers and deepen complexity by splitting up characters to create new subplots. However, this doesn’t always work for the simple reason that this approach can end up removing or shortchanging the story’s best element.
Think of Character Relationship as “The Third Entity”
One of the simplest tricks for leveraging character relationships in your story is to stop thinking about a fictional relationship as a sum of its parts (i.e., two different characters who come together wherever it is convenient for the author) and instead to start thinking of the relationship as an entity of its own.
Actually, there is a deeper truth here. Every relationship is, in fact, its own entity. Let’s say you and I are friends. Within this equation, there is the entity that is you as an individual, the entity that is me as an individual, and the third entity that is our relationship. The relationship is its own thing, has its own energy, its own container, its own goals and purposes. Healthy relationships are those that are less about one person nurturing the other and more about both people nurturing the container that is the relationship itself.
In Attached, doctors Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller call this a “biological truth”:
Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.
This is a helpful perspective through which to view relationships in our own lives, but it is also a useful way to think of character relationships. In any two-party relationship, you will be dealing with three entities: the two characters and the relationship itself.
When you view character relationships in this way, you can start plotting with not just the characters in mind but also their relationship. This is also a simple means for ensuring your story does not become too plot-centric. Even if the dynamic between your characters is entirely focused on working toward a mutual goal, you get to use this goal to facilitate the third entity, which is the relationship.
What If You Need to Split Up Your Characters?
Focusing on character relationships is easy as long as you’re writing a relatively simple story that allows characters to remain in the same setting with the same goal. But what if you’re writing a sprawling, plot-heavy story, in which logistics require characters to split up and go their own way? Will this irrevocably damage your story and frustrate readers?
It depends. Here are a few options, depending on the needs of your story.
Avoid Splitting Up Character Relationships
It’s always a bit dicey to split up characters who have a good dynamic. If you’ve been fortunate enough to write a character relationship that your audience loves experiencing, then destroying or suspending that dynamic may not be your smartest choice. Before proceeding, dig deep enough to examine whether this is truly the best option for your story. Your audiences is here, first and foremost, not because they want the plot to work—but because they want to be entertained. Or as Matt Bird says in Secrets of Story:
Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.
Obviously, the plot is important too, but if you bore or annoy your audience, they may not stick around to experience the plot.
Take a step back and truly consider whether pulling an established and successful character relationship is your best bet. Several fantasy stories pop to mind that lost me because they isolated the protagonist from the relationship dynamics that were initially most interesting to me. Beware of overcomplicating your plot at the expense of the most foundational elements. Sometimes the simplest aspects of a story are the ones that offer the most potential for success.
Choose the Most Interesting Group Pairings
If you’ve double-checked yourself and decided that, yes, splitting up your characters is your best choice, make sure you’re replacing the lost relationship dynamic with a new one. Just as audiences can (and should) enjoy more than one character, they can also enjoy more than one relationship dynamic. Accomplishing this requires care. Particularly if the initial relationship dynamic was excellent, you’ll have to dig deep to make sure the new ones measure up.
If you’re splitting your cast into multiple groups (presumably so they can cover more ground in the plot), then make sure you are creating pairings that offer the most bang for your buck. Look for characters who have chemistry and/or natural antagonism. The best character relationships are usually those that prompt significant growth for one or both characters. This can be accomplished in multiple ways, but the simplest is to make sure these characters have rough edges that rub against each other.
The show Stranger Things generally does an outstanding job of this. Throughout its first four seasons, it successfully juggles its huge cast into multiple different pairings, allowing audiences to experience the characters in different dynamics that reveal different aspects of their personalities.
Most importantly, all of the relationships offer stakes that are equally meaningful. For example, Dustin cares as much about his relationship with Steve as he does his relationship with Mike as he does his relationship with Suzie—and all three relationships are also important and interesting to audiences, allowing Dustin to successfully move about the storyworld without viewers ever feeling the show is missing out on something vital.
Provide New Relationship Entities
If you need to send a character into an entirely new situation, you may find you need to introduce new character relationships altogether. You must promptly establish that the new characters can offer just as much entertainment value as those from previous relationships (something Stranger Things failed at in the notorious Episode 7 from Season 2, which focuses on Eleven’s interval with the punk robbers led by her superpowered “sister” Kali).
The key is to ensure new characters are not simply placeholders within the plot until your primary character can return to previous relationships. Although this means digging deep to make sure these new supporting characters are as dimensional as anyone else in the story, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character requires a huge backstory and lots of detail. What’s important is that the relationship dynamic is charged enough to be entertaining. Your audience needs to be so engaged with this new relationship that they will want to experience it for its own sake, rather than wanting to skip ahead to get back to a more interesting dynamic.
For example, when the fellowship breaks in The Lord of the Rings, characters go off in different directions, all of them forming new relationships—all of which are dimensional and thematically entertaining in their own right. Most of members of the huge cast in this story are not introduced until the second installment, but almost all of them are so fully realized in their relationships with the original cast members that they are just as iconic as those from the first book.
Make the Time Apart About the Relationship
If a certain relationship is of primary importance to the story and yet you still feel the need to split up the characters for a time, consider how you can make their time apart about the relationship, thereby keeping alive the original dynamic. This is by far the trickiest aspect to pull off, but sometimes it must be done due to the logic of the plot or simply to create the necessary stakes or consequences of time spent apart.
Warrior did this well; the brothers are hardly ever together within the story’s timeline, yet their relationship is always front and center.
Another successful example is from the western romance Sing My Name by Ellen O’Connell, which splits up the romantic couple for a lengthy section, but keeps readers attention via skillful characterization as well as all of the abovementioned techniques.
What Creates Successful Character Relationships?
Character relationships offer a vehicle for expanding and improving almost every aspect of fiction.
Character relationships are at the heart of character arc and development, providing catalysts and conflict to reveal personality and to prompt growth and change.
Character relationships create a medium in which to develop the plot. Protagonist and antagonist are the most obvious duo to drive plot, but any important relationship in fiction offers the opportunity for stakes and consequences. Relationships highlight what is important in a character’s life (whether the relationship is what’s most important or not), offering motivation for all actions.
Character relationships are also the proving ground of theme. The differences and similarities amongst characters is what offers the thematic contrast and context that illustrates any thematic argument. Therefore, good character relationships are simply good fiction. If your character arcs, plot, and theme are working well, it’s likely because the foundation of good character relationships is already in place.
More than that though, character relationships give birth to one of the single most entertaining aspects of fiction: dialogue. Whether or not a character relationship works and engages readers depends in large part on how well the dialogue works. If the characters’ chemistry allows them to demonstrate and develop the relationship through skillful dialogue, it’s almost a sure bet audiences will like the dynamic and want to follow it through the story.
This is obviously true in a relationship-centric story, but it’s just as true in stories in which the primary relationship character functions as little more than a dialogue buddy. For example, most of us enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories as much for the dynamic between Holmes and Watson as for the plot elements of the mysteries.
Perhaps the single most useful litmus test for successful character relationships is simply whether or not they matter.
- How does the relationship affect the outcome of the plot?
- How does the plot affect the outcome of the relationship?
- How is this relationship a proving ground for everything that happens in this story (whether your story features a romantic couple or a parent-child dynamic or friends or colleagues or enemies or strangers who pass in the night)?
Ask yourself whether engaging character relationships show up on every page of your story. If yes, that’s your first green light. Then ask whether the prominent character relationships matter to the story. If yes, that’s your second green light—and you’re good to go.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think creates dynamic and engaging character relationships? Tell me in the comments!
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The post Hot Tip for Character Relationships: The Relationship IS a Character appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland