Characters that spend a lot of time together need to have a certain spark, a certain pop, a certain fizz. They need to interact in such a way that makes us want to see them interact more. That’s character chemistry, and it’s what we’re talking about today. How do you create character chemistry? What’s the difference between platonic and romantic chemistry? What about antagonistic chemistry? We’ll discuss all that and more. Plus, you’ll get to hear some really bad chemistry jokes.Download Episode 177 Subscription Feed
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: this episode is brought to you by our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And today, we are brewing up some things in a lab, we are gonna take some acids and some bases and make a cool volcano. And we’re going to put our characters in it and it’s going to be great. Characters are going to do chemistry experiments.
Oren: Basic character chemistry.
Chris: Yeah. That’s totally how it works. That’s what makes a great romance. Right? You just give them some hydrogen peroxide and then that’s it.
Oren: I mean, the baking soda volcano definitely got me one of my first dates, so I’m super into it.
Wes: I was going to say some basic acids got me in trouble, but… [laughter] …Keep it PG Wes. Come on.
Chris: Yeah, no, this is a big issue and something that you see a lot of, even big name stories like movies flubbing a lot. It’s just making it feel like there is chemistry between characters and romance when it starts.
Oren: my favorite is the one where they can’t create chemistry between their heterosexual romance interests, but they create tons of chemistry between characters of the same gender by mistake. And then it’s like, those characters are going to be together, right?[laughter]
Chris: You know, no, this is just going to disappoint you. I think one thing I’ll start with, that I think is the biggest thing: the most obvious thing is if you want to create character chemistry between characters, they need to spend time together.
Oren: Do they though?
Chris: They need to be in some scenes together [laughs]. And it’s weird how stories just completely neglect this. That’s the most basic thing – they have to be in a room or at least talking on a phone or interacting in some way. And a great example is Harry Potter actually, because you get the feeling that Rawling just planned this romance with Ginny from the beginning, and then just wasn’t interested in it. You know, she made a romance with them [Harry and Ginny] because she was planning to, not because she was interested in any way. That’s what I’m guessing because it is very, very strange how few scenes they spend together. We hear a lot of telling about how Harry’s super into her, but then we don’t actually see them interact. And there’s even a sequence where like Harry goes and spends the Christmas break with the whole Weasley family, including Ginny. She picks a warm out of his hair and that’s it. And that’s all we get.
Oren: Yeah. It would seem like they would have scenes together in that sequence, but they don’t.
Chris: They don’t have any kinds of meaningful conversations whatsoever and it’s a very, very strange thing because Rowling has no problem having interesting character dynamics between any of her other characters at any time. So why she has an entire romance arc in this book and no scenes with them together is very odd.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a great thing to start on: make sure that they hang out together. The thing that I like to think of about this is anytime anybody – please do this too – anytime that everybody says those characters have great chemistry, push farther, because that is a vague metaphor at best. If you can actually define what you mean by chemistry, that will reveal actually what’s going on in that relationship. Right? Because no one would describe that Harry and Ginny have chemistry. At all.
Oren: Well, I mean, some people…
Wes: some people would.[brief laughter]
Wes: Press them on: “Okay. Tell us what you mean.” And then suddenly there is, oh, do you mean, they have great chemistry despite the fact that they spend zero time together? Well, then what is it? Describe this relationship without a vague metaphor, please. Then we can get at the root of what’s really going on there.
Chris: you can develop chemistry in different ways. I have to say that I’m definitely “pro-” what’s called a slow burn romance where the characters develop genuine bonds with each other… I think a really good example of characters that I felt that had chemistry that were not from flirtation, but from bond development was Tuvok and Seven in Voyager, Star Trek: Voyager, where they kind of relate to each other because they have this whole ‘not really dealing with emotions’ thing… And Tuvok’s really the only person who talks to Seven respectfully.
Oren: Yep. Literally the only one.
Chris: And, you know, gives her good advice and is objective and treats her with that kind of respect; we see the way that he helps her… When Janeway tries to help her, you know, Seven — and I know lots of people ship Janeway and Seven – but the way that Janeway helps Seven is in forcing her to do things. Imposing her will on Seven. Then, when you see Seven and Tuvok interact, it’s a much deeper kind of bonding thing. And at least they have some episodes where Tuvok is set up as a mentor character for Seven.
Oren: Yeah. There are some, there are a handful that… Not that many, not nearly as many as you would expect considering how good the chemistry is between those characters, which leads me to believe it was an accident.
Chris: Yeah, it was totally nice, and I’m pretty sure the reason they don’t put them in any scenes together is because they’re so similar that they don’t create a lot of conflict in the scene. And you know, when you’re a writer and you have protagonists together, you want conflict to make the scene entertaining of some kind and having two characters that don’t have anything to fight about because they just get along… Right. And you can create chemistry in conflict too, but putting romantic tension in those scenes creates its own level of entertainment. They could have considered that.
Oren: Right. If you want an example of a show that did this, but on purpose and with an actual romance, I would say that the Legend of Korra season four romance between Korra and Asami is a pretty good example.The major downside of this romance is that it fell victim to “No Queers on TV,” because at the end, instead of kissing the way they would to indicate the start of any other romance, they hold hands. The writers had to tell everyone, “No, they’re in a romance. Here, we wrote a comic about it.”
Chris: Yeah. They’re there canonically in a romance, but why didn’t we get to see them kiss like we do for any hetero couple?
Oren: Just change that last ending and have them kiss then, which is American TV language for, “A romance has begun.” Then their romance is great and they have this – one of the things that is really important in a romance, or at least that I think is really important in a romance, is that they are better together then apart like you, there is something that they bring out in each other that is positive. Obviously not every romance in real life is like that, but if you want me to want them to be together, you got to show that to me. Otherwise I’m like, [bored voice] yawn. I don’t care. [normal voice] And they have that.
I mean, Asami provides emotional support to Korra because Korra is basically having a trauma arc in season four. Really good. After three seasons of mediocrity, amazing fourth season, and Korra also gives something to Asamii. It’s not a one-sided romance. Korra sees Asami and sees her value. And that’s like, almost a meta commentary because Asami is like the only non-bender in the main cast and she becomes less and less important as the show goes on, and Korra recognizes how valuable she is. And, you know, brings her back into the main spotlight for season four, which is another reason season four is better.
Chris: I think emotional support is super valuable if you want that type of bonding chemistry. I really think it makes a huge difference when the characters have a reason to just sit down and have a meaningful and personal conversation. I feel like that makes all the difference. And one reason for that to happen is one character is upset and has things that they need to talk about that are personal, and then the other character’s role is to comfort them. Right. And then you see how they’re better together. Having emotional support is just a really great way to do that kind of bonding chemistry. Sharing enjoyment and similar things can also work.
I watched the first season of Darker Than Black recently, it was just an anime and the protagonist has several different potential love interests in the season, but there’s one particular love interest where he really likes food and he eats tons of food and she also really likes food and eats some of the food, and their friends give them the same crap about eating a lot that is ridiculous. So we finally have a scene where they are eating at a restaurant together… And they’re not giving each other crap. They’re just eating lots of food and there’s no commentary, and just, they’re enjoying food. I personally thought that that was pretty cute.
Oren: It’s really interesting to me, because I was looking at my notes of friendship chemistry versus romance chemistry, and at least for me, the check marks are basically exactly the same.
Chris and Wes: Yeah. Yup.
Oren: It’s like their friendship. The things that make a good friendship are basically the same as the things that make a good romance, except that they don’t kiss… Which is, I think, one of the reasons why, even if you don’t mean to, queer baiting is super easy because it’s like, “Yeah, these characters are good friends,” and a lot of the things that you use to show that these characters are friends are the same things you use to indicate they’re in a romance, except that, you know, because we have a heteronormative culture, we have done it so that people do the friend thing with their same gender and the romance thing with the opposite gender. And so that is something to be aware of as a storyteller and the best remedy for it is to have, if you have two characters who are of the same gender and you want them to be friends and not be a romance interest, the best way to avoid queer baiting is to have other queer couples. Because then it’s not a huge deal if these two didn’t get together. That’s just their relationship, but people don’t feel like you unfairly led them on.
Chris: Yeah. I will say that also body language, when it comes to, you know – moving on – in chemistry, body language really matters when it comes to chemistry. It’s the most obvious in a visual medium of course, cause we have talented actors and we have directing. They’re doing a lot of really subtle things, you know, to create chemistry, but we can still do it when we’re writing too, to have certain chemistry; queer baiting becomes the most remarkable when it’s like, “Okay, what they were doing really looks like romantic body language, but we’re going to continue to insist that there’s no romance actually happening here.”
I mean, I think the very least you can kind of use… It’s like, when they walk away from each other does somebody glance back? But, you know, just gentle pats, that kind of thing. Again, most of the things that you do to build chemistry should, if they’re not explicitly dating yet, be appropriate for friends to do… You know, not inappropriate, but finding themselves in close proximity and that kind of thing. I mean, that’s definitely [something that], if you’re not planning on getting them together as a romance, you shouldn’t be doing with them. And then, you know, thoughts, if you’re a viewpoint character, thoughts, appreciating the other person, you can kind of reanalyze, [character voice] “You know, I thought that person was a jerk, but I really liked the way that they did this, or, they positively surprised me in some way.” [normal voice] That kind of thing, or if they’re antagonistic — I mean, let’s maybe talk about antagonistic chemistry a little bit.
Oren: Yeah. I think that’s when you make one of them acidic and the other one basic… [laughter]
Chris: That’s the volcano that we were just talking about earlier. Yeah, I think, antagonistic chemistry — and that’s where you have characters that are, like bickering in the beginning, it can work really well, certainly on screen when you have nice actors, it can work really well. It definitely has more pitfalls than just doing bonding though, than doing meaningful bonding.
Wes: Right. I think, if you’re going to show people being antagonistic, the audience or the reader needs to get something out of it. Right. I think one of the standards for me with an antagonistic, witty repartee is Much Ado About Nothing with Beatrice and Benedict. Like, the whole play is just them insulting each other, but the way they do it is so funny that you like to enjoy that and you can see the shift in the insults as they go along. And it’s the same reason. If you’re going to read anything that might not be harmonious, or just generally, if it’s going to be antagonistic, you got to get something out of it that’s pleasurable, right? Whether it’s beautiful language or descriptions or nice scenes… But otherwise it’s kind of hard to make chemistry. I mean, would you consider that the Batman and the Joker have chemistry?
Oren: Absolutely. I think that those — okay, so there, I think when we talk about antagonistic chemistry, I think there’s two different kinds. There’s the kind of antagonistic chemistry between characters who have some kind of clash, but are still going to end up together, and that’s what we were talking about; and then there’s the chemistry between the hero and the villain. Right. And Batman and the Joker absolutely have chemistry. Now, they’re never going to get together. I mean, outside of exactly all of the fan fictions… [laughter] …but you know, on screen, they’re not going to get together.
That would be ridiculous, but they still have chemistry. Right. They are set up to be opposing and complimentary factions. There’s a reason why Batman has the really extreme, out there, villains compared to someone like Superman who has much more straightforward villains, or at least, the ones that we tend to see in cartoons and movies — in the comics, it’s a whole nother game — but, you know, because Batman has this… the Batman/Joker dynamic is order and chaos, right? It’s the oldest duality in the book. And they have really good chemistry that way. It’s the same thing with Zuko and Aang in Avatar. They have really good antagonistic chemistry, and they eventually become friends, but even if they didn’t…Their dual obsessions with Aang being obsessed with saving the world, Zuko being obsessed with having his honor back and in season three, when they have that brilliant thing of Aang being like, “I need my honor back,” after he loses to Azula… So, so perfect. I’m going to go watch Avatar.[laughter]
Chris: I do think that shipping a protectionist and antagonist is very common. I think, just like there is perhaps a fine line between friendships and romances, there also can be a fine line between that kind of hatred and opposing each other and feeling kind of like romantic chemistry or sexual chemistry. I think that can also be kind of fine too. And I think, with a romance — because a lot of romances, you have to oppose, find something to an obstacle, right, or else why don’t they just start dating? And then it’s over. Having them start out by disliking each other is very, very, very popular. It gives the romance their obstacle. It also, I think, creates chemistry. And it’s like, if you pick up a lot of romance novels, most romance novels, I would say, even, that you pick up, we’ll start with the lovebirds hating each other in the beginning.
Oren: Right. And that kind of antagonistic chemistry is extremely tricky, especially if you’re dealing with a heterosexual couple, because the power dynamics between men and women are very, very different, and so it’s super easy to make the man just come across as a dick. Yeah. If they’re arguing and sniping and she calls him a dick and he calls her a bitch, that’s not equal, right? She has nothing she can say to him that is the equivalent of that. At that point he’s just throwing his patriarchal privilege around, and you know some audiences won’t care, but anybody who is more progressive, that’s going to bother.
Chris: I mean, frankly that description of them each calling each other names is way better than the majority of things that I see in romances, because usually it’s not just a matter of an inherent societal balance, but like the author’s being — the writer is — making a very careful effort to be more objective. Most of the time the writer is writing in things that they did not intend where the woman is being perfectly reasonable, is mad for reasons everybody would understand, and then the guy is actually just really being a jerk, objectively, but we’re supposed to root for their romance. Right? Because men are just given more latitude in their behavior than women are. And so almost all the time when I look at this, it’s not just a matter of there’s a…They’re treating each other exactly the same way almost, but there’s an uneven balance of power; it’s that they are not — that the man is definitely being the more bad actor in this scenario. There’s definitely more areas to trip up with antagonistic chemistry, but you can do things like: I think having them be rivals is a really good way; giving them goals. I think the thing that is the hardest is if you try to give them a personality conflict. Personality conflicts can totally work, but I think that a lot of times when writers try to create personality conflicts, they end up making it feel really contrived. They’re just not able to pull off what is a realistic personality conflict for these two people to have. Whereas, if you give them some kind of opposing goal, like they’re competing over something, right, then it’s a lot easier to create the sort of low level antagonism that you’re going for without making one of them a jerk or making the whole thing feel contrived.
Oren: One really good example of an antagonistic romance is in the novel Plus One, which has some issues outside of this, but it’s romance is quite good. It starts off with the two lovebirds, not liking each other, for very understandable reasons, and engineers situations where, for example, the protagonist, who is a woman– she has no choice but to take advantage of this guy offering to help her, because if she doesn’t, she’s going to be arrested and sent to prison for violating this country’s arbitrary laws that don’t make sense. You can totally see why she does that. Then on, from his point of view, it’s like this person who he offered to help took advantage of him. And he feels bad. He doesn’t like that and he doesn’t really understand everything that she’s going through, and so it makes sense. It doesn’t make him feel like a bad person when he doesn’t react well to that. They use that to go back and forth and then they slowly… The author slowly brings them closer and closer together as they start to acquire more of the same goals, and it’s just a really good example of a romance that starts off with the main characters not liking each other, but ends up with them in love. It’s very believable. Whereas a lot of these are like, they started off so far apart that it’s just really hard to imagine that they could ever work as a couple.
Chris: I think that is for some people what makes them compelling though, because you want to see, what could make those two people that hate each other actually get together and… [breaks off giggling]
Oren: Right, right.That’s like a mystery story, where the more elaborate you make the mystery, people will stick around to be like, how are they going to explain all of these things? But then very often they can’t.There is no explanation that would work for them.
Chris: I think a good example of chemistry that was kind of antagonistic, that was really good, and was perhaps not intentional, unfortunately– The book Artemis by Andy Weir does this really weird thing where it’s clear that he isn’t really like…. He has a female protagonist and he does not do a fantastic job with his female protagonist. But there’s this character; she’s a crook because she’s a smuggler. That’s her M.O. And there’s a police officer character who’s like the one police officer on the… it takes place on a small moon colony. He’s the one police officer on the moon colony and Andy Weir makes a big deal that he’s really hot. [laughs] [mock dreamy voice] Six feet and he’s blond hair and dreamy. [normal voice] When they do their witty repartee, the main character makes these almost jabs, but talking about– then mentions how hot he is in her light jabs, something like that. At first I was really impressed because, wow, this guy is clearly the love interest and he is a police officer that might be arresting her that she’s suspicious of, but he’s not creepy at all. He’s not using his power as a police officer to make any inappropriate moves on her. I think the reason is because he wasn’t the love interest. Otherwise Weir probably would have made him do something inappropriate. But there’s this one moment where he’s trying to get information out of her and she is lying to him. Then what he does is he gets out, they have these little devices–
Oren: Smartphones basically.
Chris: They’re like smartphones, they’re called something else in the book. And he’s like, “Here, I will pay you to tell me the truth. Here. Here’s a hundred credits.” And then she’s like, What, why are you doing that?” Like, “No, I want the truth here. I’ll try to pay you.” And what we find out in this scene is that he knows that she has– even though she lies all the time– that she has actually a really strong work ethic, where, when somebody pays her, then suddenly, she has a whole other moral system that kicks into gear where she won’t cheat somebody who’s paid her. And so she won’t take his money because she doesn’t want to tell him the truth and he knows that, and so then he reveals that. You learn not only do they have this whole bit of antagonism happening in some witty repartee, and this is also all in service of the plot, too. The plot is moving forward, but he actually understands something about her that most people don’t, that is positive about her. He’s using that to his advantage in his job, but it still almost feels like a bonding moment at the same time because they understand each other–
Oren: Because they understand each other.
Chris: –Because they understand each other! It’s really good. It was really disappointing that he was not the love interest.
Oren: Here’s something else. Another lesson we can draw from Artemis, which is, and I think this is most common when male writers write women, is that male writers often forget to establish their male romance interest in the story about a female main character would– why does the protagonist want this person? What is it about them that makes them appealing? And Andy Weir, for the actual romance interest of this book, just completely forgot to do that.
Chris: He’s just not appealing at all. I don’t know why she would be into him.
Oren: Just falls for some random kind of creepy engineer friend of hers.
Chris: That Andy Weir probably identified with.
Oren: That’s a possibility. That might be why.
Chris: I mean, I don’t know, frankly. I mean, granted, I make that crack because that seems like to me a realistic reason why he would make this mistake as a writer. I don’t actually know that it and it doesn’t actually make a difference to the quality of the book, but it’s like, how can you overlook this? Why did you give her an unattractive and creepy love interest? I don’t know.
Oren: Right. A lot of dudes just kind of forget that women have preferences in their partners too. [dramatic voice] We’re going to blow your mind with that. [normal voice] I don’t know, like I suspect it’s because of the whole “You are owed a girl for existing” message that gets put into so many stories, but regardless of why, it is clear that this is a problem a lot of dudes have. That’s just like, you know, if you’re writing someone, and this is important for any gender, but especially if you are a guy writing a woman and you want to put her in a romance, make sure that it’s clear what she’s getting out of this. Why is she interested in this guy? You know, it doesn’t count if it’s because you identify with that guy. That doesn’t help.
Chris: Yeah. I think, and it doesn’t always have to be anything superficial, but the love interest should feel attractive at some level. And again, I don’t think it necessarily means that they have to be physically super hot, but I think it is nice if they have an interesting physical distinctive feature, so you can kind of imagine what they look like a little bit, that is at least interesting.
Oren: Terry Pratchett, in one of his witch books, has a romance between a young witch and a visiting priest who– they’re about the same age. I realized when I said that it sounded like the priest was older– but at the same age, and they’re both not conventionally attractive. They’re not super hot by traditional standards. But they also have.. you can, because of his description, you know what the other one finds attractive about each other. Even though he’s kind of gangly and has acne on his face, and she’s not a supermodel, each of them have a distinguishing feature. I think what he goes with her is that he really, really likes her singing. And with him it’s that she just thinks that his nose is pretty is what I recall correctly
Chris: I mean, it’s Pratchett, so he gets really quirky. He definitely has very quirky characters. He doesn’t make most of them conventionally attractive, and then he puts them in interesting romances with each other. And that’s kind of like what he does, that’s his thing. But in any case, so that was disappointing. Another interesting example I want to bring up that I meant to mention earlier is, the thing about having characters spend time together actually happens a fair amount in TV shows. I think a lot of people are familiar with the bizarre TV show hookup, where you have a cast of characters, and then suddenly these two characters without any seeming buildup or something are dating.And it’s really weird. And I do think that’s a problem with just… If you just put them in scenes together, just the two of them, there’s some conversation that would fix most of the problems.
But in season, I think season six of Teen Wolf, is a good example. Where we have a romance between Scott, the main character ,and Malia who was previously dating another character and just broke up, and that they actually have some really… leading up to the romance, they actually have some really cute scenes where they’re interacting and she’s,, she’s a kind of socially inept– that’s one of her character traits– where she’s accidentally letting slip that she’s really into Scott and saying things like, “Oh, I need you,” and then, “Oh, I just said that kind of thing.” The thing is that it’s strange for there already to be that level of chemistry between them, because we’ve really never seen them have any substantial interactions before the start of the season. It feels like they took something that should happen mid-season. Early-season we show Scott giving her some emotional support, helping her be in control of her shape-shifting powers, that kind of thing, and just the two of them. Then, after a few episodes of that, then we’re ready for Malia being like, “I need you… Oops. I said that,” scenes. Then we’re ready for that next level of scenes. It’s very strange to open the season with that.
And that’s the kind of thing, at least in TV shows, that I see a lot, where now these people just have chemistry and we didn’t see where it came from. We didn’t see the foundational movements that led to them being into each other.
Oren: Right. That’s super easy to happen in a television show because of the chaotic nature of TV writing, where you have a bunch of people in the room and a bunch of changing requirements. In the case of a show like Teen Wolf, where they can’t keep actors for more than a season or two, they end up having to make decisions that they weren’t thinking about before. Or I guess you could just be Voyager, and I don’t know what happened with Voyager, but now suddenly Seven and Chakotay are in a romance and they seem to have made that decision at like the last minute, even though they told the actors they weren’t going to do it.
Chris: Yeah, that was right. They had an episode together not long before they actually started dating where the actors were like, “Hey is there a romance happening? Should we play this like there’s a romance happening?” And they were like, [flat] “No.” [normal] Then several episodes later, “Oh, you guys are in a romance,” like, okay, thanks.
Oren: That’s just a case of bad planning. Right. And unlike a novel, you can’t go back and revise the previous episodes to make it work because they’re already out there. I mean, maybe George Lucas would try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Chris: I think it’s worth also talking about, since we were talking about antagonistic chemistry, how do you actually transition that to an actual romance? Because as Orin was saying, that can feel unrealistic.
Oren: Sometimes if I remember correctly, they do a dry, a [unintelligible] fight. And then at the end of it they kiss. I think that’s how it works.
Chris: Yeah. Again, I want to warn people, let’s not do the whole surprise kiss thing. If they’re not explicitly in a romance, we shouldn’t just rush somebody with a kiss. It’s not really appropriate behavior. I think a couple of ways that can work well is, number one, it’s usually good if they have to team up at some point, because that gives them a reason to force them to try to work together more constructively. Then they can either have some genuine bonding moments… They can impress each other like, “Hey, actually we worked really well as a team.”
And then if you have time, you can show that they have genuine bonding moments and they’re clearly, slowly just getting into each other and this hate is going away and now they really are starting to care about each other; or, they can just work really well as a team together. The edge can be taken off of their antagonism and then one of them can just ask the other out. Like, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of you.”
Oren: Storytellers again.
Chris: It’s okay. That’s okay. I can just ask each other out.
Oren: They’re really against the concept of asking someone on a date. They just don’t like doing it. It’s like, if that happens, it’s like a sign that this romance is doomed. I don’t know why.
Chris: It’s so unoriginal.
Oren: Yeah, I know. However speaking of things being doomed, we are out of time this episode. I think that a good thing to end on is how to make your antagonistic characters like each other. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment at Mythcreants.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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