Storytelling

Taking Character Relationships to the Next Level

Holmes and Watson from Elementary sit on a couch together.

Holmes and Watson from Elementary

Character relationships are, in many ways, the glue that holds a story together. Almost every tale has at least one relationship at the heart of it, often more. Rarely can a character sustain a story on their own; they need others: friends, family, mentors, lovers, enemies, strangers, pets, something. The story cast might be large or small, and these relationships may not even be with other people. In Cast Away, Chuck Noland had a volleyball named Wilson. In I Am Legend, Robert Neville had his dog, Sam. Relationships not only make the world go round, but they also help to prove the deeply layered characterization that you’ve spent so much time working on. Why? Because who someone is will come out through the relationships they keep, good and bad.

Readers are drawn in by relationships between interesting characters. In fact, the relationship itself can be a big reason why a character becomes unforgettable. Look no further than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, Rocket Racoon and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Andy Dufresne and Red in The Shawshank Redemption. These relationships work so well the audience may mistakenly believe they were effortless to write. Usually the opposite is true. A writer needs to think about the multiple layers of a relationship, giving it enough depth to showcase each character’s specialness while ensuring they play off one another through power struggles and create the type of synergy that is amazing to behold. Let’s look at some of the important layers of a well-drawn relationship.

Relationship Roles

Sherlock and Watson from the Robert Downey Jr. Film. Sherlock and Watson from Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes.

The first thing to come to mind when thinking about a relationship are the roles of the characters: friends, teammates, lovers, enemies, a parent and child, a mentor and student, the aggressor and victim, etc. Familiar relationship labels work well in fiction because readers can acclimate more quickly to the situations within your story. And because roles are something we participate in every day in our real-world relationships, using them in a story naturally provides readers with an outline of what they can expect when the characters are together.

Sometimes character roles are clear from the start; other times, they shift or evolve into something different and new. Characters may embrace dual or more roles within the same relationship, leading to complex layers, complication, and friction. Occasionally, a character believes they understand the roles of a relationship only to discover they do not. And this is where the fun really begins!

But roles are only the outer frame of a relationship, a blueprint for understanding the subtext between two characters. To dig deeper and create something unique and authentic, we need to also look at other elements of a relationship.

Relationship Status

Little Groot standing on Rocket's shoulder. Rocket and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.

In today’s social-media-obsessed world, status is a way of letting people know if you’re in a relationship or not. In fiction, I think of status as the nature of the bond between two people and whether it has a positive or negative alignment. Think of it like this: roles provide basic rules of what to expect, but status will show readers how functional or dysfunctional the relationship is.

For example, a friendship on the outside suggests that both individuals are supportive and caring of one another. Yet under the surface, one may be taking advantage of the other, the two parties may be locked in competition, or the relationship could be abusive and toxic. Understanding the nature of a relationship and who holds the power (and when) will set the tone for the interactions between the characters as you write and help readers know what to expect.

Here are some of the different positive and negative status dynamics you might see in a relationship:

Positive

  • Loving
  • Supportive
  • Nurturing
  • Motivating
  • Mentoring
  • Trust bond
  • Romantic
  • Comforting and safe
  • Reliable
  • Fun

Negative

  • Critical
  • Competitive
  • Neglectful
  • Controlling
  • One-sided
  • Toxic
  • Codependent
  • Dysfunctional
  • Loveless
  • Volatile

If you put two characters in a scene together who have a relationship dominated by one of the undercurrents above, regardless of the goal or stakes, this status will shape their behavior and actions in the scene, transforming it.

Relationship Polarity

Hopper and Eleven from Stranger Things. Hopper and Eleven in Stranger Things 2.

When it comes to any character in a relationship with the protagonist, we also want to ask, Is this person for them or against them? In other words, are they working for protagonist and their interests, against them, or do they land somewhere in the “it’s complicated” zone?

On the outside, it seems like the answer will be painfully obvious: of course the antagonist will be working against your hero or heroine, and anyone part of the protagonist’s tribe will be working for them. But… is that how it works in real life? Really?

Sadly not. Relationships are complex because the people involved are complex, coming from different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, wounds, and fears. They also have different worldviews, desires, and aspirations. And let’s not forget that the characters in a story are not chess pieces; they each see themselves as the hero or heroine of their own story. It would be illogical to expect that their needs, values, and goals will always align with the protagonist’s.

Two characters could be the best of friends, but if the protagonist’s goal in the story is to join the army and their bestie’s goal is to keep the protagonist safe because he believes his friend will be killed in battle, they will be at odds because their viewpoints and emotion-driven beliefs don’t align. The best friend may be the keeper of secrets, a brother in all ways but blood, but still working against the protagonist and their interests.

Consider the Netflix hit, Stranger Things. In season two, Chief Hopper becomes a caretaker to Eleven, hiding her away at an old family cabin so the Bad People won’t find her. He cares for her and views her as a surrogate for his own daughter, who passed away as a child from cancer. While the two refer to the relationship as a friendship because this is a social concept Eleven understands, it is really a parent–child dynamic. He is determined to protect her from harm, something he feels he failed to do for his own daughter. Her goal is to see Mike, the boy who saved her and for whom she has deep, complicated feelings. Hopper knows her heart’s desire is to see Mike, and while he wants her to be happy, this conflicts with his own goal of protecting her. So, to keep her safe, he makes her virtually a prisoner.

In this case, Hopper isn’t a villain, and Eleven isn’t an irrational, hormone-raging teenager.* Both have valid reasons for their goals and actions. The layers between them and their opposing goals create a push-and-pull dynamic that keeps the viewer captivated, and it is this type of complexity that we should strive for in our own character relationships.

Characters may be in support of the protagonist’s goal or against it for different reasons. If you need to understand where your characters fit on the spectrum, ask yourself:

  • Do the characters have a similar attitude toward most things, or do they conflict?
  • Do they share the same beliefs, or stand far apart on certain issues?
  • What common bonds exist between these characters — do they share a history (good or bad), beliefs, common struggles, or needs?
  • Do either have certain emotional triggers that will make them blind to something, become obsessive (fight), or cause them to back away in avoidance (flight)?
  • Are there conflicting loyalties at work between these characters that might come into play?
  • Do they have similar backgrounds and experiences, or are they different?
  • Do the characters have the same goal, competing goals, or do the goals conflict somehow?
  • Do the characters have needs or desires that converge or differ?
  • Are their moral codes close to the same or do they each have a different line in the sand?

Often when a character is acting against the protagonist, it isn’t malicious. They simply prioritize differently because they are thinking of their own reality first (as they should!). In fact, having some friction in this department increases the authenticity of your characters because conflict reinforces how each person is living their own life and working toward filling their own needs and goals.

Relationship Friction

Sam and Dean lean against the hood of a car. Sam and Dean from Supernatural.

There are plenty of books and movies where a brooding hero or heroine tries to push everyone away and go it alone, but rarely does this work. At some point they realize that they need someone, or something, and without it, their lives are less meaningful. Or if they aren’t quite there on the self-reflection front, they at least recognize that without help their chances of reaching their goal are slim.

Relationships are essential in the real world because they are both fulfilling and functional. Including them in fiction is a no-brainer, but like real ones, they need to feel authentic. This means we stay away from the “perfect relationship” and instead embrace imperfect ones that not only ring true but also generate glorious conflict.

Whether your characters are working toward the same goal or not, here are some interpersonal areas of friction you might like to explore:

  • Conflicting attitudes
  • Respect that doesn’t flow both ways
  • Conflicting beliefs
  • An imbalance of power or authority
  • Opposing values
  • Jealousy or envy
  • Different risk thresholds
  • Differing moral lines
  • Conflicting motivations
  • Sexual friction
  • Secrets involving shame or guilt
  • Dysfunctional communication
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Different expectations

One of the most fascinating and complex relationships I’ve enjoyed in the TV realm is the one between Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural. These two brothers are the epitome of what it means to be family by sticking together no matter what.

And yet, it hasn’t always been easy. Season after season there is ongoing relationship conflict, that, if it didn’t exist, the show would not have gained the cult following it has today. Each season is a tug-of-war where the relationship grows by showing the evolution of power struggles and moral conflicts, and how each character has to learn and respect the other’s individuality and identity if they wish to keep that brotherly bond intact. At different times, each one of the above situations has come into play.*

Remember, friction isn’t always negative. Friction between two people can also be a positive event. Attraction, desire, love, and lust supply the heartbeat to many a novel. Anticipation can be nerve-racking in a good way, and competition can spur characters on to do their very best. So, whether friction is a healthy manifestation of desire and need or filled with unhealthy disagreements, power struggles, and the quest to dominate, readers are pulled in.


Writers are taught to dig deep when it comes to building a character, but we also need to remember to put that same attention into the development of those characters’ relationships. Doing so means creating a golden thread that can weave itself into the emotional fabric of the story and create room for growth and change that will mirror how the characters grow and change themselves over the course of the story.

Portrait of middle-aged woman with short brown hair and glassesAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of six bestselling resources including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. A proud indie author, her books are available in six languages, are sourced by universities, and used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers®, as well as One Stop For Writers®, an innovative online library filled with unique tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I love the article, but there’s one small thing I don’t agree on: being ‘critical’ isn’t necessarily a negative thing in a relationship. It depends on how the criticism is shown. I would expect my best friend to tell me when I’m doing something stupid. I do also expect them to do so in a constructive way, though. Just saying ‘this is wrong’ isn’t very helpful, so that kind of criticism is really negative. But saying ‘it would be better to do it that way’ or ‘I think you just made a mistake there’ can be very positive.

    • Sam Victors

      I think they meant ‘critical’ in a negative sense. Not constructive criticism, but non-constructive and petty or trivial criticism.

      • Angela Ackerman

        Yes, definitely critical in the negative sense. Offering honest and helpful feedback via diplomacy is a healthy interaction in a relationship, but being a constant critic of another isn’t. Sorry for any confusion here.

  2. Sam Victors

    In my time-travel romance story, my main lovers and protagonists are both demisexual virgins when they first meet each other. They first start out as friends, which eventually leads to emotional intimacy as they get closer. The Hero gently asks the Heroine if its alright to see her tonight, in her room. She responds no, that she will visit him in his room tonight.

    When they first met, he was drowning in a river and she rescues him and breathes into his mouth. He wakes up and stares at her, thinking she was a vision from God (he’s very religious, despite being a political Highwayman). Later on, he rescues her from a cruel Madam and her gang of conniving sex workers tricking the heroine into forcibly joining their brothel. They form a friendship first that slowly leads to emotional intimacy, and eventually love, as they share their thoughts, pasts, and other personal talks. The Heroine also teaches the Hero how to read (he’s illiterate but emotionally intelligent and knowledgeable, for his time).

    • Sam Victors

      The Heroine also helps the Hero, and his gang, on their political highway robbery (they’re Cavalier criminals robbing from Puritans and Roundheads, and sending most of the money to Charles II).

      • Angela Ackerman

        Sounds like you’re doing a good job of showing the shifting dynamics and growing intimacy of their relationship in realistic layers–nicely done.

  3. Laura Ess

    Roles and status between two characters can be contradictory . In the film “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Mr. Nick and Doctor Parnassus appear on the surface to be antagonists. Parnassus is or was a “holy man” believing in the godhead and spirituality of the universe. Mr Nick however continually goads Parnassus into bets in attempts to destroy his faith, and despite never winning, Parnassus continues to play “the game”. However there’s also an undercurrent that Mr Nick seems to genuinely care about Parnassus, even though he’s an easy mark, and is upset when Parnassus fails.

    • Angela Ackerman

      Absolutely. It adds some good friction when characters perceive their role differently than others do. Sometimes they are self-aware of this, and sometimes they aren’t, both both can create a ton of tension in the story and deepen the connections between two characters in interesting ways.

      Thanks for the comments, everyone–a pleasure to visit you all today

  4. Gwen

    I’m honestly having the time of my life writing a healthy, loving relationship between two of my supporting characters. Ahni and Shual disagree at times, but they started out the book as a couple, and learn to appreciate their differences, while still in a relationship. It feels like in popular media, there’s a need for the couple to dramatically break up as soon as the slightest problem arises, or it takes 3 books to get to the relationship-defining moment. I’ve been getting my personal frustrations out by writing my current book lol.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.