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.
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.
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:
- Trust bond
- Comforting and safe
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.
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.
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.
Angela 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.
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