Amelia Connell is guest blogger of Character Relationships in Your Writing. At the time of writing this post, Amelia was a University of the Sunshine Coast student completing a Bachelor of Creative Industries, majoring in Publishing & Creative Writing. Amelia undertook a 208-hour internship with Gail Tagarro.
I see myself as a ‘character-driven reader’—if I don’t connect with a character in some way, I’ll often put the book down and start another. It might be a character’s inner monologue or their personality quirks that intrigue me, but often I find it’s their relationships with other characters. You can find out a lot about a character from their interactions with others. So let's talk about character relationships in your writing.
Basing character relationships on a strong foundation is what I find most effective in my own writing and in the books I’ve read. Whether that’s using narrative tropes (the use of figurative language for artistic effect, such as a ‘forced proximity’ trope, or the ‘chosen one’ trope), character history, or a sudden instant bond—think meet-cutes (the first time two romantic interests meet and feel a connection) or life-or-death scenarios—it's up to you. There are different ways to write each relationship type, and I’ll get into a few of them in this post.
One of the common character relationships is that between a protagonist and their possible love interest. As someone who reads books that usually have a romantic sub-plot at least, I find that character pairings often make or break a story for me. If I can’t get behind a character and their relationship foibles, I may lose interest. Here are some of the romantic relationship basics:
- The Meet-Cute: When the two characters meet, it needs to be something memorable. I’m sure you’ve read a scene where two characters bump into each other while crossing the street and the protagonist drops everything so that the new love interest leans down to help them. Try to avoid cliché meet-cutes like this and come up with something original. Remember, a meet-cute doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘cute’. If it’s memorable to your characters, it will be meaningful to the reader, even if it amounts to no more than their eyes meeting with a sense of knowing.
- The Chemistry: Readers expect at least some level of expressed attraction to distinguish a character as a love interest, but chemistry doesn’t necessarily refer to only sexual tension between characters. It could be their banter, teasing, or inside jokes. There simply needs to be a sense of ease and comfort between the characters that neither has with another.
- The Mutual Benefit: What does each character get out of the relationship? Why are they interested in each other, beyond physical attraction? What do they offer your story as a united front? Think about exactly why you’re pairing these two characters.
Something to remember when writing any romantic relationship dynamic is this: if it adds nothing to your story, reconsider the choice.
Writing platonic relationships, whether it be family or friends, often comes down to shared experiences. Families generally have a shared background and history, and this lets you show family habits, quirks, and differences among your characters, and the source of their behaviours. In a healthy familial relationship, there will likely be some teasing, light-hearted bullying, and family memories. The best-written narrative families are ones that radiate warmth towards the protagonist; they accept their flaws and let them know when they’re wrong. Platonic relationships, to me, are about a sense of give and take.
Similarly, writing friendships relies heavily on the interactions between the friends, how they speak and behave towards each other. Well-written friendships will always have some level of light to counteract any darkness in the plot, whether that’s through jokes or sarcastic commentary. One of my favourite literary friendships is the dynamic between Sarah J Maas’s protagonist Feyre and the Inner Circle in her A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Each member of the group lends support and warmth to Feyre when she struggles with memories of her past, while also teasing her and welcoming her into their group. When writing platonic relationships, acknowledge the love and support between them—the reader needs to see their loyalty (and why there’s loyalty) to know that they’ll show up for each other again and again.
The antagonist of your work is the opponent to whatever your protagonist is working towards. Writing an antagonist ultimately comes down to one question: what does your protagonist want above all else—and why is your antagonist opposed? Enemies and rivals may be a childhood bully, or an authoritarian government set on world domination. To make a believable villain, the reader needs to know their motivation. It’s never a satisfying read when a protagonist discovers their enemy was simply evil for the sake of it. On the other hand, it’s equally unsatisfying when a villain’s actions are explained away as the result of past trauma. Give your villains a motivation and make it believable, but don’t fall back on the tragic backstory card unless it’s meaningful to the story in some way.
Make Characters Believable
Writing relationships in fiction comes down to a simple rule: make them believable. Flesh your characters out enough that their quirks, flaws, and idiosyncrasies emerge on the page. Allow them to interact with one another in a realistic way. Breathe life into their personalities, give them individual backstories, and weave webs of interconnected history. Then, their relationships will unfold naturally. If all else fails, read some books in your genre to see how other writers manage their characters' relationships.
Maas, SJ 2015, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Bloomsbury, United States of America.