I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about character relationships, and wanted to share some of that with you.
The “And? So?” of Character Relationships
I was editing a manuscript in July where two characters had a contentious relationship. Let’s call them Jackie and Mike. Truth be told, Jackie didn’t trust Mike. The writer did a good job of establishing the initial distrust. As with so many craft considerations, though, we had to move past that to the “And? So?” element.
She doesn’t trust him… And? So? In ordinary life, Jackie would just move on from Mike and call it a day. After all, there’s no good reason to stick around with someone you don’t trust. But Jackie and Mike were trapped in a situation. This is good fiction writing. Instead of letting Jackie separate herself from Mike, the writer created a reason for her to also need something from Mike.
Remember this as you’re writing relationships between characters: You always want to be turning the screw. Jackie doesn’t like Mike but, darn, she needs him. Let’s say he possesses knowledge that she wants in order for Jackie to get what she wants from the story.
Resolving the “And? So?” — Creating Movement in Character Relationships
The place where my client had gotten stuck, though, was on the relationship that Jackie and Mike were having. The distrust was established, and established well. Maybe too well. It was starting to seem like we were going in circles and there wasn’t any character change. That’s where my favorite questions, “And? So?” came into play. Because if we’re going to commit to the premise that Jackie and Mike aren’t in a good relationship but they need one another, then there needs to be some movement with the relationship piece. Otherwise, this element of development stagnates.
In other words, when you’re writing character relationships, something needs to happen to move the relationship forward. Does Mike apologize for being so shifty? Maybe it comes out that he was wary of trusting Jackie, as it happens. Or maybe Mike does something that softens his character. And Jackie starts to question her initial conclusions about Mike. Maybe Mike does something so endearing, that Jackie starts to feel some ill-advised affection for him. Or she decides to trust him but he lets her down, and now she not only doesn’t trust him, but she feels betrayed by him and stupid for allowing herself to believe him in the first place. If you can create opportunities for conflict in your character relationships, you’ll avoid stagnation.
Emotions Need to Evolve
When I see one dynamic playing out, I want to see where it goes. All too often, writing relationships between characters simply dead-ends. Jackie still doesn’t trust Mike, even though now they’re stuck together. But all of their interactions are tinged with distrust. There’s no evolution. The distrust is established, and that’s the way it stays. (More on how to write emotions in a story.)
For every one of your character relationships, big and small, think of what the leading emotion is. Then ask yourself, “And? So?” Where can you go from there, and how can it evolve? Each relationship should be an arc, not a flat line.
Hire my novel editing services and I’ll help you shape dynamic character relationships.
2 Replies to “The Evolution of Character Relationships”
I love it when relationships evolve in fiction! In too many published novels, the characters are like dolls dropped on a conveyor belt destined for True Love. They bicker and hate each other and then inexplicably fall into each others arms because, well, they’re both “hot” so that’s the way it goes.
I especially love it when relationships change the characters, and then the relationship changes with them. Say Jackie has difficulty trusting men because she grew up with a single father who lied to her, used her to get money and sympathy from others, and then abandoned her at Grandma’s house, over and over. Jackie wonders if her distrust of Mike stems from her own issues, so she overcompensates by convincing herself to trust him even though he is shifty.
And say Mike thinks of himself as a “lone wolf.” He acts cool by remaining aloof. He starts to like Jackie when she tries to become friends with him, but he doesn’t reciprocate her efforts because that’s not what lone wolves do.
Then Mike inadvertently hurts Jackie. While they’re heading towards a dangerous situation, he lies that he’s going to get supplies and takes off to face it alone. In Mike’s mind he’s heroically protecting Jackie. In Jackie’s mind Mike manipulated her and betrayed her, just like Dad.
Now the dynamic of the relationship has shifted. To earn back Jackie’s friendship, Mike has to learn to put his pride aside and communicate his thoughts and feelings. Jackie has to learn to forgive her loved ones for letting her down and herself for being vulnerable. Only when he’s strong enough to be honest, and she’s strong enough to open herself up again, can they be happy together.