Writing character relationships that are realistic requires thinking about how relationships work. How and why do people interact in symbiotic or confrontational ways? I’ve come across 6 tips for creating connected characters whose relationships are convincing:
Draw Inspiration for Writing Character Relationships from Real Life
Writing character relationships that are believable requires being observant about relationships in your own life and those of others. Make a list your closest friends. Next to each one note what they contribute to your life that few others do.
When you create a character, think of real-world examples of people who have similar traits. There may be some aspects you can borrow, such as:
- Body language and posture
- Political or world views
- Anything contradictory about the person (e.g. An outwardly cynical person may also have a hidden tenderness only few people see)
When writing character relationships in novels, be sure that they show tension. Without tension your characters relationships can feel flat and one-dimensional. This isn’t to say characters have to brawl every other chapter. Characters’ flaws should sometimes create conflict as they often do in real life.
Give Characters Varied Flaws That Interact
Everyone has flaws. Flaws are character traits that impact themselves and/or others negatively. For example, a character who is overly critical of others could inadvertently sabotage a close friendship.
Character flaws can be explained by backstory. Building backstory into your character’s behavior in the present time-frame of your novel will make the way your character behaves in relationships more believable.
Even characters who are similar should have traits that rub each other up the wrong way when a situation arises. If you give each character distinctive traits, including flaws, pivotal scenes will become more interesting.
Just as the plot of your novel shows change and development, so should characters’ relationships:
Make Sure Some Character Relationships Ebb and Change
Sometimes, relationships do proceed on a single track. However, while some relationships may be fairly fixed, primary, intimate relationships in a story need to ebb and change. Think of the ‘5 w’s’ – who, what, why, where and when – and how changes in any of these areas could produce change in your character relationships.
When a new character enters your main character’s life (a ‘who’ change), what impact will this have on their close friendships? Similarly, if the ‘where’ changes, how might this impact your characters’ relationship?
Think about cause and effect this way and make sure that any momentous change reverberates through your characters’ primary relationships.
Avoid Making Characters Instantly Like Each Other
Resist having characters immediately like each other. Avoid phrases like: drawn to him, instant attraction, it felt like I had known her forever.
The problem with characters instantly liking each other is that this skips the interesting elements of character introductions. You can create curiosity and narrative tension out of the fact each character is still somewhat unknown to the other.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that two characters feel instant physical attraction. Platonically, two characters might be instantly attracted to what they perceive of each other’s sense of humor or other traits. But building connection through multiple encounters makes this attraction, this story event, feel earned. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Austen takes time to build the connection between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. This creates curiosity in the reader and satisfying narrative tension.
Know More about Your Characters than You Will Use
Know your characters inside out. It’s easier to create believable relationships when you have a three-dimensional understanding of each of your characters. This is why it is helpful to sketch character outlines. Write down essential facts about each character.
Sketch your characters and flesh out the cast of your novel so that you have a good idea of the ensemble that will carry your story. Knowing more about each character than you’ll need in the final story will keep characters vivid in your mind’s eye. This will translate to the page, especially when writing character relationships.
Find Inspiration in the Great Relationships of Literature
There are plenty of examples of believable, engrossing, non-static relationships in literature. If a specific type of character relationship is central to your story (such as a life-altering friendship or romance), find books where these feature and make a summary of the course of the relationship.
Take notes on characters’ first interactions and their last. Take notes too on any disagreements in the course of the book and why they arise. How do the characters’ personalities compliment each other? What types of differences create the biggest conflict?
In Emily Brontë’s Victorian Gothic novel Wuthering Heights, for example, Brontë shows the complex conditions under which characters form and abandon relationships. Books such as Brontë’s show how character relationships take place in (and are influenced by) societal and/or familial structures. Taking notes on book’s such as Brontë’s that focus on human relationships will help you when writing character relationships.
Question: What’s your favorite fictional relationship of all time? Tell us in the comments here.