A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

15 Ways to Add Color and Depth to Character Relationships

Gotta love a big list post, right? I’ve had this list stashed away in my writing journal notebook for a while, just as a reminder to myself and a brainstorming prompt. Characters and their interactions are essential to driving a story and keeping it dynamic and interesting. Too often I notice authors slacking off on the complexities of interpersonal relationships in their stories. Some characters are nice to each other, some are mean, some are in love, some mentor each other or behave “like brothers” or “like sisters.”

But within these general outlines in real life, there’s a lot more going on than just that. There are numerous ways for brothers and sisters to relate to each other, and numerous ways to be in love. Sometimes characters can actually seem to lose their personalities and become stock-photo siblings or cute cake-topper couples. Unfortunately, this seriously detracts from my emotional investment in their relationships as the reader.

So, as a writer, I need to stretch my imagination a bit and search for ways to develop character relationships outside the obvious. This post is mostly focusing on positive, or overall-positive relationships. There’s a lot more to these relationships in real life than thoughtful words, friendly smiles and comforting hugs all around. Here are a few suggestions I noted to myself.

·         Let them fight

No matter how much two characters love each other, there’s no way their interaction is going to be a frolic through a meadow of dancing buttercups all the time. Even the nicest characters have flaws. (And remember, conflict is a good thing when you’re writing fiction.)

·         Give them a secret they can share

Another thing that’s always good is secrets. And when two characters get to guard a secret together, they naturally grow closer. It can be anything from a matter of life and death to simply trying to hide a stain on the carpet from important company.

·         Let them worry about each other

I probably see this enough with romantic couples or parents with children, but people worry about people they care about weather it’s technically their responsibility to or not. And in a gripping story, there’s always plenty to be concerned about. Explore your characters’ personalities in the way they express or don’t express their concern.

·         Have them plot something together

Similar to the idea of them keeping a secret together, showing your characters working on an elaborate plot or plan together will highlight their individual problem-solving approaches and unique kinds of ingenuity. 

·         Make them laugh at each other

I’m not really talking about intentional jokes, here. Characters who are close friends will be very sensitized to each other’s…peculiarities. And once they’ve reached a point when they know their relationship can take it, they will probably start both teasing and simply smirking to themselves over the other’s quirks.

·         Let them discover each other’s weaknesses

Weaknesses are essential for creating a fully-developed character, and once characters have stumbled upon each other’s broken places, there’s potential for a lot of interesting dynamics between them as well as, of course, plot developments.

·         Make them misunderstand each other

Your characters may have similarities and might see eye-to-eye most of the time, but they are distinct individuals with different experiences. Confusion is bound to interfere with their communication sometimes, and it can add to your story while highlighting differences in your characters’ views of reality.  

·         Give them in-jokes

My siblings and I have so many in-jokes. It doesn’t take very long to start creating them within groups, so this should also be true of fictional characters. In-jokes can be used as running gags throughout books or throughout a series to add that all-important humor element and reference characters’ past experiences together.

·         Have them protect each other

And I don’t mean create an Official Protective Boyfriend character and leave it at that. A protective boyfriend is pretty predictable unless you can create a unique and memorable way for him to express his protectiveness. Sometimes a best friend’s protective impulses can be just as strong as any hunky love-interest’s, and outside of a romantic situation, they can pack a lot more of a punch. 

·         Let them reverse roles sometimes

Sometimes the funny one gets in a bad mood and the more serious one has to try to lighten the moment. Don’t give one character all the good lines and don’t let one get all the injuries while the other is constantly the designated healer. Turning the tables now and then will allow you to explore more sides to your character interactions and create depth.

·         Give them a chance to break rules for each other

This is especially good for deepening relationships involving rule-abiding characters. Sometimes a character should find themselves in a situation where they’ll either have to go against the flow or sacrifice their devotion to their friend. Actually, they could choose either way, and it would add dimension to their relationship and make for some interesting plot material.

·         Make their wills or personalities clash now and then

Strong-willed characters are always satisfying to read about. Stubbornness is a major factor within relationships and it can be a great way to create friction and conflict between two lovable characters. The same is true for characters who simply clash because of pronounced difference in personality. Sometimes neither is in the wrong. They just approach the world differently and get in each other’s way. 

·         Let them pick up on each other’s hints

People who are close enough and interact frequently enough can reach a point where they almost seem telepathic because of their ability to read each other. Certain facial tics, postures, or ways of phrasing statements can carry a lot of meaning, and some characters could become great at recognizing them. Some characters might read the signs and analyze them consciously, others might get a hunch and not be sure where it was coming from. Another opportunity for characterization.

·         Have them miss each other when they’re separated

This constitutes a whole plot for some romances, but it shouldn’t be neglected in platonic relationships. Separation can highlight the ways characters impact each other’s daily lives. What does character A miss when character B is gone? Think outside the box. Of course, they miss their smile and their jokes, but think of the other, more specific things they might take for granted.

·         Let them sacrifice for each other

Sacrifice is a great way to demonstrate love between characters through meaningful, plot-driving action rather than words or warm fuzziness. If one character has the opportunity to give up something of their own goals or desires to further those of another character, it always rings true for readers who are hoping to see both true friendship and true heroism in protagonists. 
That was 15, right? Anyway, I don't have a lot more to add. As a final tip I would just say, in every relationship between two or more characters, always strive to highlight the uniqueness of the individuals. Honestly, you can avoid a whole lot of pitfalls focusing on that.

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