Writing a relationship plotline is key for almost any story. Most narratives will feature a relationship that arcs positively through the book–whether the characters are love interests, friends, family members, allies, coworkers, or what have you. While it’s possible to highlight a negative relationship, audiences typically crave a meaningful one that brings the characters closer together at the end.
To help you write a greater positive relationship, here are four tips.
1. Write a Relationship that has Foils
I’ll start this one with something you shouldn’t do (and then go into its opposite).
- Do not make your characters too alike.
Often writers think that the way to make a relationship great, is to have both or all the participants be very similar. They may have the exact same interests, opinions, goals, and dreams. Nearly all of their conversations are positive. They don’t argue. And they understand one another, always. They may be prone to complimenting and sharing their love for one another.
None of these things are wrong here and there.
But too often, writers think great relationships in fiction come from only likeness and agreeability.
In reality, you’ll find that the best, most powerful relationships have characters who foil each other in some significant way. They are opposites. Sherlock Holmes is super intelligent, and John Watson is more ordinary. In Good Omens Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel. In Parks and Rec, April loves the dark and sinister, and Andy loves being playful and positive.
This can work in trios and groups as well. Frequently the characters have different worldviews or methodologies. Consider how Harry, Ron, and Hermione each have different perspectives on homework, or perhaps, more relevant, the wizarding world itself.
The most interesting interactions tend to play off how the characters are different.
And actually, it’s the fact these characters can be friends/colleagues/significant others despite these differences that makes the relationship feel more powerful.
When you smash characters who are opposites together, a couple of things happen:
- It’s easier to brainstorm interesting and entertaining exchanges
- It makes the relationship more dynamic—you will have both positive and negative emotions to play with in the relationship. The contrast of that makes the reading experience more powerful.
Make sure you find foils that will be easy to put in the story. Sometimes people pick foils that aren’t very relevant, so it’s hard to get that opposition on the page.
2. Give the Relationship a History
Great character relationships have a sense of history. Now, how you approach this will depend a bit on where your story starts in regard to the relationship. In some stories, you will be working with relationships that are just beginning, like in Harry Potter, or relationships that are ongoing, like The Office, and sometimes some of both, like with the kids in Stranger Things.
If your characters are just meeting, you’ll be developing or building a sense of history as the story progresses.
In any case, to use this technique, you just need to refer back to something, whether it happened on or off page. If you refer to something that happened on page that the reader knows about, it can build on itself and sort of work as an inside joke.
On the other hand, if you refer to something that happens off page, it makes your story and the relationship feel “full”-er–like the relationship, story, and characters are bigger than what can fit in your book. Often the referral is told with a humorous tone, where the characters are remembering the event together, but that’s not a hard and fast rule.
Sometimes you can imply a history fairly easily. In the first episode of The Office, Dwight says, “He put my stuff in Jello again!” The “again” says plenty. Other times the exchange may be longer.
If you are working with already established relationships, make sure to convey what is typical or normal in the relationship. Often when people talk about established relationships, they talk in absolutes, “Jasper always liked to remind me of my age” or “Kaden pulled pranks on everyone, but never on me.” It might also be helpful to touch on how the relationship has changed over the months or years.
If you are working with new relationships, it can be effective to signal to the audience how this relationship will grow. In Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Blue talks about how much she hates Raven Boys, but in doing so, we get a strong sense that her opinion is going to change.
3. The Characters Know Each Other Too Well
Audiences love it when characters know each other too well. In fact, one character may know the other person better than that person knows himself. It’s like with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. As the series progresses, whenever Hermione is about to have a “Hermione moment,” where she goes off to inform Harry and Ron about something she read about, Harry and Ron exchange smiles. They know Hermione so well that they can sense where she is going, and they share in it. They actually both come to find her scholarly moments endearing. In the movies, we hear them finish her sentences.
Hermione: I had some questions, so I decided to go to–
Harry and Ron: –the library.
Interestingly, some of these things they find endearing about her, they found annoying in the first half of the first book. This sort of thing can be fun to play with. Maybe you have a character who is really good at picking up others’ ulterior motives, and your protagonist likes that about her . . . until she uses that skill on him. Then he finds it annoying. So sometimes you can flip-flop what they like or don’t like about each other, and that can be entertaining and make things complex.
In real life, we often predict how friends, family, or coworkers will react to certain things. Sometimes we even imagine conversations with them. Your characters can make predictions and have these fake conversations too (just make sure to use this in moderation).
Because these characters know each other so well, they know exactly how to be there for one another, how to help, and protect each other, when it counts. (Or, alternatively, get under the other’s skin when they need to.)
4. Write a Relationship Where Characters Grow Together
These characters need to grow–together. They need to grow as individuals in front of each other, and they need to grow closer.
In Good Omens, we see how Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship grows throughout all of Earth’s time.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, we see how the guardians become family. While they are each unique individuals, they also begin to function together as a more cohesive unit (and hey, they all like Peter’s music).
Don’t be afraid to take a moment near the end of the story to drive home how this relationship has arced. Make sure to validate the personal journeys these characters took. How has this relationship changed them? How is where they are now different than where they started? What has been gained and lost?
In Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters move from attacking and even trying to kill each other, to holding hands (something Peter wouldn’t even do with his mom when his own personal “world” was ending) in an effort to save the galaxy.
There are plenty more ways to make the positive relationships in your stories meaningful. Hopefully, these four tips will help you write yours.
About September C. Fawkes:
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as beginning writers. She runs a writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com (subscribe to get a free copy of her booklet Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists). When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.
Special Guest on Saturday for Apex: Kevin J. Anderson
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