In our final Crafting Characters post, we dive into character relationships. These authors share the questions they ask, the strategies they employ, and the exercises the use to develop rich character relationships.
Read on for a variety of approaches, from trios to layering, from feelings to differences and similarities. Share your favorite tips on Twitter or Instagram (@kidlitcraft #kidlitcraft #craftingcharacters), or Facebook (www.facebook.com/kidlitcraft).
Dig into Feelings
There’s so much depth that makes up a relationship. As writers, whenever we put two people together, we must remember we’re dealing with two distinct individuals with different backgrounds and upbringings, assumptions and misbeliefs, goals and desires. It’s always extra interesting if those are in conflict in some way.
- What are the lies they tell each other and themselves?
- What secrets do they keep together, and which do they keep from each other?
- What is their shared history?
- What are the expectations they each have of the other?
- How do those expectations lift the other or imprison them?
There’s so much to explore anytime you write a relationship. One of my favorite side writing exercises is to think of a Big Feels Character (my term for someone about whom the main character has big, complex feelings–positive or negative). Once you’ve got your Big Feels Character (BFC), allow your main character and their BFC to get stuck. They can be stuck in an elevator, a haunted house, a car in a storm, a department store after closing. The where isn’t as important as the stuck. Dig into the dialogue. What are they saying? What aren’t they saying? See what happens when they’re forced to share a space with no exit.
—Emma Kress, her debut YA novel is Dangerous Play
As with many areas of writing, I think the “rule of three” fits well with building a core of characters to drive a story. One of the most famous literary trios—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—illustrates how two characters interacting with your main character in different ways can evoke different aspects of your main character’s personality and give more depth of characterization without having so many characters that the main one risks being muted or overshadowed. That’s why in my middle grade novel The Last Shadow Warrior, my main character has two main friends—one who taps into her intellectual, problem-solving side and the other who brings out her fun and sillier side.
Character Traits in Concert, Conflict, or Complement
I build all my stories around complex relationships, so I think about my characters’ core relationships very early on in my writing process. They are, in fact, what drives my plot. My understanding of my main characters grows out of how they interact with each other. I never think of my characters’ traits in isolation but rather in concert, conflict, or complement with the other core characters. Questions I try to answer to flesh out these traits and dynamics include:
- What are these characters hiding from each other and why?
- Do these characters ever lie to each other? Why?
- Is there a power imbalance in this relationship?
- What do each of these characters wish the other understood about them?
- In what way are these characters keeping each other from fulfilling their desires?
- How do these relationships impact my characters’ sense of identity?
Differences AND Similarities
I find I often lean into how two characters are alike (when they’re allies) or how they’re different (when they’re foils or have an antagonistic relationship). The key to all relationships is that the characters always have both similarities and differences. And sometimes the similarities bring about the most conflict.
I often use an exercise I learned from David Macinnis Gill. (See his Sidewriting Takeover exercise, also on character relationships.)
First, choose two characters to examine (often your main character and one secondary character). List four ways the characters are similar and four ways the characters are markedly different. Then cross the first item of each list. This one is the most obvious, and it’s better to dig deeper into the less obvious to develop the richness of your story.
Second, write a short summary of the first time the two characters met. What drew them together? Or what made them repel each other? What was the first thing the main character noticed about the secondary character?
Third, write a short scene (with setting, action, and dialogue) about the worst fight the two characters ever had. Concentrate on the underlying cause of the fight and how each of them behaved during the fight and in the aftermath.
You can devise other scenes to put your characters in–one giving the other a gift, one taking away from the other something that person loves, etc. See if you can find places for these scenes in your manuscript. You can do this with more than one secondary character.
As you draft and revise, look for opportunities to highlight those similarities and differences. It will make your characters–and your character relationships–more well-rounded.
—Anne-Marie Strohman, her flash fiction piece (for adults), “Essential Manners for Grocery Shopping on a Tuesday Morning” was published by Reflex Press.
Desire Leads to How Relationships Work
When it comes down to it, I think character desire has to take the lead in how characters’ core relationships fall out. I’ve dreamt up gorgeous, complex relationships, but without each character having a particular drive…it’s just an indulgent writing exercise. The good news is that if the desire is there, I find that the relationships evolve very organically.
One good thing to think about is how each character’s desire affects the other. For instance, say you have a main character whose deepest desire is to go to art school and live up to the dreams of her deceased artist mother. She might have a best friend who loves her dearly, but that friend is going to have to pay a price for our main character pursuing her desire. Maybe the friend will stay in the small town they grew up in and feel left behind. Maybe the friend is deeply insecure about their ability to make anything of themselves and feels threatened by the main character suddenly getting their act together. Maybe the main character gets a new best friend, or love interest in the process of pursuing her dreams that destabilizes the friendship.
Our main character can’t be passive either. Maybe she’s annoyed that her friend doesn’t want to apply to the same college as her. Maybe she blows her off as she becomes more popular. Maybe she realizes too late that she’s walked away from the only true friend she had. But maybe it’s not too late. Relationships are hard. Especially with the people who are on our side.
The most important thing is that the relationship changes, for the better or for the worse. All of us have relationships that were made stronger by the major events of our lives, and we all have friendships and romances that fell apart because the relationship couldn’t withstand the circumstances.
—Skyler Schrempp, her debut middle grade novel Three Strike Summer is out August 2022.
Multiple Layers/Feelings In Scene
I take a multi-layered approach to building the character’s core relationships. First, I dig into how the main character feels about that character and then explore what might have led to those feelings and how their past informs the present. Since these relationships are a vital part of the character’s growth, I then try to round out those characters so they don’t feel like plot devices. As I’m rounding them out, I look at how they might fit an archetype, like a foil or a mentor, so that I can shape them to challenge my main character to grow over the course of the story. I usually write out scenes from their past to get to know the relationship between my main character and another character. So I might write the biggest fight they’ve ever been in. Or their happiest memory together. Rather than summarizing this, I always write it out in scene as I’ve found it gets to the heart of how my main character feels about that character and provides other interesting details I can use later.
If you missed earlier Crafting Characters posts, check them out here:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.