Weekly Writing Memo: 3 Keys of Writing RelationshipsPosted: April 13, 2016
Whether you’re writing friendships, families, couples, or even enemies, the relationship between the characters has to be established very clearly in order for the audience to understand it.In general, any time two people are in a scene of a story together, there is some kind of relationship between them, even if it is something as simple as salesman to client.
Those passing relationships are easier to establish because there’s not any history between the two people so there’s less subtext going on. All you need to show for those relationships is to establish what each character wants, and keep their actions true to their goals.
The want of each character is of course something you establish for anyone in your story, but for core characters your protagonist interacts with there is a bit more that should be shown. The three key things that need to be portrayed to make the relationship work for an audience are listed below. These are things that are especially true for when you are portraying newly established relationships such as in romantic stories, or team-up or friendship stories.
What brings the pair together?
Sometimes this element is a given, such as when the characters are family, coworkers, classmates, etc. You have to show the audience why these two characters are together for the story. We don’t need to see their entire history of how they met or anything, but we need to understand what it was that brought these two characters into each other’s lives.
In romantic stories, often times two characters are brought together initially by physical attraction. In fantasy or action stories, often times characters are brought together because of a similar goal. The key is, the audience has to understand how these two particular characters, whatever their relationship is, came to occupy the same space and form a relationship.
For example, if you have two best friends, one who is a hobo and another a CEO, and you don’t give us some indication of how they came together, the audience will not buy the story. This doesn’t mean you need to spell it out, all it means is you need to find a way to imply. In the CEO/Hobo example, you could spell it out by having the pair meet because the hobo parks outside the CEO’s office building. OR, if you want to go for a subtler and a new type of connection, maybe the CEO already knows the hobo and comes to him for advice, and the hobo says something that implies he once was a big businessman himself. That would give the audience an idea of how they could have met—when the hobo wasn’t a hobo.
The point is, the audience needs to understand how the two characters you are showing us were brought together. Did they work together? Are they family? Do they go to school together? Are they invited by a wizard to a secret meeting in the Shire? Etc. What is it that makes their worlds collide?
What keeps them together?
This is something I see often gets forgotten in stories involving friendships between odd pairs. Writers like showing us really quirky friends, but they often forget to show us why these two people who are so different are friends in the first place. People come together for a variety of reason, but the reason they end up maintaining the relationship is not always the same as the thing that brought them together.
This is important to show because even if we believe that two people were brought together because of a specific thing (like high school or work), if they don’t seem like two people that would continue spending time together than we won’t believe the relationship has lasted. There has to be something shown that is strong enough to keep these two characters maintaining contact with each other despite their differences.
For example, the hobo and the CEO. Maybe they used to work together, and that is how they met. Their lives have taken very different paths, and for a lot of audiences it’d be hard to believe that the CEO would continue to hang out with the hobo, or that the hobo for that matter would continue spending time with a big CEO who might look down on him. IF, however, you establish that the CEO comes to the hobo for advice, and that the Hobo comes to the CEO for aid now and then, then you have shown the audience what keeps the pair coming back to each other.
Whatever this element is that keeps the pair interacting, it has to be mutually beneficial/appreciated by the pair. Otherwise, the audience will be asking themselves why the characters bother with each other since they are so different. This thing is often show in stories about couples who have been together for a long time. We often see them longing for whatever the initial thing was that brought them together, and through the story we see the characters discover that while they no longer have that initial thing, they have something stronger that is the thing that has kept them together for all the years of their relationship.
What pulls them apart?
Every pair of people, when thrown together, has something that they disagree on and differ on. This can be as simple as the fact that one person is messy and the other is organized. The reason this is important to show in stories is that how people deal with conflict between friends, lovers, family, etc, can tell the audience a huge amount about the characters themselves and the type of relationship the two people have.
For example, if you have two best friends disagree about something as simple as dinner, how they go about the disagreement can tell the audience a lot. Do they get into a vicious argument that ends abruptly and then revert back to friendly banter? Does one character give in to whatever the other wants? Do they both refuse to concede?
Arguments are great at showing the dynamics between two characters. If one always concedes, they might be the peacekeeper, or the other might be domineering. If the argument is written in a way that the audience can see this pair has had it before, it can show very quickly that the pair has a long history together. The point is, you can learn just as much, if not more, by showing what characters disagree on rather than what they agree on.
This also works well to establish relationships because showing that two people are still in a relationship of some sort despite what they disagree on, can show the audience how important that relationship is for the pair. If a character is willing to ignore huge flaws in another character, then there must be something of value there. Just remember to show us why the characters ignore the flaws if they’re ones that are big enough to be relationship ending.