I want you to think back to your favorite book or television show. There may be many things that stood out to you about that story—the plot, the scenery, the outfits, the scope, or something else.
There's one aspect, however, that underpins all those things. One detail which, if missing, leaves your readers unable to really invest themselves in your story: relationships between characters.
The Importance of Character Relationships
Of course, you know character development is essential in writing. You also know you need to have a tight plot with holes filled in and both conflict and resolution. But no matter how great your plot is, no matter how much world building you do, in order for your readers to really invest, they need more. Specifically, they need relatable relationships between characters.
This isn't about romance, though it can include it. This is about the intimacy, tension, and trust between friends, and the deceit, assumptions, and distrust between enemies. It's about how character relationships change when characters develop. It's about how the readers can put themselves in your story: getting to know other characters and making decisions based on relationships with those characters.
The Character Relationships We Love
Lord of the Rings was fascinating, but what made it matter so much? The friendship between Sam and Frodo (and, in the movies, Legolas and Gimli), the broken friendship between Saruman and Gandalf, the burgeoning romance between Aragorn and Arwen, the mess with Gollum, and more.
What made Harry Potter so powerful? Harry, Hermione, and Ron had one set of fantastic relationships. There were also student/teacher relationships, in loco parentis relationships between Harry and several adults, and wildly antagonistic relationships between Snape and Harry, Draco and Harry, Lucius and Harry, and more.
Star Wars? Han, Luke, Leia/Rey, Finn, Poe. Anakin Skywalker and the Emperor. Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. Han and Chewie. C3PO and R2D2.
The West Wing? Sam Seaborn and Leo McGarry, Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, CJ Cregg and Danny Concannon, among others.
There are those who even go so far as to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more powerful because they've focused more on the characters' relationships (e.g. Civil War) than the DC Cinematic Universe has. (Shots fired, I know, but I mean no offense to DC fans!)
I'm saying all this to make a point: the relationships between your characters are what make your sweeping plot points and creative world building matter. Yes, even more than individual character arcs. Yes, even more than mind-blowing twists. That's because things that happen affect more than one person; they also affect anyone in relationship with that person.
How to Write Great Relationships
This is both simple and hard. The simple part is this: develop your individual characters well. Know who they are; know what they want, what they hate, and how they're likely to respond to various circumstances. Then just lock those well-developed characters together in a room and let them interact.
The hard part is all of the above.
You can do this because you've been doing it in real life for years. Why do you dislike some people? Why do you trust others? Whom would you trust with your life, and why? Whom would you never wish to be alone with, and why? (Please don't tell us their names.) Your characters will get along sometimes and not others. They'll harbor both grudges and love from afar. In other words, they're people.
Apply “being people” to your characters. Those relationships will give your fictional war meaning. It will make deaths, victories, and defeats mean so much more because they affect more than one person. Just like real life.
Do you have favorite character relationships in your stories? Tell us about them in the comments.
Take two characters with a tense relationship, lock them in a room, and write about it for fifteen minutes. (We'll assume they will not engage in physical altercation). This time in that room is their only chance to talk, and they know it; let them play it out, then share what you've written in the comments. Don't forget to comment on other people's practice!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.