How Relatable Character Relationships Will Make or Break Your Story

by Ruthanne Reid | 20 comments

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.

Why Relatable Character Relationships Will Make or Break Your Story

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.

PRACTICE

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!

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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.

20 Comments

  1. Kenneth Alexander

    From my novella (in the works): “Urban Patriot (short story) series”

    “Survival of the Weakest”

    “African American Civil Rights lawyer, Samuel Benson, and Harvard graduate realizes practicing law will never fulfill his dream of being rich due to racial discrimination; his best friend from college, Patricia Stern, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy billionaire Jewish family wants to prevent her greedy uncles from looting her deceased father’s fortune while cutting her off from a share. After years of limited contact due to Benson’s race and her intimate relationship with Wall Street Banker, Jeffery Boyd (Sam’s fraternity brother), the well-kept secret of Sam and Patricia’s intimacy in their college days rekindle affections when she learned of Samuel’s unhappiness practicing law.”

    Samuel’s heart raced when he saw her again, invigorated because Patricia was the one person who had ever come to Sam’s rescue, made him feel safe, not alone. For a woman over 50, Patricia had no signs of wrinkles, gray hair or other signs of aging; Patricia had aged gracefully. A sign of good health, diet, and low stress, a trait common among wealthy people. Then Samuel remembered their differences, his Blackness, and her wealth; he remembered her Wall Street boyfriend, Sam’s fraternity brother and how he encouraged Sam to smoke crack cocaine for his pledge, but it was Patricia who intervened when two White campus police officers harassed intoxicated Sam because they thought he wasn’t a student. She drove him home and became the only women he’d ever known.

    She looked at Sam with a smile hidden behind a sadness he’d never seen. They sat, and sat, and just stared at each other.

    Reply
    • Sheila B

      intriguing!

  2. James Wright

    Loved this. Easy but difficult task.

    Reply
  3. Elle

    Taking a deep breath Anne lowered herself onto the cold, hard chair. Her breaths were coming quick and shallow as her eyes did a quick scan of the room. She normally had a thrill of anticipation when she was in Mrs. Amherst’s classroom but the weight of her anxiety was suffocating her now. Her body was shriveling up and it wasn’t just the cold of the empty room that was pressing on her. True, she had never been in detention before but that was not her highest concern.

    The door pounded open and Anne watched as Mal Thompson strutted across the room. Anne jumped in her seat as Mal slammed her backpack down by the seat next to her. Her figure looming over Anne like a kid studying an insect on the sidewalk. She huffed as she plopped herself down in the chair next to her and then resumed her inspection.

    As Mal’s eyes weighed on her, Anne dropped her head, and promptly started inspecting the ground. Her eyes fell upon Mal’s backpack as her gaze dropped. Her eyes caught on the words “Best Friends Forever” etched on the purple canvas bag. It wasn’t the words that had caught her eye but the thick red marker that had been used over the black pen scribble of words in an attempt to mask them.

    Anne’s eyes were suddenly brimming with tears but there wasn’t a drop of regret in her heart. The suddenly flash of anger gave her courage and she straightened up in her seat and stared straight ahead. Mal noticed the change and smiled. She shifted her back pack deliberately so that the new artwork would be even more visible to her opponent if she looked her way again.

    Suddenly the phone on the teacher’s desk started vibrating slicing through the silence. A half a second later and the words “baby, baby, baby, ohhhh! … Baby, baby, baby nooo!” floated though the phone’s speaker. The girls looked at each other.

    For a moment they were 7 again instead of in 7th grade. For a second they were singing this song together at the top of their lungs. They were wearing matching pajamas, each had braided pig tails in their hair, and thickly applied makeup. A smile twitched into place at the corners of Mal’s mouth and Anne let loose a giggle. The phone kept on “I thought you’d always be mine! Mine.”

    This was her moment to apologize. To say all of the things she had been obsessing over in her mind for the past year. They could go back to being friends if only one of them took that first step and in this moment she had the courage to accept the blame. Anne opened her mouth to speak.

    And Mrs. Amherst burst into the room red cheeked and turned the phone off hindering the song and moment forever.

    Reply
  4. Azure Darkness Yugi

    This is quite a surprise for Weiss. After intense training, she went to her favorite that served a nice cup of coffee. The last person she expect come across is the person who she crossed swords with for the late seven years. The owner thought it best to close up shop. it is known that when ever Weiss and Summer meet, swords will be drawn, and ice and fire will fly. But to his surprise, a fight didn’t brake out. Summer sat across from Weiss. “You know, sometimes I missed the time we had as kids.” Summer said.

    Weiss set her cup down and let out a sad sigh “Me too. But we can’t go back to that. No matter hard we wished for it. The line has been crossed. There’s not turning back.”

    “Yeah. You chose your side and chose mine.”

    Reply
    • Sheila B

      i see we both have seven year scenarios going on. Your characters have me hooked. I want to know who they are and the nature of their beef with each other and how the owner and others knew their history and propensity for swords to be drawn and that “ice and fire will fly” which was curious, made me wonder if these words about these two public enemies is symbolic or fantasy fiction.

  5. Miele L. Magdaleno

    Hi! Can you help me build my character/s?. How to create an effective main character?. We have this activity in school, wherein we need to write a story. But first thing first is, we need a character for the story

    Reply
    • Kenneth Alexander

      Hello, Miele L. Magdaleno, building characters is the same developing characters accomplished as the plot takes the character from conflict to resolution; characters change as story progress.

      e.g. protagonist wants ‘A’ but antagonist doesn’t want him/her to succeed so as the ‘plot’ thickens the ‘characters change;’ doesn’t matter who succeeds at the end. What you’ve done throughout, created strong dynamic characters, through narrative and dialogue, which builds strong ‘relationships’ between characters, settings help too!

      This article is very informative, can help establish (build) strong dynamic characters if applied properly.

  6. Courtnie

    Luke walked into the conference room and saw Kathleen in there. “Oh, I’m sorry didn’t know you was in here.” Luke turned to walk out, when Kathleen ran over and grabbed his arm. “Luke you can’t avoid me forever we have to see each other some time, we need to talk about this “. Luke stood at the door with his back still to Kathleen and whisper. “We won’t be running into each other Much longer “. With a puzzled look on her face Kathleen asked. “What do you mean by that”? I put on transfer to a different field office”. Warm tears start to all down Kathleen’s face as she stood in disbelief as to what she just heard. LUKE WHY WOULD YOU DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT”!? Luke turned around and looked Kathleen in the eye. “I can’t be here anymore. After what you did to me ,to us. Just can’t be here, it hurts way to much. So it’s best if I leave”. Luke, I said I was sorry, it only happen that one time. I told you it would never happen again”. I don’t know if I can trust that it won’t, do you not understand the seriousness of the situation”? “Kathleen you ate the last piece of Patti pie”! “I don’t think I can forgive that”.

    Reply
    • Diane Krause

      I love this Courtnie,
      I’m still laughing at the end that she at the last piece of Patti pie. I have a love affair with food. I once thought I was the worse person in the world because I was mad at my husband who went out instead of staying home with me. While he was gone, I got my revenge. I ate his left overs; all gone. This Luke though took it to extremes. I think Kathleen would be better off without him.

    • Courtnie

      Thank you so much. I wanted to give everyone a good laugh. I’m glad it worked.

    • Kenneth Alexander

      Interesting interaction, Courtnie, but thats what it is, ‘interaction’ between two people through ‘talk.’ Some may disagree, relationships established through dialogue requires (mostly) narrative as well as ‘talk.’ It is very nice talk, though! More is needed to establish tense relationship, however.

      Thanks

    • Courtnie

      Thank you for the advice. I really appreciate it. Me being an up and coming writer

    • Lynn Bowie

      This made me smile at the end. What is Patti Pie, though? Whatever it is, it must be fantastic! LOL! Your character Kathleen is so dramatic, while Luke is funny. Love the comical twist. Good job!

    • Courtnie

      First thank you, Patti pies is sweet potatoes, peach cobblers, apple pies that the Singer Patti labella makes and sells at walmart

    • Lynn Bowie

      always learning….

  7. TerriblyTerrific

    I’ve got some interesting characters in my family..

    Reply
  8. anoush abroumian

    Sitting in the university classroom at an early hour when it was unoccupied by students, B and H were discussing TV show episodes and looking at photos of themselves taken last weekend on B’s laptop. M was similarly busy working on a graphic design project on her laptop, sitting silently in a corner of the room. When the department’s chairwoman came and demanded someone help her with arranging some boxes in her office and B volunteered, the exes H and M were left alone in the room, a situation that was awkward for both. M being the avoidant type, she kept her vision plastered directly on her screen and situated her body as to remove H from her field of vision, compressed her posture and maintained a straight face. H, noticing her reaction, was baffled about what to do. He wasn’t the type to restrain himself of hold back his immediate feelings, but as he took her avoidance harshly and was too proud to initiate an interaction, he opted to the same method. In fact neither wanted to speak to the other. The relationship had ended on a bad note and much was left unsaid by M, and now after 5 months she thought it too late for a confrontation and H was too unwilling to hear one. Eventually he got up and strolled around the adjacent balcony until B was back. The unexpressed tension pushed deeper inside M. On the other hand H registered it as a temporary annoyance.

    Would appreciate all feedback and advice, me being a new writer getting started up

    Reply
  9. Martell Cooley

    This absolutely amazing, I am going to use this as a guideline to write mine’s

    Reply

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