Character Chemistry: How To Make Fictional Relationships Feel Real (With 3 Useful Writing Exercises)

Once you’ve created your unique, complex and wonderful characters (see here for more information about how to create interesting characters) you need to form relationships between them. I don’t mean this merely in the romantic sense – your character relationships can be familial, platonic, rivalries or romantic.

The first thing to remember is that like the characters themselves, the relationship between characters should be complex. If you want to create a friendship, remember that they won’t see eye to eye on everything. Equally, if creating a rivalry, they may agree on certain ideas.

To make the interactions between your characters as fruitful as possible, keep in mind the flaws and quirks that you developed when writing these characters (again, see here). Even if these characters love each, what values do they disagree on? Creating tension doesn’t mean creating hatred – tension often helps you to form closer bonds between characters.

Creating realistic romantic relationships

Romantic relationships in fiction are some of my least favourite. Romance tropes can border on cliches because of the frequency with which they are littered throughout some romance stories. Whilst it may be easy to pin point the cliched tropes – love triangles, enemies to lovers, damsell in distress etc. – it’s far harder to think about what you would like to do differently.

Remember that people in real life can blow hot and cold regardless of whether they are in love with one another or not. Some people are clingy. Others are distant. Some romantic relationships are co-dependent. Some are independent. What makes a ‘healthy’ relationship isn’t important here (although glorifying abuse and toxic behaviour is another pet peeve of mine in romance and shouldn’t be excused by the fictional nature of the characters) it’s about representing realistic human behaviour. Unless you are writing a children’s story, fairytale or fable, you’ll need to do this so that your reader is invested in the characters and their fates.

Let’s start with a ‘first date and last date’ exercise. This may or may not end up in your final draft, but it’s a useful exercise for working out character tensions and creating a good foundation for your romantic relationship.

Take Character A and Character B. Character A regrets how their last relationship ended. Character B has never had a relationship before.

With just those two pieces of information and little else, you can write two scenes of dialogue between them.

Scene One – ‘First Date’

In the first scene, write their first ever conversation. This doesn’t need to be a ‘date’ per se, but the conversation should be long enough for the characters to get a sense of each other.

The first thing to think about is how much about each character you’d like to convey. Remember that it can take months or years for romantic partners to get to know each other fully – don’t spill all of their secrets in the first conversation!

The second key aspect is dialogue. Instead of the usual “where did you grow up”-style small talk, include smaller details. On a first date you may comment on someone’s outfit, their mannerisms or their likes and dislikes (the food, the temperature, the location etc.). The dialogue should be engaging, but it shouldn’t be probing – most people don’t dive into personal details without any run up.

Thirdly, tackle non-verbal communication via your narrator. This can be first or third person, interspersing dialogue with description. Think about how the pauses, body language and thoughts of your characters may reveal more about them than any words they say. This is vital for making complex relationships – the unsaid ideas are what create tension.

Scene Two

Now you’re taking two characters who know each other very well – potentially even intimately – and crafting their ‘last date’ (again, it doesn’t have to be a date, just a prolonged interaction.)

The first thing to consider in writing this scene is whether the characters’ know that this will be their last interaction. Is it a break up? If so, is the break up amicable? Is one of them about to die? If so, do they know that, and do they choose to tell their partner or not? The reasons behind this final interaction will offer great sources of tension between your characters, either bringing them closer together (which is possible even in a break up) or pushing them apart.

Secondly, you need to think about what is known and what is not known. Are there secrets, memories or betrayals that haven’t been shared? What does one character know that the other doesn’t? How will these hidden ideas shape the conversation, or will they be left unsaid?

Scene 3 – your characters

Now take these two scenes with your own characters rather than A and B.

In a notebook or piece of paper, write down each of your characters’ feature. What complexities do they have that will mesh or cause sparks? Will they share everything or leave some things hidden?

Friendships and plot progression

Frienships are a really useful way to progress the plot – any failing which your MC may have, be it bravery, strength, intelligence etc., can be supported by a complimentary side character. The problem with this is that people very rarely melt together as neatly as this in real life.

So often, especially in epic fantasy and adventure stories, allies and friends start to fall into boxes, like characters in an RPG or computer game – the attacker, the defender, the healer, the sneaker. This can lead not only to 2D side characters, but also a sense of ex machina (read more about that here) when the friend comes to the rescue. MCs are not given the opporunity to fail outright because the skill of an ally will come to their aid.

Exercise – clashing and helping

Take two random characters (you can use the random character board (excluding the location) I created here if you don’t want to make your own) and write down two lists – firstly, which values or experiences these characters share, and secondly, which values or experiences these characters don’t share.

Whilst not sharing the same mindset on a certain topic may not cause friction, it may cause a lack of understanding, or a yearning to learn more about the other person depending on the nature of your character.

Start here – with the things they don’t share. Write a scene that starts with one of the characters realising they don’t understand something about the other. This scene can be descriptive, first or third person, or it can dialogue-based, it doesn’t matter. Let yourself be pulled through the scene with the characters differences and see what comes of it.

Families, support and death

This may be a controversial thought, but in my opinion writers often only create a familial link for their character to either provide support to the plot (in much the same as the ex machina friendships I mentioned earlier) or to provide a hit of emotion when one of them dies.

It isn’t neccessarily an issue to include these ideas – it’s just overdone. Here’s an exercise to help you try to avoid your MC’s family members falling into only these two categories.

Exercise – memories

Family members are a wonderful way to bring the past into your story without shoe-horning in a flashback or remembrance from the narrator. Memories and past experiences are really important for character development, but also for creating an emotional connection between the reader and the character. Nostalgia can play a huge role in relatability, and even if you don’t want your character to be relatable for your reader, you can make a connection between two characters within the text with shared experiences.

Take two of your own characters who are either related or share a family-like bond. Have them returrn to a location which they have both been to before, either together or seperately. Have one character start the scene with “I remember when…” and see where the scene goes.

Conclusion

There are countless way to make your character relationships special, but however you’d like to do it, pay attention to cliches and remember that everyone, no matter their relationship to one another, will have tension with as well as admirations for one another.

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