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I talk a lot about characters and what makes good characters great, so Ill try not to get too far into that this time but as characters are an intrinsic part of story telling and given the nature of this months topic, naturally it will play quite a big part.
Todays point however is the connections between characters. And for those connections to be possible, we have to start with the groundwork of the individuals. Specifically when youre groundwork is faulty, bringing a potentially great character down to just a good one or even lower. As a result, it cant support the connection with other characters and can even damage them; making these great connections feel like theyre supporting the characters instead.
One of the biggest mistakes I see, is the writer not understanding their characters well enough. Ive talked about this before in the Character Guides writing tip, but today Im going to take it to the other side and to the fundamental level. Where often times its not actually the character thats been misunderstood, its how people behave in general thats been overlooked.
It doesnt matter what your personality is, were all human; and even if your character isnt, it still needs to have something about it that gives the reader the ability to relate or your storys gonna flop. Which means that even if they arent human, there will most likely be a human element to them.
My advice, is you should take time to carefully think about your characters words & actions. Try to think from their perspective, as if you were this person with this background, what would your first thought be? What would you do? What would stick out to you in whatever scenario youve thrust them into.
Trust me the more time you spend thinking them through before you take them out for a spin, the better off youll be all throughout the journey. Its an expedition of discovery for you. Youre not creating a character, youre getting to know a person. And unfortunately just like irl, theres no shortcut for that. Not if you care in the slightest about making something worthwhile.
People dont do things without reasons that make sense to them. You need to give them a reason to do or say the things you want them to. It has to be a reasonable train of thought and make sense to/for them. Theyre not empty puppets. Treating characters like that is a fast track to having a lack of substance. Thats like being tricked into eating something that looks like food but isnt.
Characters are the thing that makes even the most wild stories relatable. They make it feel real. And ultimately thats why people read stories. They want an experience, give them one they wont forget in a hurry.
Which brings us to our next point; To understand and write good characters, you need to know why they behave the way you want them to. Their words and actions have to make sense to the character themselves before itll make sense to anyone else, much less a reader.
The best characters behave like real people. That means they make mistakes, that means they have flaws, that means they have more sides than the one you see most often.
Once you understand these people as people, youd be surprised how much easier it makes other things and how many opportunities it provides. And bonus, it even fuels inspiration.
Which brings us to our main and final point.
A good cast, no matter the details or circumstances between them, are people who compliment each other. Either positively, or negatively.
An easy way to grasp this concept is to think about them like Yin & Yang.
Yin & yang is the perfect visualization (and concept) for balance. Personally, I actually live by this irl, and this is the main root of most religions. Yin & Yang just happens to be one of the easiest most concise representations that I know of.
Your cast should balance each other. This is especially true -- and crucial -- for romantic pairings. Romantic connections work best between characters that go together. Regardless of details or situations like gender, faction, political stance, friend circles, religious beliefs, opposing teams, ethnicity, opposing personal beliefs, even species (they could be aliens, elves, fae, hybrids, gods, demons, animals, slimes who transform into dogs with shark teeth, whatever), etc.
That being said,
Just because there are stark contrasts and differences of opinion, doesnt mean they have to cause conflict between your characters. Some -- Id argue most actually -- of the best relationships come through opposing traits because they compliment and balance each other.
Balance. This is the secret sauce to any story.
You should be able to easily picture your characters standing at each others backs (metaphorically if not literally) and protecting each other. If you cant do that, then something is amiss.
Obviously that applies to people with a positive relationship, but people with a negative relationship should have the same sort of chemistry; just a different chemical. These chemical reactions between characters should have effects the same way real-world chemicals do. Whether thats a combination that produces the best flavor of ice cream, or the most effective grenade, depends on whether its a positive or negative relationship. You can even combine them a little bit to create something like pop rocks or spicy candy. The combinations and possibilities are endless. Its up to you to choose the flavor youre after.
These sort of firm unwavering relationships are in dire lack these days because people are losing touch with what its like to really connect like this. Its become more and more rare to see people like this much less understand the connection themselves. Which is how its usually lost too. Writers get caught up in what can tear people apart and forget or ignore whats holding and/or drawing them together. For some reason its difficult to remind yourself that some things are unshakable and should be unquestionable fact within your story. No matter what happens, those things dont change. Like if two characters love each other (romantic or otherwise) that shouldnt be up for debate. To them they may not realize but it should be utterly obvious to anyone outside of them. Be it the reader, the characters around them, or even the enemy if they observe them closely enough. Itll be in their body language and how people naturally gravitate towards the person theyre most interested in or closest with.
Sometimes its easy to forget that people (characters) shouldnt be willing to give up this connection without a damn good reason, and they will fight to keep it without even thinking.
Unless they themselves are actively trying to sever it, and its painful beyond imagining to try to sever a connection like this. On both sides. Anybody whos experienced loss or heartbreak knows exactly what it feels like. Like a piece of you is slowly dying and rotting away inside you. A lot of times they cant even go through with severing it, because while there may be a good reason to try, the other person is holding on and they themselves (depending on situation) want to hold on as well.
Whether holding on is a good or bad thing, is entirely circumstantial. If someone is pulling away out of fear or grief, its bad and should definitely be stopped and addressed. If someone is ending an unhealthy relationship, its good. And sometimes it can even be different for either party.
Say, if Person A is trying to spare Person B from pain or ridicule because they may have to do something that compromises them in some way (i.e have to become a public enemy for the greater good, or has to do a suicide mission of some kind where they definitely wont be coming back), then for Person A its a good thing but for Person B, its bad. See how that works?
And last but not least on this point: Beware toxicity.
If you are building characters, its not a bad idea to look up things about toxic relationships and actively evaluate the relationships within your story consistently throughout the entire process. Because youre not just telling a story. You have a responsibility when writing to make sure your readers are not looking up and unconsciously absorbing the behavior of a toxic pair/group because that has real world consequences (especially on younger and/or more impressionable persons) and trust me, you dont want that.
Im not saying dont write about people like this. These people exist, and therefore I dont have any right -- nor intent -- to tell you not to.
But if youre gonna write toxic personalities, you need to make those pieces of them points of contention. Those parts should be problems because they are problems. Problems may not be solvable, especially when it comes to human beings, but its important to avoid denying that they (the traits/behavior) arent good.
These are the parts of people -- and ourselves -- that we wish we could change, but accept as flaws. And do not use "love" as an excuse for their behavior. That is a slippery slope that can even effect you as the author, and your real-world relationships. That kind of stuff gets under your skin without you even noticing. It starts slow, just subtle shifts in the way you see things and the way you act. Lines start to blur and you start to question your own sense of right & wrong in the worst way, and before long youll be making excuses for the toxic behavior of you and people around you because you "understand their pain and why they do/did it." and from there its a mud slide. Pain is not excuse to cause it in someone else. Keep your lines clear; just because something is understandable, doesnt make it ok.
A good way to keep your characters and even yourself in line, is to practice respect. It also happens to be one of the easiest ways to identify a toxic person. Everybody has a toxic trait or two and flaws, but how and what a person respects can tell you more about a person than any amount of time you spend with them. Even if youve known them your entire life.
Not liking someone is not a good enough reason to be disrespectful. Even the greatest of enemies can respect each other. However, there are limits. I personally live by the modo: Treat others accordingly. Which means if theyre disrespectful to you, whether or not you return the favor is entirely up to you.
Respect and the principals that accompany it, is the easiest way to help you build characters relationships. Whether its excessive, just right, maintains a functional distance between them (like between two kingdoms, leaders, co-workers, politicians, etc),
It can also subtly tell a reader how familiar two people are with each other. Respect is a scale. On one end you have distant respect, in the middle you have the sort of respect you hold in good friends, and on the other you have the deep intrinsic respect that is usually held for lovers, the people closest to you, and people you greatly admire.
All of this circles back to the main point, these are the building blocks for what makes good strong connections between people; both inside and outside stories. And this is what most writers who have trouble understanding their characters, misunderstand or are unaware of.
I cannot stress this enough: The best connections, are healthy.For.A.Reason. The word healthy implies benefit vs unhealthy which is detriment.
Think about the character pairings that you love the most, and try to list what it is you love about their relationship or dynamic. (Ill bet the biggest one is, seeing them happy or do something cool, makes you happy lol)
Try to recognize what their individual positive & negatives are that oppose the other but actually help them fit together like puzzle pieces. Like, one person likes olives and the other doesnt.
Even simpler examples of complimenting things that you can attribute characters to are: Chocolate & peanut butter, strawberry & banana, mint & dark grey, red & black, a good book & a rainy day, summer heat & the beach, (insert your favorite pairings here), chaos & order, the moon & the dark night sky, Yin & Yang.
Now that you understand the basic concept, lets do a more complicated, more practical/applicable scenario with actual characters:
Person A, is crafty and mischievous but mainly in the interest of fun. So they understand the scheming tricks of others and is accustomed to people being untrustworthy. Being surrounded by injustice and people constantly trying to one-up each other grew a competitive spirit as well as a hidden trait of a vigilante-esc selflessness. They enjoy teasing, chaos, and are a magnet for trouble, often getting into it without even meaning to but most often deliberately sticking their curious nose where people dont want them to because they understand better than anyone that people hide behind masks and you have to dig up a few bones to know what kind of skeletons they hide in their closet. Most often, they find the mishaps and embarrassing moments of peoples lives to be hilarious, thus cultivating a love of pushing peoples boundaries and over the course of their life have become very adept at knowing just how far they can push before its time to run away. However they wind up with the blame for many things even if theyre innocent, because it wouldnt be unusual for a chaotic troublemaker to have stepped over the line. Person A deals with it cleverly because they are good with words and mind games, and even turns it back on those who tried their wrongdoings on someone else. Though they dont enjoy causing harm, they cant and wont sit by while they or someone else are being attacked. And they get in trouble often enough that theyre ok with taking the rap and even the punishment in defense of the people they care about. Especially if it wasnt fair.
Person B on the other hand, is respectful, honorable and virtuous; a pillar of reliable, nontarnishable character and makes them a bit distant, seemingly untouchable but also unapproachable by most. So they live by the rules -- borderline innocent that they dont always apply, but smart and experienced enough to know better. They believe wholeheartedly in what they know as right & wrong. As you can imagine, they are not fond of mischief or those who try to game the system in self-interest. Lies and tricks tarnish ones character so Person B is either completely honest -- bluntly so -- or remains quiet (taking to heart that saying, "If you cant say something nice, dont say anything."), and thus Person B is a rare sort of trustworthy, and even when someone attempts to slander their impeccable character, its completely unbelievable. But smart as Person B is, they have no mind for clever tricks and is at a horrible disadvantage against those who use them. They highly respect good deeds, upright characters, skill and strength, and people who think carefully about their actions.
See how Ive set this up?
On the surface they dont seem like theyd be a good fit, they could even be enemies if Person A didnt get the itch to ruffle Person Bs feathers and instead made him resent him for ruining his fun.
But then, I tied them together using their strengths to fill the others disadvantage, and provided logical means for the two to forge a connection through the fire of their differences (though one of them will certainly have more fun than the other during this process lol) and find common ground in more important things than their temperament and seemingly conflicting characters. And if you think carefully, they actually share the same values.
Person A likes to have fun but is actually selfless and even noble, seeking to right wrongs. Person B is a bit stiff but also seeks to abide by right & wrong. They both value fairness and justice, but go about it in very different ways against the same opponent, and obviously theyd disagree on some of the finer lines between right & wrong.
This not only divulges both their differences and similarities, but provides opportunity for entertaining interactions, character growth, and near endless story potential.
Youve probably already got a story or two in your head just from reading that.
That being said, everybody can have disagreements. Disagreements can cause reasonable arguments and feelings can get hurt, or they can cause unreasonable arguments if youre just looking for drama. But even if people disagree keeping in mind how strong their connection is and what their relationship is, will be the difference between excessive drama and delicious entertainment and/or gateway to an incredible character building moment.
The stronger peoples connection, the less willing they are to harm each other in any form. Which means they will both consciously and subconsciously do what they can to avoid it. No one wants to see someone they care about, hurting. Especially not by their own hand, and sometimes its unavoidable but hurt doesnt mean instant death lol. Knowing how a character can be hurt is actually less important than figuring out how they can recover from it.
But this is a line you should walk with careful consideration because its easy to cross someones core values and violate their character (who they are as a person) while trying to write this. Thats why its a good idea to identify these key points about them before you start writing, or at least before you get into the meat of the story and run the risk of contradicting the character youve already established.
A good way to feel this out about a person is to think: What are they willing to compromise on or subdue about themselves for someone they love? (And that will be different depending on what sort of love they feel towards the other; for example, people are willing to go farther for people they love romantically than they are for platonic connections)
Perhaps even more importantly: What are they not willing to compromise on?
What goes against their character so much that they would lose themselves if they were to do it/if it were to happen?
What behavior do they gently correct in each other the way someone would for a child? Things like, reminding them not to talk with their mouth full, or encouraging them to let their hair down a little.
What do they encourage in each other? Like, being a little more flexible and less stiff, having a little more fun.
What do they discourage in each other? Like, excessive mischief, or living by the rule book and never bending to the point itll make the situation worse because life doesnt have hard and fast rules.
What do they challenge in each other? Maybe they challenge one another in swordsmanship, maybe they challenge each other to challenge their own beliefs and reevaluate something; to think deeper about something theyve long held to be true and havent realized that it may not be as black & white as they thought. Maybe one challenges the others sense of right and wrong and makes them see that although theres nothing wrong with their sense of right & wrong but that often times, its not that simple.
What is one good at that the other isnt? What bad behavior is one prone to that the other isnt? What good behavior is easy for one that the other absolutely suffers with? (The easiest example of this, is our characters from earlier; one who breaks rules and one who abides by them).
Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk and listening to me rattle on forever lol now go have fun creating some epic people for your epic adventures.
See you next month!