Wednesday, May 16, 2012

3 keys to developing character relationships

A writer asked me about building relationships between your characters, particularly characters who have met and will be growing closer over the course of the story.

This is an extremely tricky pacing issue, and it's one that glares at me in my old manuscripts. My characters were always way too honest, way too forward with one another in first conversations.

Here are some guiding principles for developing relationships between characters:

Don't forget first impressions

Your characters have a way they want to appear to the outside world. We all do. When I'm meeting someone for the first time, I want them to walk away thinking I'm friendly and easy to talk to. This means I do a lot of smiling, a lot of question asking, and I'll agree to basically anything they say or I'll sidestep an issue so as not to create conflict.

So what about your main character and the person they're meeting? What kind of impression do they want others to have of them (one of power? perfection? being in control?) and how do they go about achieving it?

Here are some things you can do to have fun with that first impression:

Have them meet when one of them is not at their best. One of those moments where in real life you'd want to say, "I'm not normally like this..."

Or how can they get a shade of the truth but misinterpret each other (a la Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy)

Do these characters know anything about the other from another source? You can have fun with that too. Haven't you ever had the experience where a friend just raves and raves about her new boyfriend. He's so funny! He's so smart! He's so easy to talk to! Then you meet him and he seems like a total dud? If applicable, think about what expectations your character brings into this new relationship.

Bonding them through shared experiences and activities

The best way to get your characters to bond (whether they like it or not!) is by tying them together in some way.

In Me, Just Different Skylar is so not in the mood for a guy like Connor Ross and finds him completely annoying ... but when he overhears her big family secret - that her little sister is pregnant - the two of them are now tied together. He's now the only person who knows what she's dealing with at home and the only one she can talk to about her concern for her sister. It bonds them despite their frustrations with each other.

You can also bond them through activities. If we're in a school setting, there are so many options. Group projects, playing the same sport, a shared class, lockers next to each other, the same after school job, best friends  who are dating so now these two have to spend time together, the list goes on and on.

If they're adults or just not in school, they can live in close proximity to each other, work for the same charitable cause (i.e. they both have a heart for disabled veterans), serve on the same committee, etc.

However you can, get these people in the same room. Often.

Leave the boring stuff off the page

Kinda like last week when we talked about developing skills for your character much of the relationship building stuff can be left off the page, can be implied.

I'm pulling an example from an unpublished story of mine that I absolutely adore but that appears to have zero place in the market. Sniff, sniff.

So, there's a new boy at school who Marin thinks is cute, but she's sworn off all dating because her last boyfriend was untrustworthy. And also because her parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce. She went out to dinner last night with her dad and it turned out Vince (new boy) was her waiter. He witnessed the ugly fight between the two of them (shared experiences). This is the next day and they're working on the school newspaper together (shared activity). Vince has told Marin that his parents divorced over the summer as well.

“Parents, huh?” His chuckle is dry. “What does ‘irreconcilable differences’ even mean?”
I shake my head.
“It’s just laziness. That should be the box they have to check on the divorce papers. If they have to check anything … I’m not really sure how it works.”
“Me neither."
His gaze travels my face. “Let’s talk about something more enjoyable. Famine, war, orphans. Something along those lines.”
I laugh again. I like that he can make me laugh twice during a serious conversation about our crazy families. Dave, who had many good points, had no sense of humor. He was the type of boyfriend who, in a situation like this, encouraged me to really cry as I wrote out my emotions. Then he’d want me to make something artistic—a haiku, an abstract painting—from my pain.
But Vince is different. And when he smiles at me like that, with humor shining in his eyes, I see how some changes are good.

This is the end of a chapter. I had already established that the two of them were going to be in the newsroom for awhile as she showed him how the software worked. So even the reader only sees this bit of the conversation and the next chapter starts us off several days later, the reader (whether they consciously realize it or not) understands that they spent a chunk of time together.

Again, the growth of character relationships is a tricky thing to pace, so don't be afraid to get it wrong during your first attempt. You can always tackle it in the editing process.

Hopefully this helped!

One quick thing. Carla Stewart, who occasionally judges for our teen writing contests, has a new release this week, and I'm absolutely in love with her cover:



Can't you just tell she writes "vintage" lit? I'm super eager to read this book. You can click on the cover for a description.

Have a great day everyone!

39 comments:

  1. My characters never seem to get into a serious relationship, probably because I dont know how to go about it. This should help.

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  2. Thank you, Stephanie! I have a lot of complex relationships (not just romantic) in my novel and sometimes it's hard to keep them all straight.

    P.S. I loved the snippet you posted. I want to read that whole book now. Stupid market.

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  3. I'm with Ellyn. I would totally read that book! :)

    The problem for me is that my characters are thrown together. They're stuffed in an underground housing facility with six other teens, and they hang out together because the others didn't like them, although they disliked my MC the most. Also, of the ten, seven of them were runaways/street kids. So how do you grow relationships when you have characters that are thrown together and told to make it work, with no chance of quiet time?

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  4. Oh, goodness, girls. Totally made my day. Sadly I think Vince needs to turn into, like, a vampire before I can round up some interest :( I still feel like there's a plan and place for that book... Anyway. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Becki, in answer to your question, I think (without having read your manuscript, of course) a possible solution is projects. Can a couple of them start working together to escape? Can a few others work on a plan for escaping from the guards? If you can find applicable projects for them, that could help. Especially if it's things like, "This was Josh's idea and Stacey is the one with the expertise, so they should work together on it ... even though they don't like each other."

    Is that helpful at all?

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    1. Oh goodness no! Dont turn him into a vampire! Those guys suck (sorry, I like puns)!

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    2. Vampires are so cliche. You should turn him into a unicorn :)
      There are lots of people in the world who like MMCs who don't have blood for dinner. I would totally read this book, so I hope it gets published someday!

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    3. MaddieJ: That's horrible and hilarious at the same time! :D I'm with you, though. Don't turn him into a vampire, please, Stephanie!!!

      Stephanie: Yes, that helped a lot, especially since they already do, although they need to work MORE on it. Most of it actually happens after they escape. :) Thank you, I really appreciate it. ^_^

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    4. Vampires are just so over done. Dragons are so much cooler!

      @Becki Badger
      Haha, that seems to be my specialty. Horrible humor;)

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    5. The unicorn suggestion totally cracked me up. It would make those kiss scenes rather awkward....

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    6. I agree MaddieJ! Dragons are the best :) Hahhaa I liked your pun :) Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
      Philippians 4:8

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    7. @Sierra
      I wanna get a shirt that says "Vampires? We've got dragons!"
      Puns are fun;)

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    8. Ooh let me know if you find one! Hahaha. Agree. Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
      Philippians 4:8

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  5. I want to read more! Silly market.

    I really needed this post today, Stephanie! Thanks. :D

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  6. Awesome post, Stephanie! :) Thank you so much!

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    1. And, just for the record, I really liked the snippet, as well. :)

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    2. You guys are so sweet. Thank you :)

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  7. Love those ideas, Steph, of first impressions and shared experiences. Good advice!
    :-)

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  8. That snippet was great! And this was a big help... I have this character in my newest novel who's klutzy, a giant doofball and generally a thorn in my hero's side. He kind of ends up revealing that diamonds are under the roughest of rocks, though. :D

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  9. Good idea! In my book, I literally just wrote a scene yesterday where my MC meets her best friend and boyfriend for the first time, and it went terribly(My MC has a big mouth.) So I think I will find a way to force them to hang out. :)

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  10. This was something I definitely needed to read, Stephanie. My boss from work, who is an excellent editor, just finished reading my first draft/semi edited WIP...and told me the pacing was off. So, back to the drawing board. This helped me get a glimpse of what I can do better. :)

    And I adore that little snippet from your book. So, so great. Made me want to read what comes next! :)

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    Replies
    1. Clarebear, pacing is SOOO tricky. I always have to work on my pacing in revisions.

      And thank you for the compliments :)

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  11. Ugh, I hate it when writers have great ideas but they don't get published because 'there isn't a market for it'. Um, maybe there is, maybe all of the readers are tired of a one-genre one-plot market Mr. Publisher. Sheesh. -end rant- -no offense-

    This is a really interesting post. Lately I've been trying to attach some of my characters together, and often have to do it forcibly to make it work. My FMC has a guy friend, and he has another female friend but she hates the FMC, so she tries to stay away as much as possible. But eventually they have to come together to fix a problem. Ugh. Characters are so high maintenance. Haha. At least after reading this, I realized I should focus on WHAT brings them together instead of bringing out the duck tape.

    Thanks for writing this article.

    -Jess

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    1. "Characters are so high maintenance" - Ha! I love that. Aren't they, though?

      Your rant made me grin. I think I've grumbled those very same things. Maybe I need to work on the "hook" of my story so I have a better chance of it being viewed as a "marketable" story... Hmm.

      And the duct tape isn't a bad strategy either. A balance of both is good.

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  12. I am kind of in a little predicament regarding character relationships in my story. My main character escapes from home and flees to a train. There, she meets the love interest. How can their relationship grow on a train ride? Or should I maybe have him follow her after she leaves the train? Thanks!

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    1. Have the train get stuck somewhere and have them trapped there.

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    2. Have you read A Distant Melody by Sarah Sundin? Her characters met on a train ride, had a spark, and then in a later scene met up at a party and discovered they had mutual friends. It worked great. It's such a great book too. Just typing this makes me want to reread it...

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  13. This blog was great, thank you so much Stephanie! I ALWAYS had trouble with starting up relationships with characters.

    Aww, don't give up hope just yet on that story of yours! Let it swim about in your head a bit or work up some interesting ideas. I thought the snippit was really good! You could bring in a "secret crime" into the story. Make the main characters' parents have a hidden past or this new boy Vince have a deadly secret... Oops, sorry for my rant. I also love the story cover! It looks so cute. I want to read it! :)

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Jessica! I like the idea of a secret crime ... all the elements are there for it, I would just need to bring it to the front a bit more. Hmm....

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  14. I don't remember in what earlier post it was that you first mentioned that "don't have them say everything they're thinking," but that completely revolutionized my dialogue. Talk about an aha moment. :)

    Duct tape works. ;)

    Also, that sounds like a really intriguing manuscript of yours!

    (GTW is almost at 400 followers! Cool!)

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    1. I know! That's kinda crazy, isn't it? I think there were, like, 40 when you started hanging out with us :)

      And that's a good reminder about dialogue. I was SO guilty of that in my early stuff. Especially between my love interest people. They were always having deep conversations right away. Sheesh.

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  15. I actually like that snippet of your story. I think there must be a place for it Somewhere! It's seems to be a lighthearted summer read:) Ooo! 'Stardust''s cover screams adorably vintage! I read the description and it looks like a pleasant read too. Characters are high maintainence... but then again, so are real people.And that's what makes them believable and memorable! Haha, Thanks for the post Miss Stephanie!

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    1. Thanks so much, Michelle! I think it has kind of a Sarah Dessen-y type flavor to it, and her books always have a summer feel to them, so that makes sense :)

      That's true - our real life relationships take lots of work too. I always get into trouble when I let my relationships go on auto-pilot...

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    2. Sarah Dessen? Let get published God so I can read it!!!!!!! :P Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
      Philippians 4:8

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  16. There is such a genre as vintage lit? How.cool. I love the cover! I haven't read a new book in so LONG, and now I've a couple of books on a mental list..

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  17. Nice post Stephanie! I really liked the part about first impressions, it is so true! And if you are like me you think and "plan" it if you know you are meeting someone new. What you wear, where you'll be, how you'll act, what you'll say, how it "should" go. :P Omw! That is one gorgeous cover! I'm going to see if my library has it! Oh, and nice sneak peek into your book :) :) Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
    Philippians 4:8

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  18. Great post! I have a problem with this, but in my case it involves a girl who's stranded near ashore all alone and a guy washes up on the shore, and she heals him. When I write out the relationship it feels rushed and quirky.

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  19. Wow, this is fantastic! The two characters who end up dating in my WIP meet at the beginning of the book, so this is really useful for me. :) Thanks so much for the tips! (Also, sorry to hear that your story doesn't have a place on the market...but hey, maybe something will open up in the future! Good luck! :)

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