Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Character Relationships 1 - Story value and priming questions

Creating character bios, descriptions, and studies is classic work for storytellers. Lots of forms exist that can be used to delve into looks, heritage, backstory, flaws, goals, powers, and vulnerabilities. My method is to let a character who is fit for a story problem bloom on the page, and then interview the character and do other developmental work.

But I have put an emphasis in my work in having a strong grasp of the relationships between characters. I think this is because I’m always trying to identify the conflict within a scene. Of the standard series man vs. man, man vs. Nature, and man vs. himself (with the appropriate variations of gender and fantasy species), I tend to focus on “man vs. man.”

That naturally inclines me toward exploring the contrasts in skills, desires, needs, and powers of characters who are facing off in a scene. Which is a great foundation for understanding and establishing the relationships between characters, whether they are lovers, enemies, friends, victims, or bound together by obligations. Since I work toward three to five beats in a scene (which usually are shifts in power), I can learn a lot about the relationship between a pair of characters in just a few pages of a story.

Relationships are essential to engaging an audience. When we experience a story, we are interested in the relationships between characters because we have relationships in our own lives — and they are vital to us. We ALL exist in community. When a child to grow up in isolation or feral, something fundamental about his or her humanity is lost, often forever. If you think about it, most characters from literature, film, TV, and history are memorable because of the relationships they have. This is most obvious with team stories, from Ocean’s Eleven to The Magnificent Seven, to Stagecoach to Friends to Cheers. The differences in the characters and the way the interact with each other — in many cases — is more important than the intricate plots.

Analyzing your favorite stories to learn about the relationships — and why they appeal to you — is a great step in building better relationships among your characters. It’s also valuable to dig into real life. If you list ten people who are important to you — relatives, coworkers, friends, enemies, bosses, and maybe even the UPS man — you can become a scientist of relationships, gaining insights about what is obvious, what is hidden, what is valuable, and what might lead to sleepless nights.

To help you along (in fiction and real life), here’s a starter set of questions to ask:
  • What is the level of attachment (especially affection) between each character and the other? Or repulsion?
  • Do obsessions or addictions shape the relationship?
  • How would you assess fear/trust between the characters? Is it asymmetric? Are there specific issues?
  • Do the characters have obligations toward one another imposed by the outside (cultural, familial, legal)? How do they feel about these obligations?
  • Has one character fulfilled a need of another, creating a debt? (This is more powerful if sacrifice is figured in, if the character who helped paid a big price.)
  • Do the characters depend on each other in some way now? Or is there a history of shared experience/interdependence (such as military service)?
I could go on with more questions, but creating your own might be of more value. (I’d love it if some were shared in comments.)

Describing relationships is just one way to understand and present them. Dialogue (including subtext), character reflection, action, and revealing shared history can also bring out why and how characters matter to each other and how is changes through experience — both for you as the writer and for readers/audiences. I’ll take a closer look next week.

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