In my first character relationships post, I noted that, “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.” I’ll deal with each in turn here.
Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." In a story, such a statement is in dialogue, and the relationship part is how it is taken by the other person. Most characters will not accept the statement if it calls for serious work — changing the way he or she acts toward that “someone,” recontextualizing an assumed truth (or part of their own narrative), or changes the stakes or the relationship (e.g., love to friendship). A simple statement is, in itself, not usually enough to create real change. Even one that demonstrates a big gap between the idea of the relationship and the reality of it is likely to be dismissed as a bad joke or a misunderstanding.
Subtext is even more of a challenge, since the person hearing the statement needs to be actively searching for meaning. If, for instance, there is a situation that implies threat or the hearer is looking for clarification of status (e.g., love or affection), then the ambiguity — indeed, everything about the communication (tone of voice, accompanying gestures, where the statement is made) — will be explored and analyzed. Attentive readers are likely to be focussed on subtext, too, which can add power through irony — especially if a character does not pick up on the subtext.
In general, to be sure a person declaring something other than what is taken for granted, there must be more. To be heard, it helps if a connection is invoked. Recalling a similar experience or situation for the hearer can help. For instance: “I’ve become lonely around you. Do you remember when you lost your brother and he wasn’t there to hear about your day or to share a ballgame with anymore? That’s us now. I can tell you what happened on my walk, and your answer is ‘Uh huh.’ I’m not heard. Or I can bring a bottle of wine over and you’ll put it on the shelf. Save it for another time.”
Character reflection puts readers into someone’s mind, so it provides a way to present the evaluation and analysis of a relationship without a filter. However, it’s usually a mistake to just show the destination. Those sorts of thoughts usually begin, “I realized then…” Realization jumps in like a deus ex machina, excluding the reader. A struggle toward understanding, presented with evidence that comes to mind and is initially rejected, can be powerful. Pieces coming together invites reader participation. False steps along the way can add to the emotional investment and make truth, finally revealed, more compelling. Or you can anchor the reflection by making it about an action.
Action, if it is dramatic enough (a slap in the face, abandoning someone to danger), can cut past the sort of resistance even the clearest words can encounter. The more physical or consequential the action, the less likely it is to be doubted. On the other hand, a misunderstood action, because of the immediacy, can have amazing impact in a story. If, for instance, it seems like your best friend is leaving you to deal with the antagonist alone (say, to pay off a debt to Jabba the Hut) and then he comes back to save your life, that will have a lot of punch.
Shared history is not subject to change, but it can be subject to reinterpretation. The foundation here is all of us have shared history — on jobs, in schools, and in families. We instinctively know and appreciate social ties, and, when these are invoked, they place us right in the middle of the character relationships. Because this is so universal, dramatic engagement can suffer if the particulars of the social ties are not presented or if the relationship is static. Make the cultural rules just a little different, and there’s more interest (and concern about how things will turn out). Reveal a family secret, and the family in question is forced to realign. The shared history must be reevaluated. And, of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned betrayal.