We’ve all had this experience, we hear about a new book, movie or TV show and it resonates with us. We know we’re going to love it. We count down the days to the release. During the waiting agony, we talk the ears off anyone who stands still long enough, eagerness dripping from every gushing syllable. The “big” day arrives and we finally get to sit down with our story, every nerve tingling as the characters we dreamed about finally emerge from the shadows of our anticipation and start talking to each other. We crunch popcorn, chocolate, or our nails, while we wait for the magic to happen.
And … Nothing! A big fat zero on our emotional wow meter.
Sure, the story is the one we hoped for, but it’s flat. Not even a shimmer of our pre-viewing sparkle lingers by the end. Disappointed, we move on, or perhaps (if we’re also writers) we analyze what went wrong. Many times the problem stems from characters lacking chemistry, both with each other, and/or with us the reader/watcher. While reader chemistry is unique to each of us, there are tricks to creating better character chemistry.
- Do remember to address gender, but Don’t use stereotypes to do it.
Let’s face it, men and woman are different. Regardless of how those relationships are structured, (romance, mentor, friend) gender plays a role in how each character interacts. Ignoring gender can come across as fake or forced. Making it too apparent in non-romantic relationships can feel creepy. The battle between the sexes plays out in life and on the page, so experiment until you balance those polarizing forces for each character.
- Do let characters get angry and/or say something stupid.
No one can sail through life without some missteps. Friends and lovers argue, disagree, and otherwise have moments of discord. A spirited argument is a great way to show a character has a deeper (or even a darker) side. Let some old baggage slip out during an emotional outburst, or show they have a hidden tender spot by having them defend something unexpected. True colors can shine when characters engage in a round of super-heated words. A fight also gives your characters a chance to show growth by apologizing, or repairing a bad situation with new-found insight and maturity.
- Realistic relationships Do take time and need a compelling reason to exist.
Friendships evolve from a balance of complicated variables, shared likes, similar goals, history, even a common enemy can factor into their success. Watch out for relationships that evolve too quickly and lack commonalities. When opposites attract for no apparent reason (beyond looks, or lust) you make it harder to create believable chemistry. Some writers can meet this challenge and make it work anyway, but others can’t and will lose the reader. Build stronger relationships with back-story and a blend of realistic emotional connections, concern, affection, even bouts of disappointment, anger and/or jealousy.
- Don’t make everyone friends.
Everyday we meet people that rub us the wrong way. It’s the guy who cuts you off in traffic, and the woman who lets her dog poop on your front lawn twice a week. You don’t have to like everyone in the world and neither should your characters. Too many novice writers shy away from making anyone unlikable. Even their antagonists are misunderstood characters with a secret heart of gold and the best of intentions. Everyone should have a blend of good and bad traits. Toxic, codependent or otherwise negative relationships are all realistic and a writer should feel free to make use of them. If you forego giving anyone bad traits you wreck your story’s tension. You need characters to do bad things to give other characters a chance to shine.
- Don’t forget triangles, and octagons.
One of my favorite things is a huge ensemble cast of characters. Group dynamics are fascinating, and the bigger the interconnected group of characters the greater the number of relationship combinations you can create. A large well constructed group is often the foundation of a stellar multi-book series. Remember you don’t have to resort to the most common use for the triangle (battling love interests) nor should you, since it’s becoming an overused device. The possibilities for character triangles is actually limitless. Two coaches can fight over how to train a promising athlete. Former partners can fight for the same promotion. Whenever two or more people want to attain the same end goal, you have the potential to create friction.
- Don’t forget to map out all the relationships.
Now that you have a diverse group of relationships, you need to know how every character feels about the others in your story. Using a large plain sheet of paper create a character flow chart. Make sure to use (+) for a good relationship, (-) for a negative one and (=) for a neutral one. Each relationship should have a line and a qualifying sign going in every direction. Just because a protagonist dislikes her BFF’s partner doesn’t mean the partner feels the same way about the protagonist. Unequal relationships are part of life. Some people have a greater capacity for acceptance and have an easier time forging positive relationship than others do. Someone in a position of authority might feel neutral about a large group of employees or students, all of whom have strong feelings about the person in charge. Relationships can change over the course of the story; a positive relationship can move to neutral ground or even negative. Make sure to indicate changes in status on your map. The mapping step is the perfect way to see if you have too many positive relationships and/or too few interconnected relationships.
When a group of super strong characters all work together, it’s an undeniable force for good in any story. Strive to create balance and complexity by enlisting different types of emotional connections, varied levels of affection or discord, until you have a memorable cast.
Up Next from Robin… 3 Fictional Character Archetypes