Wednesday, October 25, 2017

5 Tips For Making Character Relationships More Believable

You've created the best possible character for your book. They're deep, rich, full of history and unusual skills, and they immediately intrigue anyone who hears their pitch. The problem you're running into, though, is that whenever this character tries to interact with people who are supposedly important to them things feel forced, stilted, or just silly. In short, even when they're having coffee with a childhood friend, or expressing how much they love their partner, it comes across like a scripted cliche more than a genuine moment.

Tell me, husband, what did you do while I was off fighting space aliens?
You know these issues when you see them. Whether it's in comics, TV, movies, or books, you can tell when the writers just didn't put as much thought into characters' relationships with other people as they did into the characters themselves. They expected the declaration of love, importance, etc. to just be accepted on its face.

If you're looking for shortcuts to make these relationships feel real, though, here are some simple ones to keep in mind.

#1: They Know How Another Characters Likes Their Coffee

You can really use any sort of food preference here, but by showing that one character knows, and considers, another character's preferences, you're showing that they have a pre-existing relationship. One version of this shorthand is when a character's friend has had a hard night, so the character brews up some coffee, and then adds milk, sugar, and a dollop of honey just the way their friend likes it. Or they know what brand of beer their friend likes (doubly important if they're a beer snob), or they remember what food allergies someone has. It shows they've known each other for a while, and that the character cares enough to pay attention, and remember, things that matter to their friend.

#2: They Have A Ritual Just Between Them

If you've known someone for a long time, chances are good you have your own language. You might have pet names for each other, a particular kind of hand jive, or you clasp forearms like the barbarian heroes of old. For a good example, just look at Predator. You know that scene where Dutch and Dillon slap hands, and then arm wrestle to prove how manly they are? While immediately showing us that Arnold Schwarzenegger looks better in his 40s than we will ever look, it also shows us the characters have a history, that they're old friends, and that time has changed them since they last saw each other. All of it contained in that single ritual we never see them go through with any other characters, implying as we go that they were particularly close friends.

#3: They Know Each Other's Tics

We've all had those moments where we thought we were being sly, or keeping a poker face, but as soon as we were out of ear shot of passersby our friend looked at us and says, "All right, what's the matter?" When we protest that nothing's wrong, they fold their arms, and remind us of a tell we have that no one else would pick up on. They way our tone of voice changes slightly, or how we get quiet unless someone is asking us questions, or even how we rub that lucky coin with our thumb when we think no one will notice. If you want to show that characters know each other, make it hard for them to hide their true feelings. You also have to explain how the one character knew. You don't want us to think they're psychic, after all... unless they are.

#4: Show Us They Matter

It's easy to put words in your characters' mouths so they tell us their children mean everything to them, or that they love their spouse more than life itself. That's melodramatic, but it's the kind of melodrama we tend to accept. If you want to be more subtle, show us the ways characters have meaning in others' lives (even if the characters are dead). When your protagonist gets advice from her father, does she follow it, or discount it entirely? When there's a shooting reported, do they text their daughter to make sure they're okay? If they lose someone, what things set off that grief? Is it the sight of their spouse's craft box, half rolled out from under a desk? Is it a particular song they always sang? Is it a certain smell? Show us those things, and give us a flash of insight as to why those things are instantly associated with this other character.

#5: Make Sacrifices

When we think of sacrificing for the ones we love in stories, we tend to think of the big, sweeping gestures. Something bad happens, so you drop everything to track down the terrorists who kidnapped your kid, a la Taken. However, the truth of how much you care about someone is often written in small sacrifices, rather than big ones. Does your protagonist cancel dates, or call off work, to go take care of friends or family? Are they willing to show up as moral support when that character is having a tough time? Do they get angry when woken up by a phone call at two in the morning, or are they concerned because their son would only call like that if it was an emergency?

Make Us Believe

If you want us to buy that your character is an ex-special forces soldier, you'd adjust the way they talk, and the skills they possess, to reflect that career. If you want us to believe they're a competent detective, you'd show us how they go about investigating crimes. So, if you want to drive home that these relationships with other characters are genuine, you need to start small. Because it's not always about taking a bullet to save your loved one from getting shot... sometimes it's about reading your kid a bed time story to establish that, yes, you do love them, and they love you back.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully there are some folks out there who found it helpful. If you enjoyed it, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter? And, if you've got a few extra Washingtons you could spare, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get yourself some free books as a thank you.

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