This morning I want to talk a little about relationships, specifically those that connect ALL your characters, not just the protagonists.
I think, too often, people focus on the relationships that the heroes of the story have, and overlook the possibility or presence of the same relationships that the antagonist may have. Yes, badguys need love too.
While it verges on cliche to parrot the relationship to both parties (the hero and villain both having the same middle school teacher), I think that part of what fleshes out a great character (and villains should be as well-crafted as the heroes) is that they have relationships.
The badguy can have a relationship with...his banker...that maybe doesn't make him all that evil (unless it's an evil banker). The hero can have a relationship with his landlady that doesn't paint him too favorably.
My point is this -- relationships lead to interactions (and vice versa), so their presence in the story add some often needed depth to the characters involved.
Would we care so much about Snape killing Dumbledore, if we didn't build this great relationship and reverance between Harry and Dumbledore?
Would we be in tears at the end of Field of Dreams if we didn't set up the relationship between father and son throughout the whole movie?
Would we care so much about Winnie the Pooh if we didn't see his relationships with all the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood? (Oh yeah, I went there.)
One of the most critical elements in character building is the formation of relationships around that character. No character lives in a vacuum, and no character is truly alone.
Note: Let me dispel something that got emailed to me about this point -- The "loner" character might be isolated and by himself, but he may carry the memories, feelings or ideas of other characters with him. In a visual medium, we see these other characters through flashback and dream sequence, so while the character is physically singular, he is emotionally and mentally involved with other characters. The same is true for the widowed or orphaned character, who relates to absent characters through how he feels.
Relationships hinge on the strength of the emotions in them. It is nowhere near enough for the reader to be told "the characters are in love", we must see this love played out in actions and emotions. Demonstration of those emotions allow the reader to invest in the character either positively (wanting them to succeed) or negatively (wanting them to be stopped). The surest way to demonstrate these emotions is create them in context.
I'm not saying all heroes need a love interest, and many stories are done well without them. This goes far beyond the immediate answer of "have a character fall in love". I've identified a few more depth-granting relationships below:
- A character and his parents
- A character and his goals before the story, compared to the character and his goals at the start of the story
- A character and his siblings (or lack thereof)
- A character and the perceived competition he's in for X item or Y person (note the word: perceived)
- A character and the actual competition for X item or Y person
- A character and scorned love
- A character and himself, if he is conflicted about something
- A character and the perceived societal rules, philosophies or laws.
There are loads of others, those are just what I thought of while sitting here.
It's not enough to just list the relationship as a bullet point in your stack of notes about the character. No one sees those notes, so the detail you put in them had better translate into the text somewhere, or else you've just wasted the opportunity.
Now don't take that to the other end of the spectrum, and turn every bullet point into a massive relationship epic. Some relationships don't need to be super-detailed. The character who sells the character coffee on page 215? Yeah, the reader probably doesn't need to know that the barista's fondest desire is to play competitive tiddlywinks because his father was an abusive doubter of the power of tiddlywinks, which caused the boy to grow up stunted and ashamed of his talents....he pours the coffee, that's his job on page 215, and the relationship that matters most is his relation to the action of that service.
Don't confuse deep and rich characters with their relationships. Relationships are what characters have, and relationships are what make the characters rich and deep, not the level of detail you write when describing the textures of fabrics and facial hair.
What I encourage people to do is write out the list of connections. Sometimes a web sort of design can be employed, but sometimes (at least for me) a list can be used. It looks like this:
- HATES Character #2
- DISCOVERS Character #3, then RESPECTS Character #3
- SON of Character #4
By emphasizing the starting point for the relationship, I know to ground the characters that way. Since no relationship is static, I know that I can push the relationship(s) forward into new territory, as would make sense for the character given the circumstances (otherwise, if I change the relationship without reason, the reader is left scratching their head).
Any character would benefit from any relationship. Try it out, see how you can connect the characters and see if those connections strengthen what you've got down on the page.