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Writing

How to Write Nuanced Character Relationships

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 3, 2020 • 3 min read

In a written work, characterization is not solely a product of individual character arcs and character traits. In most people’s favorite books and movies, character development is the result of complex relationships. Readers and audiences revel in observing how two or more characters’ relationships wax and wane, and how those relationships play off each character's personality and internal struggles. By building deep, believable character relationships, you will satisfy one of the most important tenets for creating a good story.

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7 Tips for Building Relationships Between Your Characters

The art of writing great relationships for your main character and supporting characters takes time and practice. Here are some creative writing tips to help you shape satisfying fictional relationships over the course of a story:

  1. Draw on your own life experience. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that novelists and screenwriters should write what they know, but when it comes to character interactions, this rule looms large. Most writers have experienced many types of relationships by the time they sit down to write their first novel or screenplay. They understand how different relationships work. The bond between best friends differs from the relationship between family members or couples in romantic relationships. Draw inspiration from your own relationships—which could involve anything from high school crushes to recent external conflict with co-workers—and incorporate them into the fictional relationships in your writing.
  2. Create a relationship arc. Static characters produce static storylines. Just as your main plot needs an arc from beginning to end, so do the relationships between your characters. Readers respond to dynamic characters who change over the course of a story. (Examples of dynamic main characters include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.) When a dynamic character changes, their relationships with the different characters in the story also change. If you load your novel or screenplay with dynamic characters, you’ll find all sorts of occasions for both internal change and interpersonal arcs.
  3. Let outward character behavior come from a detailed inner life. A good character is written with a robust inner life, which then informs the way they behave in the world. External conflict with another character almost always begins with internal conflict. Even characters in dire interpersonal circumstances, like Katniss in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, draw as much motivation from their internal selves as they do from the character dynamics of those who surround them. Make sure that as an author, you have a grasp of the inner lives of your major and minor characters alike.
  4. Give your characters unique traits. Most people’s favorite character relationships don’t involve stock characters who can be easily categorized as tropes. In Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is the love interest, but he doesn’t read at all like a stock romantic lead. And yet because he, like the protagonist Elizabeth Bennett, is written as a strong character capable of change, he is able to evolve into Elizabeth’s true love.
  5. Place your characters in multiple relationships. Three-dimensional characters should have many things going on simultaneously. It’s your job as an author to make sure your characters are involved in different relationships in different stages. Even a short story has space for its protagonist to be in a great place with one person (such as their husband) but in a terrible bind elsewhere (such as with a coworker). As the character changes, the state of those relationships may reverse, and such reversals are what keep a storyline interesting.
  6. Let subtext carry the load. In real life, people aren’t always explicit about their true feelings and points of view. Nor do they call each other by name every time they speak. They may not even speak in full sentences, preferring to let subtext fill in the gaps. As an author or screenwriter, you must transfer this real-life behavior onto the page. Real relationships involve subtlety, and as you gain experience as a writer, you’ll be better able to rely on subtext to explain key information without being overly explicit or didactic.
  7. Make a strategic narration choice. First-person narrators understand their own inner lives quite well, but they may have limited information about the other characters they interact with. This can produce fascinating relationship dynamics among your characters, but it can also slow down your storytelling. If you’re having a hard time with the limitations of a first-person narrator, switch to third-person narration; you’ll have a lot more omniscient information about your characters and what they really think of one another.

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