Depicting convincing relationships could just be the key to writing better characters. Try these 8 ways to write better characters from novelist Elizabeth Sims.
The very first novel I, aged 20-something, wrote, is unpublished and will stay that way. An ensemble coming-of-age story of four teenagers, its weaknesses are legion: tame story line, thin action, unimaginatively rendered settings, hackneyed themes (though I will say the dialogue wasn’t bad). Having now published seven novels, I look back on that manuscript and realize that underlying the shortcomings I just mentioned lies its principal flaw: poor character development. The kids just don’t pop.
So I’ve been pleased to read reviews of my latest novels (the Rita Farmer mysteries) that praise the characterization—and I’ve been struck by the number of them that cite the realism of my characters’ relationships. While plot is important, good characters can make or break your book. And the best characters are those who relate convincingly not just to their world, but to one another.
Let’s consider, to start, the categories of relationships we might write in our fiction:
Partners (in business, crime, etc.)
… and so many more.
Everybody has relationships. In your fiction—as in life—you want to take those connections beyond the obvious. Like descriptions, relationships can lapse into cliché. Think of the hero and his wisecracking sidekick, the frustrated housewife and the handsome neighbor, the befuddled father and his precocious child, the renegade cop and the stupid chief.
When you create your characters, go ahead and give them meaty biceps or thin shanks, blue eyes, hemophilia, courage, a ranch, neuroses, penchants for vegetarianism or anarchy or Lawrence Welk or scuba. Do this until you know who they are.
Then, explore who they are beyond themselves.
1. Make them stop and think.
Introspection is the easiest and clearest way to develop your characters’ relationships. Make your characters think about their bonds; make them challenge their own thoughts and feelings. I love him, but why? What’s the real reason I hate her? What needs to happen so I can get over this?
Shakespeare was one of the first masters of introspection, via his soliloquies. When Hamlet considers the pros and cons of avenging his father’s murder, you think and feel right along with him. You ask yourself the same moral questions. Your heart catches when he fails to take action, and it catches again when he does act. The central issue to him is honor, and only in the context of alliances can honor exist.
Today’s introspective scenes might not be as easily identifiable as those soliloquies were, but they’ve evolved right along with storytelling styles over the years. Take, for example, Michael Chabon’s novelette The Final Solution, which merges the Holocaust with British-style crime-busting through an elderly Sherlock Holmes (though the character remains unnamed throughout the story). In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, the original Holmes never reveals himself at all; we come to know him only through the eyes of Dr. Watson, the first-person narrator.
But in The Final Solution, Chabon affords himself complete license to the great detective’s brain and heart simply by choosing the third-person point of view. In his portrayal, we see that Holmes is a particularly introspective hero, less self-assured than he used to be (though no less sharp), beset by doubts and petty worries, struggling with old age and the tropes of contemporary life. Most important, we see how hungry he is for human connections: Will they like me? Will they understand me? Who am I against? Who am I for? These questions motivate him as the story progresses.
So, take a little time to tell your readers what your characters are thinking about the others. Say you’re writing a story in which a son kills his abusive father. What agonies would he go through, if the act were premeditated? And if it weren’t, what hell would he experience afterward?
Instead of having the son stand next to a tree and tell it his troubles, you might write something like this:
Roger Jr. fingered the five-dollar bill in his pocket and decided to buy the breakfast burrito instead of two Hostess fruit pies, same price. As he paid the zit-faced clerk, he wondered if he would meet his father in hell. If, after tonight, a bus ran over him, Roger Jr., would he go to hell instantly or would there be some kind of processing period? Would the pain of being dragged under a bus be worse than waking up in hell? Do they drag people under buses in hell? Would his father be the one to drive the bus, even? Drive the bus around and around the lake of fire or whatever. Roger Sr. would rightly go to hell for what he’d done—for what he’d done for so many years, over and over—but maybe he could work his way out someday. After half of infinity, maybe. Whereas Roger Jr. would stay in hell forever because he’d be a murderer. “You’re still the dumbest one in the family,” his dad would say in hell, one more time, crookedly, what with half of his face blown off. Let’s at least be sure to blow off the full face tonight.
2. Give them strong opinions.
Some writers seem reluctant to give their characters strong opinions—maybe because we don’t like to seem overbearing ourselves. True, being overbearing may be a flaw, but in fiction, flaws are good. Give your characters flaws that can be fatal. For my series protagonist Rita Farmer, it’s her tendency to lose her temper. Her anger flares, and before you know it she’s doing something she’ll regret. On the other hand, her anger can save her—if it comes up at just the right time. And her fury has much to do with her opinions.
In the opening pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, does nothing but tell all about another character, Robert Cohn, giving opinion after opinion. From the way Jake describes Robert and his accomplishments, we learn some things about Robert, but we learn a lot more about the way Jake thinks. He clearly despises Robert, yet we soon see that the men are also friends, at least of a sort. We sense that they may become rivals. Why? We want to keep reading to find out.
Much of the story’s power comes from the feelings the characters have for—and against—one another. We identify with their love, and we’re appalled by their callousness. We are also educated by it. This is how some people live. Is it shallow or deeper than it really seems? Desirable or undesirable? We hold ourselves up to its mirror.
In your own work, remember that every narrator has a personality. Let that narrator’s opinions inform her character. And by all means, let characters gossip among themselves. An exchange as simple as this one between two teenagers can paint a sharp little picture:
“Jeanette has zero self-respect,” said Wendy, shoving two skinny sixth-graders aside so she could be first in the cafeteria line.
“Yeah,” agreed Dani, crowding behind her, giving an extra shove to one of the littler kids, then looking to Wendy for approval. Then, after a pause, “I saw her making out with Tony after the game Friday.”
Wendy whipped around. “Why didn’t you tell me? He told me he went home!”
It wasn’t true, but Dani did stuff like this over and over. She didn’t know why, except that it felt good to get other people in trouble.
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3. Play a game of risk.
Make one character sacrifice or risk something for another. Countless spiritual scriptures, myths, classics and modern tales exploit the heart-clutching moment of a character dying to save others, or for a cause. But equally compelling can be a character merely risking his life for another.
In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara puts everything at stake by remaining in Atlanta as Sherman’s army advances, in order to help her sister-in-law Melanie Wilkes through a near-fatal childbirth. The day drags on, it’s hot as hell, Melanie writhes in pain, the doctor is busy with thousands of wounded soldiers, most everybody else has fled the city, and the Yankees are coming. Scarlett doggedly mops the pain sweat from Melanie’s body as the fear sweat from her own soaks her dress. Mitchell could have cut this scene without really impacting her main plot, but instead she positively hammers us with it. Why? Because it’s a test of Scarlett’s character.
Granted, Scarlett had promised Melanie’s husband, Ashley, to look after her while he was away fighting. But at the risk of her own life? After all, Scarlett wants Ashley for herself. How easy it would be to let Melanie and the unborn baby, well, sort of die!
No. We need to know that Scarlett wouldn’t abandon Melanie even when her own life is at stake, because we need to know that Scarlett isn’t merely a hard bitch who gets what she wants. If that was all there was to her, she’d be fine as a stereotype in a soap opera, but she wouldn’t be an immortal character. We would not root for her in spite of her flaws.
Make one of your characters willing to die for another, and put him in position where that could happen. Your readers will curse their alarm clocks in the morning.
4. Add a hypotenuse.
Make triangles. Did you notice something about the relationships I listed earlier? They’re all dyads. Most relationships start out that way, but too often writers stay stuck on dyadic relationships to the exclusion of more complex ones. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy is memorable only because of the huge hulking reason they can’t be together: Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan.
A lesser author than Fitzgerald might have skimmed over the character of Tom. The very fact of his existence, plus the fact that Daisy took a vow to be true to him, should be enough—and it would’ve been, for a dime novel of the day. But it wasn’t enough for Fitzgerald. He enlarged the character of Tom by giving him a relationship with the narrator, Nick Carraway. Old college acquaintances, their relationship intensifies during the novel, and it’s through Nick’s eyes that we see Tom’s strength, his selfishness, his cruelty and—in a powerful moment when he tries to win Daisy’s heart back from Gatsby—his tenderness.
Our emotions are not rational, and our relationships aren’t, either. This is why romantic obsession is a terrifically handy tool for the writer (sexual attraction being the great motivator of millions of bad decisions—and sometimes, of course, of salvation, when it works out). Consider adding a sturdy hypotenuse to your two main characters and see what happens. The third party doesn’t even have to be human; it can be an animal, a career, an addiction, a call to adventure, an obligation—anything that gets in the way of the cozy pairing you began with.
5. Leverage the group.
As a writer, you’re a student of human nature. When I was a retail store manager (prior life), I learned that the two games groups like to play the most are Ain’t It Awful and Kill the Leader. People behave differently in groups than they do otherwise, the most obvious and horrifying example being a mob, which is capable of violence far beyond the natural inclination of most individuals because the mob serves not merely as a shield, but as an excuse. The relationships between individuals in a group—whether a clique of three or an organization of thousands—are endlessly varied, shifting and fascinating.
Three works that use group dynamics to gripping effect are the novels A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, The Help by Kathryn Stockett and the play Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. In the first, a group of children fall into the clutches of pirates, and what follows between them serves to illustrate that the veneer of civilization is thinner than most of us can bear to admit. In the second, protagonists from both sides of the divide in segregated Mississippi demonstrate that while groups can greatly influence individuals, the right individual can exercise great power over a group.
And Mamet’s play reinforces all of those messages while giving us a spectacle of testosterone-fueled ruthlessness, set in a Chicago real estate office. Competition for money and success drives the men to cruelty, lying and thieving as one aligns himself against the other, pairs align against individuals, and the group alternately pits itself against the boss, then casts itself in profane servility to him.
One small, subtle moment (which was expanded in the film version of the play) shows how even a passing reference to a relationship can deepen a character’s motivation. Levene, a struggling salesman, is desperate to get better customer leads, and in pleading with his boss, he finally says, “My daughter …” and trails off.
That’s it. No manipulative words beyond that. Just the simple mention of a relationship—a family obligation, the obligation of a father to a daughter, the obligation perhaps freighted by some special, unnamed circumstance about the daughter—helps the audience understand where Levene is coming from. He is needy, and he isn’t above exploiting his own pain.
How can group dynamics deepen your characters? The key is to remember that in a group, relationships and alliances are ever changing, depending on circumstances. And we know circumstances never remain the same. Figure out how the underdog might transform into a tyrant, or how a fun little secret can become a public threat.
6. Befriend ambiguity.
If we wish to write clearly, how can ambiguity be OK? I think Patricia Highsmith is just about the best there is when it comes to harnessing ambiguity in relationships. In her Edgar-winning novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the relationship between the two main characters is sexually nebulous, and the same goes for her Strangers on a Train.
This was likely due in part to the mores of the time (both were published in the 1950s), but this strangely explicated ambiguity works well to make things feel unsettled, ulterior. Tom Ripley murders Dickie Greenleaf out of a twisted sense of possession, if not love. This is so much more compelling than if Tom had merely murdered Dickie for personal gain, a shallow friendship their only connection.
In your own work, resist the urge to overexplain relationships. Everybody instinctively understands there’s more than meets the eye. In every adult, there’s a bit of a child. In every cop, there’s a bit of a criminal. In every sadist, there’s a bit of a masochist. And in every human, there’s a bit of a beast—and a bit of a god. Use that knowledge to your advantage.
7. Tap into the power of a grudge.
Mythology and folklore are chock-full of motivational grudges, as is life. All of us have probably clung to a grudge against somebody for a while, fantasizing various retribution scenarios, but what kind of personality acts on such an impulse to the point of destructive vengeance? The sort we know too well from true-crime books and “America’s Most Wanted”–type TV: a person whose self-esteem is lower than whale crap, but whose ego is as big as Kilauea. Grudge-holding characters have fueled a diverse range of popular tales, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Consider Stephen King’s Carrie. King downplays the quality of this, his first novel, but it continues to fascinate and terrify readers. Teenaged Carrie is taunted by her classmates for being odd, dominated as she is by her warped, religious-nut mother. The other kids push her to the limit, not knowing she’s developed telekinetic powers.
The story works so well because Carrie’s eventual murderous rage is believable. And it’s believable because in devising ways for Carrie’s schoolmates to torment her, King put her into situations of intolerable shame and degradation, culminating in the pig’s-blood drenching at the prom. You read that and even though you’re basically a mild-mannered person, you find yourself whispering, “Kill them, Carrie—kill all those bastards!”
Your readers are going to expect any grudge you create for your characters to be that powerful. So do what King did: Create a character with a sensitive spirit, and make him suffer injustices that would make anyone’s stomach shrivel.
Then sit back and enjoy the fun.
8. Don’t overlook everyday interactions.
If you own a car and are at all like me, you can drive for hundreds of miles without reacting to the other idiots in their cars. Somebody cuts you off and you shrug or even smile indulgently. But then, one day, something is different inside you. Somebody zooms too close and your anger surges beyond all reason. You want to run him down and flatten him into the pavement. You want to bump his vehicle off a cliff. You want him to pay.
You don’t even know his name.
Yes, a chance encounter with a stranger can be powerful enough to transform a moment, or a day, even to change your life. Just think what you can do in your fiction, with a little planning and imagination.
Similarly, acquaintanceships can bolster your characterizations. An acquaintanceship can serve to illustrate a character trait, or it can foment enormous change in a whole cast of characters. Good examples are found in Jim Thompson’s noir novel The Grifters. In the first pages, the character Roy Dillon chisels some money out of a shopkeeper, a stranger. But the shopkeeper catches on and beats him up, setting off an entire chain of events surrounding Roy’s recovery.
Let your characters approach others, glance off them, then continue on different trajectories. After all, this is what happens in real life. It’s all in the relationships.
When crafting your characters’ relationships, let the yin-yang symbol be your guide. You’ve seen this circle made of equal parts black and white, with a drop of each color in the other. No relationships are clear-cut, nor are any one-sided. Leaven the love with a little fear, or maybe even hate.
If you spend some time thinking about relationships in this way, you’ll see opportunities to develop your characters further than you ever imagined. Because characters are people, just like us. Relationships reveal the various roles we play, the ever-changing masks we all wear, and the yearnings that expose our hearts.
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