355 – Developing Character Relationships
Characters develop, and they have relationships, but can their relationships also develop? We get to the bottom of that question this week, and it turns out to be fairly complicated. How are the relationships developing? Are the characters growing closer together or further apart? What are they fighting over, and why is it always pie? We talk about all that and more, plus a tell-all admission that one of us likes (gasp) anchovies on pizza.
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Generously transcribed by Rea. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is
Oren: Now, before we start today’s episode, I am once again, uh, looking for a new type of volunteer for audio editing. Basically, you edit out filler words in the podcast, like- um, like, or, you know, and make sure that we don’t talk over each other and you generally help make the podcast more pleasant to listen to.
We already have a few of these volunteers and they have been invaluable, but the more we have, the lighter the work, overall. You don’t need any prior experience cause we can teach you how to do this without too much trouble. Uh, the time commitment is about five hours a month at most. And if you’re interested, you can just go to Mythcreants.com/volunteer, and thanks to everyone who’s volunteered with us in any capacity. We really appreciate it. And it’s what makes Mythcreants work. On to you Wes.
Wes: All right, guys, let’s face it. If you’re writing a story, there’s probably more than one person in it and yeah, they’re probably going to have relationships with other people. Sorry.
Oren: Do they have to though?
Wes: I mean, probably yes.
Chris: What if I just take most of my characters and replace them with animal companions that don’t talk.
Wes: Animals are people, so that’s fine. That’s completely fine by me.
Oren: I don’t like people though.
Wes: Well, yeah. But, I mean, we know why a single character has a hard time sustaining the story on our own. And we all really just enjoy, like watching characters interact with other characters, especially characters we like interact with other characters that we like.
And so that’s kind of what we’re talking about today. How developing character relationships, maybe romantic, platonic, what-have-you, is kind of an essential part of creating good characters. Like there’s a lot of talk about how you develop strong characters and their flaws and all kinds of weird stuff like that but don’t neglect the fact that they have relationships. And, you know, I realize we’re talking about developing relationships and that’s like a challenge in normal life so let’s see what we can come up with for this too.
Chris: I do think it’s worth mentioning that before you can develop good relationships, you do have to know who the characters are and what their motivations are.
Wes: Very much agreed. I mean, I think that like on a very basic level, you could have just two friends there, have a friendly relationship, but you might then consider- what is the power dynamic here? Like, you know, does one friend look up to the other? More often than not, or look to the other one for advice? That right there is already informing how those relationships will play out when conflict arises. So you need to know that.
Oren: Alternatively, is one of them the only person who has the time and energy to GM the role-playing campaign and so everyone has to come over to his house if they want to play. Like, cause I find that particularly very ident- I can identify with that very strongly.
Chris: I mean, I’ve definitely seen characters that- they’re supposed to have a specific role in the story, but the writer just doesn’t have a firm idea of what kind of person they are. And then, so some scenes, they come off a lot more antagonistic. And some scenes, they come off a lot more capable than other scenes, and we want them to do a certain thing, but we don’t know exactly why they’re doing that.
And all I would say is that stuff just needs to be sorted out before you can think about how characters, you know, interact with each other. Now, granted, if you want some interesting interactions, it can be helpful to have characters that feel divided or are part of team good, but are really just in it for themself. You can create tension by like, what their motivation is, but that’s something to sort out because if you don’t know why the characters are doing what they’re doing or who they are, it’s just going to be really hard. We try to have them build off of each other.
Wes: You’ll figure out your personality by going and talking with other people, dangit.
Oren: We’re not just talking about Sailor Moon Crystal, but we are definitely talking about Sailor Moon Crystal. That show is like a reboot of the original, and they tried to focus really hard on the main plot, and the problem is the main plot is bad.
You end up with not very strong characterization, just because we’re like, no, we have to do the main plot right now. And they didn’t know how to make that work with giving the characters like development at the same time. So you ended up with four kind-of identical characters around the protagonist.
Chris: Another thing that is actually bothering me in the original Sailor Moon is that we have this budding romance between Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask.
Wes: Great name.
Chris: I know. And Tuxedo Mask sees Sailor Moon and he sees her non-alter-ego Usagi. And then he even sees her dressed up once as a princess at a ball. And we still don’t know after, I don’t know how many episodes, whether he knows they’re the same person because she looks exactly like you’d think that he would know, but all of the other characters can’t tell that Sailor Moon is Usagi, despite the fact that they have the same hairstyle and everything.
Oren: Right. And it’s extra confusing because like with the other characters, they at least make it clear that they can’t tell that Usagi and Sailor Moon are the same person, even though they look exactly the same and that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s clearly a premise of the show, but it really seems like Tuxedo Mask can recognize her, but then he does other things that don’t really make sense if he knows who she is.
Chris: So we just don’t know. And it’s hard to imagine that relationship forming when we don’t even know if, you know, he knows her real identity or not.
Oren: So I have a question while we’re talking about developing relationships. Does that mean that the relationship has to change over time? And if so, where does that put long-term friendship relationships like, uh, Scott and Styles from teen Wolf or Mackenzie and Bo from Lost Girl whose relationships stays pretty much the same throughout the series, but like, at least to me it makes me think, wow, that’s a good character relationship. Cause I like their friendship, but I don’t know why I like it. Why do I like it, Chris? Please explain this to me.
Chris: I think we should let Wes have a go. We’ve all seen Teen Wolf.
Wes: Scott and Styles is a really good one because I think the title of the podcast is developing character relationships. Developing doesn’t mean- Like it doesn’t have to mean fundamentally change. If you are besties at the very start of the show, you can still be besties at the very end, but like in life, if you’re not sharing experiences with your bestie, you will not be besties so much anymore. That just happens. And so like Scott and Styles, like their friendship is deepened by the things that they endured together.
And I think that’s a good thing, you know? And you could, you could have a whole story about like two good friends. One of them really wants to become a pirate, but her best friend is like, oh man, Pirates. Like, that’s not a great lifestyle, but keeps it to herself because they don’t want to crush their friend’s dreams, but then suddenly works against her friend trying to go to pirate school or however you become a pirate.
Oren: Yeah, pirate school. You know, you apply online, I think?
Wes: They have problems. They’re still friends, but like those are the subtle dynamics that are coming into play, right? Yes, maybe they’ll dip, but the reasons for trying to keep her best friend from going to pirate school, like she thinks she has her best friend’s best interest at heart.
And we can understand that if we firmly establish that they are close already, but that relationship is being tested by the circumstances that have been introduced in the story. And that helps just develop it into something more interesting.
Chris: I mean those are relationship arcs, right? Those are, they have a problem and there’s conflict and they solve the problem. I think, you know, when we talk about developing characters, for instance, You know, you can have a character arc and usually having a character arc, particularly for the main character is a really good idea to give it some level of emotional depth. But technically you could know the character really well and have, they could be like deep and nuanced, right.
In a complex character or in distinctive, but also not have a character arc. At the same time, a character arc is a good tool for giving some of their emotions a purpose in the story that has a satisfying resolution. And I think it maps pretty well onto relationships. We can develop a relationship so that we understand the interplay between these characters really well and have a strong idea of how they relate to each other.
And, you know, we’ve seen it in action and giving them arcs is a way of adding some emotional depths to that relationship and helping to bring it to life and can also give the relationship purpose in the story and give it a satisfying resolution. But it doesn’t mean that they have to have a relationship arc.
I mean, some audiences love it when you just have a couple of characters that are really supportive and sweet to each other for the whole story. Right. That makes them feel good. So there’s definitely value in just doing that, especially when, because we’re always trying to create conflict in stories there’s so many like characters that are jerks.
Just to create conflict and stories in like every scene that sometimes just having some characters that are positive to each other is a really refreshing change. So I certainly wouldn’t say no to some of those, but I think there’s different ways. As Wes said, their relationship could be tested or changed.
If it changes though, that suggests there’s a reason why it needs to change. And so there is a problem to be solved.
Wes: Right. And that could just be that one friend always looks up to the other one. The other one kind of looks down on the other friend. It can be any kind of subtle change like that. I really like your idea though, of just, you can develop just purely supportive character relationships as well, a less tense, more of a downtime scene.
Just seeing people share support is nice and that does develop the relationship if they’re talking, interacting in any fashion, you know, it’s like they, maybe that friend isn’t really there for most of the tense scenes, but still has a valuable role making sure that the protagonist feels capable and loved.
And I think that’s an important development as well cause it might present you, the writer, with more opportunities to bring out, like you mentioned, Chris, extra feelings and thoughts that you imagined your protagonist to have. And now suddenly you have a scene in which to reveal some of that.
Oren: With Teen Wolf, in particular, I kind of feel like what’s happening there is that you have a lot of changing relationships in that show. Uh, both some good, some less good, uh, but they’re pretty common, but whereas like Scott and Styles are basically the same by the end as they were at the beginning. Uh, but I think that, that feels like that works for both- for one thing, those two characters go through other arcs, like they have other development, but their friendship remains fairly static.
And I think that’s okay because for one thing, it works very well. They have a pretty solid dynamic and I’ve actually seen this in a number of urban fantasy shows where you have the supernatural character who is the brawn, and then the human character who is the brains. Lost Girl does that same thing. And I’m sure there are probably some others.
So that, you know, they have that dynamic that gives them both something to do in this friendship which allows you to keep having material for it, right. That keeps it interesting, even if it doesn’t really change that much.
Wes: And there’s also that good moment too, in I forget which season, but, you know, when Peter offers Styles the chance to become a werewolf. But by that point, Styles and Scott have gone through a lot and he’s comfortable enough in the position you just described where it’s a hard no.
Oren: That’s a pretty good moment. It’s in season one, but it’s late enough that what you described makes sense.
Chris: Right. And I would also say that just, thinking about giving the audience something positive, Teen Wolf is a show that gets very dark and it’s often very intense and certain seasons of Teen Wolf have one foot into horror. And these characters are just being put through the wringer. Usually, by the end of the season, they’re rushing around trying to stop people from dying and often failing.
And so having that relationship that is just- keeps them grounded with each other and it’s something that they don’t have to question in a show that is that intense provide some really nice contrast.
Wes: That’s a great point. I really liked it when Mason showed up and he’s just so nice. I know that a whole lot more happened, but he was kind of like a wonderful breath of fresh air.
Chris: Mason is the one good trait that Liam has.
Oren: Oh God Liam. That guy.
Chris: Well, we got Mason out of him.
Oren: We got Mason. Yup.
Chris: Any case, uh, so some more ideas for subtler types of relationship arcs that you can put in without them being a big deal. You know, a character can realize they have a wrong idea about somebody and it can be something like, in my experience, parents often have an internal consumption of their children that is out of date. They’re always thinking about their kids as they were, and not as they are now. Right. So adjusting to, ‘oh, actually this person is different now’, or ‘they’re different than I thought’ can be an arc that you can have, people can clash over something and figure it out. Something small.
We’ll have to talk about that more cause a lot of writers do not handle personality clashes very well. You know, we can have that one person is struggling and the other person is trying to figure out how to help them and see that kind of proactive support. And sometimes it is really difficult when you want to help somebody to figure out what you should be doing.
That would be helpful. So those are the kinds of things, or, you know, one person can lose trust in the other and have to regain it, of course.
Oren: Actually, here’s the question I was wondering about when it comes to negative arcs. So if you have two friends and their arc is having a falling out, if you made their friendship something that the audience liked at the beginning, are you obligated to have them make up afterwards? Like should they, or are audiences going to be mad if they don’t?
Chris: Well, if the audience liked their relationship, I mean, let me ask you this question. Do audiences like unhappy endings?
Wes: Maybe they don’t have to become friends again, but maybe they stare across the battlefield and make eyes. And they both gently nod at each other. Acknowledgement that they’re still kind of buddies or whatever.
Chris: I guess the question would be when the characters have falling out is the purpose of this to develop their relationship further and make it more compelling right. I think it’s a little different when they have a falling out and now they’re like bitter enemies, but now you have an enemy chemistry, rivalry chemistry, that then we still get to see them interact with each other. And they’re still kind of important to each other, this Catra and Adora thing on the new She-Ra is okay.
We might have both really liked them and liked them together, but then they split, but then we get to watch them angst over each other. And then eventually they come back together and they have romance. Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a romance, but in many stories that falling out has some greater purpose, like having an antagonist that you have a history of being friends with and that provides a lot of juicy drama during your external conflicts for instance.
Oren: I mean, it’s more fun to fight someone who used to be your friend. More fun for the reader. That is probably less fun for the protagonist.
Wes: I was going to say, dang, Oren.
Chris: Oren, is there something I need to know?
Oren: Oops. Oopsee-Daisy.
Wes: And in longer stories, you know, it’s kinda fun. You can only pull it off so many times, but start out enemies become tentative friends and allies and then you betray them and then you join up on team good later. And that would, of course, be Zuko. And I’m specifically thinking Zuko and Katara, uh, as far as that trust level kind of goes. That was done well.
Chris: Yeah. Zuko’s arc.
Oren: Hot take, Zuko? Pretty good character.
Wes: We can’t ignore the power that those relationships play in Zuko’s arc, right. I guess that’s kind of the point of the podcast.
Oren: Well, I mean, everyone is familiar with enemies to lovers but there are so many other different stages of character relationships that you can take your characters through.
You can go from enemies to friends to lovers, back to enemies and then friends, again, depending on how long your story is. Longer stories can accommodate more friend phase shifts as it were because they need to be believable. If your characters are changing too quickly, that can just come off as contrived.
But if you have a long story, like a novel series or a TV show, your characters can go through several iterations. You know, not to only ever talk about Teen Wolf, but the relationship between Scott and Alison actually does that in a way that I find kind of interesting because they start off, you know, clearly dating, right?
Like they’re basically dating from the moment they meet each other and then they will become enemies because of what happens in season two because the Argents are like the antagonists for that season. And then in season three, they’re friends, but they’re not dating anymore. And they probably would have been dating again if Alison hadn’t died because her actress left, but what exists, I actually genuinely liked.
And I think that even if they had kept Alison around, I don’t think they needed to have them start dating again. I think it would have been perfectly satisfying if they had just been friends.
Wes: Providing those kinds of depictions I think is nice for all of us who know that not everybody ends up together, right. You can have falling outs and still end up being friendly. You know, seeing, showing those in your fiction is a good thing.
Oren: Plus attachment builds up with characters over time. And there’s just something cool about if you’ve been with a story for a long time, having characters who have been through a lot together and been different things to each other over the period of several years or however long the story covers, that’s just kind of neat.
By the end, you’ve earned a few, like, ‘Man, we’ve really had some times together. Had those moments’. That can just be fun.
Wes: And that’s great because when that happens, you, the reader or watcher can recall those experiences. You’re sharing in those experiences and it makes those relationships and your attachment to those characters so much more valuable.
And the opposite end is, of course, people that just lock eyes, fall instantly in love and then are separated, but remain in love for whatever silly reason, even though they don’t have any shared experiences. And then we hear some story about destiny. I don’t know. It’s the, it’s the parents in 10,000 Doors of January. That’s what I’m thinking of.
Oren: Yeah, I was told in 10,000 Doors of January, that if I didn’t like that romance, I was a dirty imperialist. So, you know…
Chris: Some people find that romantic, but for me, just, it robs me of the experience of watching them fall in love.
Wes: Yes, that’s such a good way to put it.
Chris: Right. I want to see that happen. I, you know, I want to see them actually interact and get a sense of each other and possibly clash a little bit and then end up helping each other or whatever. It’s really hard to care about a romance when we just declare that they’re in love now.
Oren: Man, Wheel of Time does that where Rand and Elayne meet for one scene in the first book, and then they don’t see each other again until the beginning of book four. And the author is like, ah, these two characters need to be in love, but they haven’t seen each other for three years now.
And they only met once for like five minutes. So I guess they fall in love off-screen. I don’t have time for that. I’m moving on. It was very awkward.
Chris: So, really significant relationship arcs like enemies-to-lovers, for instance, really dramatic ones generally fall into two different categories. One, they hate each other, but they’re thrown together, the buddy cop formula, or they get along great but the world is tearing them apart, the Romeo and Juliet formula, because otherwise you have to figure out how they have a chance to interact while their relationship is still developing. So if you just choose one, then you don’t end up with a stalker formula.
In which one character wants to interact and the other doesn’t. And so the character that wants to interact just kind of follows that character around and asks them to go out five times.
Oren: Please know I’m begging you
Chris: But you also do some combination, right? You can throw them together. And then they learn to get along and then the world wants to tear them apart and they have to fight to stay together.
So you can kind of mix that up, but it is something I think that is good to think about. If you don’t already have the characters, like in close proximity in your story, if they’re not already buddy cops or working together or best friends in some way, to make sure that they have a reason to interact so that you’re not struggling to figure that out if you want them to be closer together.
We should talk about misunderstandings because a lot of writers, they want some level of personality clash. And what happens is they write both characters, one or both characters, just being an absolute jerk for no reason. Oren, did you want to talk about this?
Oren: Well, I mean, okay. So, I’m always a proponent of having characters disagree because of material circumstances, rather than just because of their personality. Just because if they have a conflict over their material condition, something that is real, that is tangible, then you don’t have to get into these weird arguments about like, “well, I don’t think they would act this way,” because it’s much easier to show why they are in conflict if they both need a thing, but they need it for mutually exclusive purposes or something like that.
Chris: We should probably elaborate on what material condition means in this case.
Oren: No, go read Marx. I don’t have time for this.
Chris: They are both fighting for the last slice of pie and only one of them can have it. And for some reason they don’t think about just splitting it down the middle. It’s probably not a very good example.
Oren: No, they want the last piece of pizza, but one of them wants to put pineapple on it and the other one wants to put anchovies on it. They can’t split it at that point. Impossible.
Chris: Oh, who would put the anchovies? Unrealistic example.
Oren: People do these things, Chris, you have to accept it. The world is a dark place.
Wes: One of these people is on this podcast right now.
Oren: Oh no. Which one of us is it? It’s a mystery.
Wes: I enjoy anchovies on pizza and I enjoy pineapple on pizza. So I must be pure evil.
Chris: So we’re in a fight about whether or not anchovies go on pineapple pizza
Wes: I’m going to have to try it out, I guess.
Oren: So my point is that if you have them, you know, disagreeing over something material, something that is a thing in the setting that they need or want, it’s much easier to build conflict around that in which you can preserve romantic or friendship chemistry. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a romance thing.
But if you want them to become more friendly later, it’s much easier to do that if they are arguing over a thing, rather than just because they get on each other’s nerves
Chris: Right, or it could be like, they want to solve the same problem in very different ways. One of them wants to shoot first. The other one wants to negotiate, for instance. They have a significant disagreement about something, they’re not just getting on each other’s nerves.
Oren: Right. One of them is a loose cannon. The other one is by the book. Right. That sort of thing. Whereas, I’m not going to say it’s impossible for them to have conflict just because they don’t like each other, but it’s certainly much harder to do that and not have it seem like, well, maybe these two characters are just not a good match.
Chris: I do think that if you want to have a basic personality class, you need to think harder about where your characters are coming from and where their sensitivities are. So for instance, if one of the character has emotional reasons where they feel like they need a lot of control over their environment and another character is coming and taking their stuff without asking, but for them, they are doing an urgent project that they need to get done.
We could explain that away as material conditions if you want. But the base issue is that, you know, one character, it really, really bothers them if they don’t have control in this situation. And that’s more of an emotional thing than it is actually like mutually exclusive needs.
But if you’re going to do that, you need a much firmer idea of where your characters are coming from and what’s causing them to clash. And you know, it’s not something that you really want to generate spur of the moment in the scene because you’re probably just make them sound unreasonable.
Oren: Right. And this is also something that you really need to keep in mind- power dynamics involved and the most way that this manifests is if you’re having a romantic clash between a dude and a lady, because the gender dynamics there make for very uneven power association. And it’s very easy for the dude to just be a huge asshole.
And unfortunately, there’s a lot of cultural baggage that says that’s okay, but not only are you furthering gender stereotypes by doing that, but there are a lot more people now and more of them every day who aren’t going to want to read that. So you’re also losing readers.
Chris: Yeah. One of those things is it’s hard because for some people it’s kind of invisible. They’re just used to tolerating worse behavior from men than from women. And so they think that a guy going in and wrecking expensive equipment, and a woman who is upset because he rushed the expensive equipment, that this is an equal disagreement when that’s not the case at all. One of them is clearly aggravating the situation.
So that’s just a tough one that you have to be on the lookout for.
Oren: Again, I’m not just talking about Sailor Moon, but I am definitely talking about Sailor Moon. It’s a little complicated because the characters may or may not know each other’s secret identity at this point, but when Usagi and, uh, Mamoru I think this, his name when they interact when they’re not in their transformed states, he’s just an asshole to her.
At first, they kind of tried to make it like a mutual antagonistic thing. But after a few episodes, it’s just, he’ll show up and start taunting her for no reason. And then she’ll get upset and they’re all be like, oh, Usagi and Mamuro, they’re always doing that. And of course, you know, he’s in college and she’s 14 so…
But even if they were the same age, that would be a problem.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, she tears into him one time, but you have to understand that by the time she does that, he has just repeatedly cut her down. And in fact, she does that in retaliation to him and another sailor guardian cutting her down. So she’s clearly still not the aggressor in this situation.
Oren: This is something to think about. If you want people to think that these characters actually belong together, you need to avoid things like that. And it’s doubly important for romance, but it matters for friendship too. Nobody wants to see your main character become friends with the person who’s been using them as a punching bag. That’s not a fun relationship.
Chris: Yeah, I have to say that if you’re going to have personality clashes between characters that you want to be really close and want to feel like they belong together, show that the characters are actually capable of communicating with each other. Resolving their differences, because with material circumstances, like they’re fighting over the last piece of pie okay, well, once that pie piece is eaten, we can believe that they might get along better.
But if they’re just having personality clashes, we need an explanation for why that won’t be a problem in the future or else why do they belong together?
Oren: The point is no more pie. Ban all pies.
Wes: The source of so much conflict
Oren: Taking an official anti-pie stance here at Mythcreants dot com.
Chris: We could certainly use more examples of stories where the characters who aren’t getting along actually communicate with each other to some degree and resolve differences that way.
Wes: I guess, by way to kind of bring this podcast to a close, we established that clearly setting up the nature of your character’s relationships will allow you to use them in scenes better because you will be able to allow them to act on their own interests, but also the shared interests and the expected interest in actions that come with the nature of their relationship. So I guess just don’t forget that when you’re building your perfect characters, make sure that the relationships that they have are given are given equal thought.
Oren: My characters are a hundred percent perfect and yours can be too after listening to this episode. So we’re going to go ahead and close it out on that note.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Aman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [closing theme song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening snd closing theme- The Princess who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.