Some of the most memorable parts of books come from the relationships that are explored in them. For writers like me who love the worldbuilding aspects of fantasy, writing good character relationships is a conscious process rather than a natural outflowing of story. Even when it’s work, though, it is definitely worth the time and effort invested to create and develop characters who not only are real to readers, but who realistically interact with other characters and grow and change (or are a force for growth and change) as a result of those interactions. There are multiple types of character relationships that can be developed in a story, and different stories lend themselves more naturally to some than to others. Here are three types that you might choose from:
We all know the story: the “chosen one” grudgingly comes to accept his destiny and grows from sulky farmboy into heroic knight through the wise tutelage of the old, retired sage who imparts to the lad his wisdom and skill, teaching him life lessons even as he teaches him the ways of the sword. Clichéd though it might be, mentor/apprentice relationships in stories can be very useful for growing a character into the person you as an author want them to be. In real life, we seek out people who know more than we do when we want to learn something, so why wouldn’t it work the same way in fiction? The main difference is that many storytellers choose to combine the mentor who teaches necessary technical skills (or magical skills, or whatnot) with a much-needed father figure, using practical tutelage as an excuse to sit Our Hero down and tell him the much more useful, but less obvious, things he needs to know to succeed as a person as well as a swordsman (or magician, or whatnot).
Some authors turn the cliché around, having Our Hero teach the mentor life lessons (e.g. renew his hope, restore his optimism or faith, bring him long-lost joy) even as he or she learns the technical skills that the mentor is supposed to be imparting. This trope provides a nice sense of balance, with both parties receiving solutions to their problems even when they were unlooked for by one of the characters. The trick with this relationship, as with any fictional relationship, is to both have it make sense, but also keep readers guessing. Readers expect that an old master with skills and a young talented person with destiny will come together in a story. They don’t expect the intricacies or complexities provided by third party characters who exert influence over one or both characters, or large-scale events that throw off the mentor’s (or apprentice’s) plans, or other plot or character happenings that an author can use to veer a story off in an unanticipated direction. Take advantage of your ability as an author to not limit yourself to just the dyad of the mentor/apprentice, and your relationships will be free to flourish (or potentially flounder) in new ways that keep readers turning pages.
Sibling (or other equal kinship) relationships
Siblings who are devoted to each other, siblings who hate each other, siblings who love each other but are constantly in competition – family of origin relationships provide a wealth of material for emotional and deep character development, as well as complex, dynamic interactions between characters. Siblings might seem to speak on the same wavelength, finishing each other’s sentences and working smoothly as a team, or might annoy each other with every word, pushing each other’s buttons and knowing precisely how to get under the other’s skin. They might have grown up together and have years of shared experience that they can draw on, or have been raised apart and have to discover what it is that they have in common. Loyalty to and love of family, though, is an ancient and powerful theme that resonates through some of the best stories. As an author, consider telling a story about main characters who have family that they love and care about rather than main characters who are loners. Not only do they give the main character a “foil” to be set off against, they also show similarities of character between the main character and their siblings, and give an opportunity for the main character to reflect on who he or she is and what he or she cares about.
In contrast to mentor relationships, where a junior character seeks instruction from a senior, or family relationships, where people are naturally forced into relationships with each other that they can’t escape from, romantic relationships are ones that characters choose and have to deal with the fallout of those choices. Two characters who are in love, or who fall in love despite themselves, are going to have difficult decisions to make, be confused, and, yes, make irrational (and potentially idiotic) choices because of their feelings for one another. These can lead to no end of fun with plot twists and also character development as they sacrifice for and rescue one another – or, alternatively, get themselves in trouble and need to be rescued. When writing romantic relationships, however, authors should be careful not to make a common mistake based on modern culture’s fairy tales. No matter what pop culture says, falling in love is not something that just happens apart from a character’s choice. As easy of a plot device as it is to say that a character “fell in love at first sight,” real actions of love will ring far more true if love develops over time. That’s not to say that characters can’t be attracted to each other. Certainly, as authors, we hope they will be if we want them to end up with each other by the end of the book! But just as in real life, infatuation is very different from real love, relationships in books should reflect the time and work it takes to build a relationship that causes one person to want to devote themselves to the other person’s wellbeing, or to take a bullet for the other, or even just to give up an annoying habit that the other doesn’t like. Shallow relationships are easy to write – but quickly lose readers’ interest. Deep relationships are harder – they take more conflict, more thought, and more creative work to show rather than tell – but in the end, they are also more satisfying.
What examples of good relationships between characters have you seen in books that you enjoy? What type of relationship are they? What makes them so satisfying to read?