One useful tool for developing characters is deciding what matters to them most in relationships. All human beings are wired to be in relationship with each other – we’re built for community, and as the quote goes, it is not good for man to be alone. The way in which this desire for community and appreciation is expressed, however, can be very different from person to person. Gary Chapman introduced an idea that has been very helpful in real-life relationships for many people: the idea that there are five “love languages” that people around the world use to express affection and appreciation, and that they yearn for to feel loved and valued. While all five are nice and often valued by every individual, one or two stand out as a person’s default way of showing closeness, and if not received from a friend or family member, can make the person wonder if they’re really valued. Knowing your characters’ default love languages, then – and purposefully choosing ones that aren’t yours (the author’s) – can make your written relationship dynamics seem more real, and help your readers better connect to your characters.
So what are these five love languages?
Words of Affirmation.
This is the easiest one for me to write, because it’s the one that is most natural for me. As a writer, words are the sea I swim in, the air I breathe, and the way in which I automatically show appreciation of others. It was also pointed out to me recently that many of my characters share my love language. My characters choose to talk with each other, to compliment one another, to look for nice things to say and to be eloquent in how they say them, to write letters or essays or poems, and to be effusive in their praise when they like someone else. In turn, when they’re feeling low, they want to hear others tell them what they admire and respect and love about them, and to be otherwise similarly built up with words. A long essay written about why someone likes them would tend to be valued more by my characters than would a moderately expensive piece of jewelry.
Acts of Service
Some people show their love for others, or desire to be shown love, through acts of service. This is the character who automatically seeks out and does chores that his/her significant other hates doing, who goes out of his way and does kind things to make life easier for a friend, who is always volunteering to take people to the airport or make meals for the sick or babysit or slay those pesky dragons laying waste to the countryside. In return, they expect (or at least hope!) that their true friends will return the favor and gladly jump in, get their hands dirty, and help out when asked. True love, to these characters, is shown not necessarily by the nice thoughts you think about them, or the expensive things you’re willing to buy them, but by the things you’re willing to do for them.
Some characters show and desire to receive love through gift-giving. They come home with souvenirs for all their friends whenever they go somewhere, they give gifts “just because,” they put a lot of time and effort into finding the “perfect” gift for every occasion, and they’d never consider giving money or a gift card at an event like a birthday, graduation, or wedding. The perfect gift might not be one that costs an outrageous sum (though expensive gifts do show that the other person really values you!), but it should be something that fits the person in question. Talk is cheap, they say, and acts of service are nice, but gifts are things that you can hold onto, treasure, and remember forever.
“I don’t want you to wash my car. I don’t want you to buy me presents. Just spend time with me!” is the cry of this character. Friendship and love, for people who value quality time, is best shown through the dedication of time to the other person. Quality time is different from just being in the same room with someone – it is time when the other person isn’t distracted or trying to multitask, but is rather committed to the person and activity that they are engaged in. Spending a day together at the beach, or going on a hike, or sitting together and debating the merits of one type of spell versus another when facing down a mountain troll, is an ideal and needed sign of love and care.
Unfortunately, touch between individuals in Western culture has been relegated more and more to sexual contexts only; this makes life hard for people who are mentally wired to need physical touch as a sign of love and care. Men and women alike all need simple human touch (e.g. a clap on the back, a shoulder-rub, a hug). Some just need it more than others. People who view physical touch as a love language will be generous with (and desire) hugs, may lay a hand on a friend’s shoulder or arm as they’re speaking to show that they care, and so forth.
When people with different ways of expressing and desiring love try to build relationships with each other, the results can be frustrating. If you’ve upset the other person, for instance, do you need to simply write a long, thoughtful apology that affirms the value of the person that you’ve hurt? Do you need to simply send them a gift or perform an act of service? Do you say you’re sorry but follow it up with a hug or an hour or two of doing the other person’s favorite activity with them? If you do the wrong one, the other person may appreciate the effort, but won’t feel as touched and affirmed as if you do the right one. The wrong action might even make the situation worse. (“Are you trying to buy my forgiveness?” or “Don’t you understand? I need help, not a hug!”) When characters understand each other, however, they can work to speak the other’s language, giving them the strength and affirmation they need at the core of their being to draw their vorpal blade and charge forward in search of the jabberwock (or whatever it is that you as the author decide they need to do).
As you write, consider the ways in which you and your characters are similar, the ways your characters could be different from you, and how your characters are different from each other. Giving them different combinations of preferred and natural love languages might be a way of adding depth to their interactions, while also speaking to your readers’ hearts.