Monday, April 09, 2018

What Are Your Protagonist’s Relationships Like?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

At the center of every story is a protagonist. Around them are their friends, foes, and everyone in between. They interact with multiple characters during the course of the story, but how much time have you spent developing those relationships?

I’m not talking about the various roles characters play in your protagonist’s life, but the relationships with those others characters. Most protagonists have a best friend archetype, but how do they get along? What benefits do they receive from being best friends? What’s different abut this relationship than the one they have with another “friend” character?

Look at your protagonist and ask:

Do they have the same relationship with everyone in the story?

On first glance, it’s easy to say “No,” but look closer. If you swapped out the various characters, would the interactions with the protagonist be basically the same? Is the role of the character more important than the person? For example, if the sidekick changed genders and became the love interest, how much would charge in their scenes with the protagonist? If they could say the same lines and act the same way and there’s no real difference, odds are the relationships aren’t that different either.

Relationships are important, because it allows the characters to be complex and fully fleshed out individuals. Someone can love another person and still dislike aspects of them. They can find comfort in someone they also disagree with. People have layers and contradictions, so remember to add those aspects to your characters and their relationships.

Here are some other things to consider when examining (and developing) your protagonist’s relationships:

Who are the characters your protagonist…

Goes to for help? Also think about the different kinds of problems and the different kinds of help. Emotional support might come from a friend, while bail money might come from someone else. What types of “help” will your protagonist need in the story, who are the people they turn to, and why?

Relies on? Sometimes we take our biggest supporters for granted, which can cause troubles at inopportunely times. Who does your protagonist always count on? Why?

Finds comfort in? Some characters are comforting just by their ability to make the protagonist forget about their problems, while others are their for more physical comforts.

Hides things from?
Some relationships work as long as the things the people disagree with don’t come up in conversation. What secrets or topics does your protagonist not share with the people in their lives? How do those topics differ from person to person?

Disagrees with? Not everyone thinks or feels the same way. Who speaks out when the protagonist needs a different opinion? Who’s the voice of reason? The bad influence?

Avoids? We all know people we can’t cut out of our lives, even though we kinda wish we could. Maybe they’re family, or people who know things we can’t afford to lose, or they have skills we need from time to time.

Worries about? We tend to worry about those we feel strongly about—good and bad. We worry about those we love getting hurt, and we worry about those we can’t stand showing up and ruining our day.

Finds annoying? Even people we love can drive us nuts, and everyone has traits that get on other people’s nerves. Who rubs your protagonist the wrong way? Why?

The great fun about a list like this, is that the same characters usually appear in more than one category. The protagonist might avoid the very person they find comfort it, not ready to take the relationship to the next level. Or they might hide just a few things from the person they rely on.

(Here’s more on the character who's the hearts of your story)

Think about how the various characters fit into your protagonist’s life and what those relationships are like. Next, take a look at your non-protagonist characters and ask:

Do they have lives outside the story or are they there just to serve the protagonist?

What does this character do when the focus isn’t on them or they’re aren’t with the protagonist? You want a sense that they have a life and are off living it when not on screen or playing an active role in a scene. A character with a full life brings that life into the protagonist’s world as well, which makes both characters richer.

Are they defined by their function in the story or by who they are?

When you think about a character, are they “Jane” or are they “Bob’s love interest?” If their function is the first thing you think of, and that’s how you see the character, odds are they’re aren’t very well develop beyond the single function they play in the story, so their relationship with the protagonist is equally flat. Give them more dimension than a single trait for the sake of the plot. You want a character who’s more than just a trigger for a plot point or the protagonist’s story arc.

Do they have relationships and interactions with other characters in the story?

If your characters never interact with each other, that’s a red flag they might be there just to spout information for your protagonist, or be yes, men and spear carriers who serve no real purpose but to advance the plot. While this is fine for minor characters (we do need those), the more important a character is, the more you want them to feel like part of the world, not just part of the story.

(Here’s more on the benefits of character interaction)

Relationships are a lot of fun to play with in a story, because characters are complicated and contradictory. They bring layers of interest that give you a deep pool of possibilities to choose from when you’re writing your story. They can contribute to the conflict as well as be the source of salvation, provide humor and cutting observations, and bring out different aspects of the protagonist.

What are your protagonist’s relationships like? Do they have relationships are just character interactions? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I haven't thought to ask these questions before, yet they would make my characters more real to life. Thank you.

    1. Most welcome :) My current WIP is all about the relationships, so it's been interesting to write.