On Writing: Character Dynamics


We talk about character a lot here at Magical Words.  And I mean A LOT.  I’ve written about the ABCs of character, befriending characters, character development, creating minor characters, and character descriptions.  Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about characters we love and hate.  That’s half a dozen character posts, and those are just from me.

There’s a reason for this, of course.  Character, as any professional fiction writer will tell you, is the key to good storytelling.  A story with poorly drawn characters is simply doomed to fail; a story with weak plotting or worldbuilding can often be rescued, at least partially, by stellar character work.  Character development is an author’s bread and butter.

The problem with all of the stuff I’ve written about character is that it fails to take the next step, and that’s what I want to write about today.  This may seem so fundamental that it doesn’t even need to be said, but characters do not exist in isolation.  Having great characters is one thing, but what makes them work, what makes them truly come alive, is the way our characters interact with each other.  Books, it turns out, are not so much about characters, as about the dynamic interactions among characters.  Our characters might be the most fascinating people ever imagined, but if their relationships with one another fall flat, so will our stories.  Think about the Harry Potter books.  Harry is a fairly interesting character with an intriguing past.  But in terms of his emotions, his angst, his alienation from the authority figures in his life (the Dursleys), and his feelings about his studies, he’s actually a fairly typical teenaged boy.  What makes him come alive, though, is his friendship with Ron and Hermione.  That is the fundamental relationship dynamic for the entire series.  It provides humor, emotion, tension, a host of key plot points.  More than that, though, it also makes the three characters far more interesting than they could possibly be on their own.  This is truly a case of the total being far, far more than the sum of its parts.

On several occasions I have mentioned that while my second book, The Outlanders, is not my best book (not nearly), it remains one of my very favorites.  The reason I love the book so much, is that the relationship I set up among three lead characters was so complex, so interesting to write, that it made the entire book electric.  Briefly, the dynamic involves Orris, a mage from Tobyn-Ser, who has come to the technologically advanced land of Lon-Ser to confront those who attacked his land.  He is totally unfamiliar with technology, and he does not speak the language of Lon-Ser.  He meets a man named Gwilym, a distant descendent of mages who came to Lon-Ser centuries ago.  He dreams of Orris’s approach, and he leaves his home in order to help the mage.  Because he and his people live as exiles up in the mountains, he is also unfamiliar with technology.  He does not speak Orris’s language, but the two men are natural allies.  They find themselves traveling with Melyor, a woman who helped with the assault on Orris’s land, and who lives a life fully immersed in technology.  She is (at least at first) Orris’s enemy.  But she speaks both languages, and so becomes the interpreter for nearly all of Orris and Gwilym’s interactions.  Each character was interesting in his or her own right, but together they became such an unlikely and unconventional team, that their part of the narrative became the driving force behind the entire novel. Chronicling the slow building of trust and friendship among the three of them was one of the hardest things I have ever done as a writer, and also one of the most rewarding.

Such dynamics are often the key factor in a story’s success or failure.  Darwen Arkwright is a likeable character, but his story becomes truly compelling when he teams up with Alexandra and Rich to form the Peregrine Pact.  Jane Yellowrock kicks ass, but it is her relationship with Beast that makes her such a fascinating character.  Ethan Kaille, my lead character for the Thieftaker books, has a complicated personal history and is one of the richest characters I’ve written.  But it is not until I introduce his rivalry with Sephira Pryce that he really comes alive as a character.

Friendship, rivalry, uneasy alliance, hatred, romance — the working dynamics among characters don’t all have to be Harry-Ron-Hermione in order to work.  Not by a long shot.  My point is that for all the important work we do creating and developing our characters, the most important thing we can do for our characters and our narratives is to put the people we’ve created in the same room and allow them to interact.  This is where dialogue and point of view influence our writing.  They are the tools we use to introduce characters to one another and to our readers.  We can plan ahead of time to create certain patterns in the relationships among characters.  I knew, for instance, that Ethan and Sephira were going to be rivals.  But until I actually started to write, I didn’t know how that rivalry would manifest itself.  I didn’t anticipate the sexual tension between them; I didn’t know just how much fun their hostile and at times deadly banter would be.  Sometimes there is simply no substitute for just sitting down and writing — and I say this as a committed plotter.  I can outline a book in great detail, but still so much of what I do happens organically, in the moment.  And none is more important than character interaction.

Still, while this post may make it seem that character dynamics are something that “just happen” when we write, there are ways to work on them ahead of time, to play with them and test them and see if they’re going to work.  I often encourage aspiring writers to work on short fiction as a way to improve their longer projects; I do this because it works.  And I even sometimes follow my own advice.  It took me longer than it should have to get around to it, but not too long ago I wrote a short story about Ethan and Sephira’s very first encounter.  The story is one of the best I’ve written, but more important, I know more about them now, and knowing what I do will make the next scenes I write for them that much more effective.  You should try doing the same. Write some short scenes in which you throw together key characters from your WIP.  Maybe put together two characters who haven’t met yet, or even two characters who might never meet anywhere but in this tale.  You’ll still learn something about both of them.  If you’re really feeling adventurous, write a story using characters from two (or more) completely unrelated projects.  Have fun with it.

And in the meantime, tell me about an interesting dynamic among characters in your current work.  Or (and?) tell me about a character interaction that you read and loved.

David B. Coe

18 comments to On Writing: Character Dynamics

  • I write from four POVs in THE MARK OF FLIGHT, and though the characters split up and come back together in different combinations, one of my favorite scenes is where the three lead POVs (Princess Arianna, the Mage Bay, and the slave Shiro) have just escaped the hands of the enemy. None of them know each other very well, and when the Princess (who is 14, and has managed to remain strong despite getting kidnapped) bursts into tears because she realizes she’s gotten fleas from the horses.

    The way the two (very unaccustomed to crying women) men try to comfort her is varied, and the different reactions they each provoke were so much fun. These three characters are of widely different backgrounds and have such a different perception of the world. Writing them together is a lot of fun, and I sometimes wish the story didn’t require me to split them up so quickly.

    Some of my favorite character interactions I’ve read recently are in the Iron Druid Chronicles, by Kevin Hearne. I adore the banter between the main character Atticus, who is a druid, and his dog, Oberon. Comedy gold, with a little bit of sniffly best-friend sweetness thrown in.

  • That sounds like a great scene, Scribe, and yes, I can see where it would have been a blast to write. I have found when outlining a book that if I plan to bring two (or more) key characters together who have never met before, I will look forward to writing that scene the way I used to look forward to my birthday. And thanks for the recommendation. I’ll look for Hearne’s work.

  • David, from my own work, I have two stories where the interactions between characters have stayed with me. The old one is Gwen’s work, the relationship between a mother and her two daughters, and between that woman and her husband, who has molested the girls, in Betrayal. It was complex and painful to write, but it remains my best in so many ways.

    The current one is the one you mentioned, Jane Yellowrock, but the relationship that is consuming me at this point, isn’t the one with her with Beast. It with her own past, the child she was and who she forgot, buried deep in her own mind. In Death’s Rival, Jane comes face to face with that child, and, well, I had no idea. It was chilling and electric, joyful and painful to write. It told me so much about the adult Jane that I had not understood until that scene came pouring out.

    A confirmed plotter,I am, like you. But the human relationships can’t be plotted nor (sometimes) even guided. They just happen.

  • sagablessed

    I have to admit I had a rather staid and boring MC, until while in the writing his BFF’s daughter accuses him of being a kill-joy for everyone else’s love life. At that point her own mother tosses her some dimes, saying “There are your first two of thirty, daughter mine”. Until then I did not realize what an impact my MC’s dead lover had on everyone. And he is dead, dang it: how do you fix that? It opened up a whole new world of possibilities for writing characters. I had not planned on Christopher’s death being so central to the undercurrents of the secondary and tertiary characters until then. It was, as Faith says, something that just happened. Yet it has given me new insights into subtler ways of making the written characters more human.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’m actually pretty pleased with several of the character dynamics in my WIP. Probably the most charged is between my guardsman protagonist and the evil Queen. He is both attracted and repelled by her, and though he’s usually a pretty straight-laced sort of person, he tends to have very little emotional control around her. He probably doesn’t help himself by insisting on thinking of her as human. It means he can’t maintain a black-and-white view of her.

    Of course, her dynamics with just about everyone have been pretty fun to write. It’s the more benign relationships I’ve been having the most trouble getting to work. Perhaps because they’re not – as you pointed out with the Harry-Ron-Hermione relationship – actually contributing to plot points in a meaningful way. Definitely something for me to work on and good food for thought.

    For me, the favorite character interactions that come to mind aren’t from a book, but from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. That, I think, is the bar for awesome character dynamics, and something to which I’ve referred in the past when feeling stuck about this sort of thing. They are such a mixed bag of characters, and yet so strongly enforce the idea of a close-knit family.

  • David> Ooh fun! It is character dynamics that makes stories interesting–who doesn’t find Frodo and Sam’s relationship touching (for example). My favorite scene in a current WIP is when Deor must deal with Donovan, the vampire body guard of her teaching assistant Geoff (who is the prince of the goblin nation playing peasant getting an education at a faerie university). She humiliates him in public. They have a conflict over it in her office after class. She makes very clear that because she isn’t invested in the nation (she’s looking for her father, once she finds him, she’s going home)she doesn’t care that he’s a prince himself, and doesn’t care who his father is. Right now, he’s making her life harder, and she will take the shortest route possible to stopping that–in this case, making him look bad in public. Because he’s such an important figure, it’s not in his political best interest to harm her, and she’s willing to bet on that. So in the end, he has to back down, but does leave her with the not-so-veiled threat: “I can function just fine in the human world… don’t forget that.” The whole moment terrifies her, but she manages to pretend it doesn’t, which lets her “win” the conversation, even if it makes her an enemy.

  • Unicorn

    This post is food for thought, David, thank you. As you and Faith have mentioned, the most interesting relationship in my WIP happened completely organically. My most powerful protagonist and most powerful antagonist have many similarities: both have extremely strong magic, both are hundreds of years old, and both had their soulmates killed in the same incident. The difference lies in how they react to their grief; the antagonist turning to vengeance and evil, the protagonist making better decisions. That all contributes to one of the story’s main themes; that it’s our choices, not our circumstances, that define who we are.

  • Gosh, I want to read LScribe’s book now – I can relate to that moment when something relatively trivial goes wrong and it’s just the last straw.

    In Kinslayer Winter Harvey (who’s a woman) and her 17 year old daughter Mal have probably the most interesting dynamic because Mal is too much like Harvey. She’s mouthy, she likes to make trouble and she’s sure that she could kick the world’s ass if her mother would just get out of the way. Harvey, who did a good bit of ass kicking in her teen years, is trying to keep Mal away from that lifestyle. She’s also trying to be a gentler parent than her own parents were and not use violence to suppress her daughter. They’re both stubborn and inclined to fight rather than back down. Mal is a bit afraid of her mom’s potential for violence, but that makes her more antagonistic, not less. Harvey mistrusts herself, but she deals with it by making rules and resorting to “Because I said so.” Mal’s complaints about Harvey are painful because they’ve got a bit of truth in them – Harvey is repressing her own past to the point of lying to her kids and it’s having the opposite effect she wants.

  • Razziecat

    Character interaction is my favorite part of writing. I get the biggest kick out of forcing two people who can’t stand each other to work together. I also like to explore unconventional relationships. In my WIP the MC, Thorne, has a mentor/student relationship with Adrian, the head of his order, who trains him in magic. Many mage pairs become life partners, but Adrian never crossed that line with Thorne. Adrian is also a hermaphrodite, and I’m just discovering what a very interesting life he led before becoming a mage. There’s some sexual tension between them, but also magical rivalry, and the slightly-unequal relationship of superior to subordinate. I’ve been writing little snippets of conversation and interaction, some of which may make it into the book, and some of it is pretty funny.

  • Oooh, this weekend we had a pre-Avengers movie marathon, and one thing I *loved* was, in both of the Iron Man movies, the dynamic between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Their conversations were pure cross-talk and cutting each other off; rarely ever did the two characters have a polite, simple discussion. It made every interaction they had pure entertainment.

    As for me, I’d have to say my two main characters in SIGN OF THE STAR, Janni and Brennant, have an interesting dynamic. It evolves over the story, but Janni (the lost princess who doesn’t want her throne) starts off distant and formal, simply because she’s on edge about risking her secret. Brennant, meanwhile, is a nice guy, open and friendly, if (in Janni’s opinion) annoying. When it comes out that he’s searching for the lost princess to put her *on* the throne, it puts her on further edge. She wants to just boss him around and keep him *away* from the topic of the princess. Unfortunately for her, his humour and kindness is infectious, and so she starts to fall for him. While guarding her secret. And he still won’t stop talking about the princess he thinks he needs to rescue. It makes for some interesting arguments and deceits, and it complicates every discussion they have.

    My favorite scene is when, toward the end of the book, they encounter two allies: one who already knows the truth about Janni, and the other who’ll figure it out soon on his own. The argument between Brennant and the one who hasn’t figured out the truth yet, *about* the princess, in front of Janni and the man who *does* know, is amusing in itself, but then Janni breaks up their argument with a total lie to shut them both up, as the other man shoots Janni a guarded WTF look. Fun times.

  • ajp88

    Ooh this article has me both loathing and loving my book plans. I’m going with 7 POVs a book, 7 chapters each, and some of the moments I have planned for future installments once each piece has advanced across the board to confront one another really tickle my muse.

    At some point in the second book (not quite the climax, I don’t think) my thief character comes in contact with another POV, a kidnapped girl in the throes of Stockholm Syndrome (one of two experiencing that manic psychosis with differing end results). For the thief, he has been forced to take part in a desperate quest at finding some way to overthrow a powerful world aggressor yet also overjoyed to have something to live for again (after losing his little sister). For the girl, she was newly in young love when she was snatched up and taken to be a plaything for the antagonist and she now feels that he loves her as she thinks she loves him.

    The thief creeps into their bedchamber expecting it to be empty (a feigned attack diverted forces from the city elsewhere) so that he can steal a magical artifact that may help in defeating the villain. He has never before been forced to use lethal force to steal. The girl wakes and fears the villain’s wrath while proclaiming their “love,” and in the end the thief has no choice but to kill her, sobbing, before guards hear her protests.

    At least that’s how I see it in my head. Hopefully I get to write it sometime next year.

    I really loved the interaction between Brienne and Gendry during A Feast for Crows. The way she sees the ghost of the man she loved and served in the young man’s body was so painful and bittersweet to read.

  • Late to the party again. Great point, David. I love the idea of thinking about interaction/relationship as a kind of intersection of plot and character which anchors the story. Good idea.

  • Many thanks for the all the comments and descriptions of character interactions. Sorry I didn’t respond more yesterday — the day got away from me.

    Faith, I LOVE the idea of Jane interacting with a younger version of herself. Can’t wait to read it. And yes, planning such scenes other than “The scene happens” is nearly impossible.

    Donald, isn’t it amazing how a single event can ramify through every thread of a novel, even if we don’t realize at the time how significant it is? Sounds like your story is taking you in unexpected directions.

    Hep, I REALLY need to rent Firefly. I’ve never seen it. The secondary relationships can be tricky, which is why I tend to take time in creating even those seemingly insignificant characters. You don’t want scenes to slow down your narrative, and so every character needs to be alive and complex in some respect. Best of luck with the WIP.

    Emily, that sounds very cool. And I had to laugh at the public humiliation of the teaching assistant. Been there. Oh, have I been there….

    Unicorn wrote: “…that it’s our choices, not our circumstances, that define who we are.” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Choices — that’s where the fun stuff is. That’s where these dynamics really start to define a narrative. Great comment.

  • Sarah, that sounds interesting, complicated, fraught with emotion and potential recrimination. In other words, it sounds perfect. Very cool.

    Razz, that’s my favorite thing to do, too: Putting together two people who I KNOW will not get along, and then watching as they work out their dynamic. Sounds like you’re having fun with Adrian and Thorne. Hope that continues.

    Laura, I’ve been meaning to see the Ironman movies. More motivation now. Thanks. Your WIP sounds like lots of fun. I love situations where one character has more information than another — again, something that contributes to those interesting dynamics.

    AJP — Wow. Intense scene. I’ll be interested to know to what degree the scene turns out the way you envision it now. I find that my scenes don’t often conform to my expectations; and that’s usually a good thing. Good luck with it!

    A.J., thanks. Hope you’re doing well.

  • djstipe

    The relationship between my MC Ordell and his best friend Marius is interesting because Marius comes off almost as a deviant to Ordell – he is focused on sex in a society that has repressed sexual urges using medication and embraced asexual reproduction. Marius, it turns out, is resistant to the medication, and his super-charged late-onset adolescence is a constant reminder to Ordell of the barbaric nature of sex. Once Ordell finds a way to avoid the medication (because it does much more than suppress sexuality), he starts to struggle with those urges himself and gains a greater appreciate for who his friend is. Reconciling the society’s views on sex and his new found understanding of it proves for some good internal conflict as well.

    “It’s about relationships/how that relates to this
    the transitions into something bigger than the sum of all involved”

    Good topic! DJ

  • Very late to the party – it’s been a difficult week for me, and that’s understating things a bit – so I know this won’t really add to the conversation, but…

    I recall reaching a similar conclusion about the Harry Potter series after I ruminated on it a bit. I was trying to understand what made it so popular even though the worldbuilding and the plot weren’t really very complex or original. The answer I reached was that it all had to do with the characters, and their interactions, and their backgrounds, and how all of that stews together in this messy and interesting pot. I decided at that time that getting the characters and their interactions right was the key to a successful story/book/series. Easier said than done, of course.

    In my own current WIP there are a few really interesting character dynamics. The first is between the main character and her co-protagonist. She’s a non-comformist with an irrepressable curiosity living in a culturally-isolated post-apocalyptic village with an oppressive and violent theocracy. He’s the ghost of a military engineer from a now-dead nation that was at war with her ancestors and who played an important role in the counterstrike against her ancestors that culminated in the aforementioned apocalypse. The two are stuck together (because MAGIC). She has no loyalties to those long-dead ancestors, and he’s been alone so long that the opportunity for human contact overrode his latent xenophobia, and the two form a strong partnership. The second character dynamic that I find intersting is between the protagonist and her uncle: her uncle having been the man who coaxed her father into participating in the crazy scheme for which her father was executed by the religious authorities. She has conflicted feelings about the fact that her uncle escaped and survived the theocracy’s brutality. Things get more complicated for her when she learns the truth of what her Uncle was trying to achieve, and learns that the Big Bad is using her uncle to further his own schemes. The final dynamic of interest is between the protag and the Big Bad, naturally.

  • Even later to the party, but love this post, To me, there can be no plot without strong and invigorating character interaction. In my novel-in-progress, I have a Latino street thug in Los Angeles who’s experienced racism and classism in abundance; he literally runs into a Caucasian, upper-class musician who usually has his head in the clouds. It’s a classic “night and day” relationship but exploring the details of their friendship makes it so much more than a cliche. I naturally fell into using close third for both of their POVs and I’ve become addicted to watching how they interact. I sometimes write long scenes with the pair just to see how they treat each other, with no plans to stick those scenes into the novel. I know more about what makes those guys tick than I know about myself! When I go back to the novel, it’s easier for me to write their early relationship now that I know how it’s developed. Plot points play off of their interaction too. You can keep your action-oriented stories, character dynamics are what keep me writing (and reading).

  • D.J., thanks. Sounds like an interesting dynamic and narrative concept.

    Stephen, sorry it was a difficult week for you. I really like the sound of that relationship between your MC and the ghost. Very, very cool.

    Owl, yours also sounds fascinating, and while I enjoy a good action scene as much as the next person, I agree with you — these dynamics are what make stories come alive for me, whether I’m reading someone else’s work or writing my own.