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Developing Characters' Relationships with Each Other

If your characters are bricks you'll use to build a story, their relationships are the mortar holding that story together. Lord of the Rings is enormously plot-driven, but it would fall flat without the power of Frodo's friendship with Sam. Frodo's other relationships are less important, but each one adds a layer of depth to the story. How much would Lord of the Rings lose if there had only been two hobbits? If there was no Rosie Cotton for Frodo and Sam to discuss?

Unless you're writing a story specifically about isolation, your book will have a similar web of relationships holding it together. Taking a few days to develop the most important relationships will help you write a better book the first time you write it.

The next three exercises will help you build realistic, deep relationships between your characters.

How to choose what relationships to develop

All relationships aren't created equally, so they shouldn't be treated equally during the planning process. The exercises we're about to walk you through will take at least an hour for each relationship. When you start considering the entire web of relationships in your novel, that becomes an enormous amount of work. Like everything else, only a tiny fraction of it will appear in the book. The other work exists purely to deepen your own understanding.

For now, choose the three most important relationships to work on. These are the relationships that most deeply impact your story. They are pivotal to either the plot or to your main character's internal journey. The love interest, mentor, and relatives and/or childhood friends are typically the best candidates for these roles.

Exercise: The first time we met

This exercise will explore how your characters were introduced and what they initially thought of each other. It will also help you understand what people think of your characters based on their appearance.

To complete this exercise you will need a timer, something to write with (and on), and roughly half an hour.

STEP ONE: Set a timer for twenty minutes.

STEP TWO: Write the scene of your characters' first meeting, staying in one character's POV. You can do this in either first or third person—whichever POV you'll be writing the actual book in. Write as much of this scene as you can in fifteen minutes.

STEP THREE: Set your timer for another five minutes.

STEP FOUR: Make point form notes of everything you learned from the scene you just wrote. You can create a “relationships” section in your character profile for these notes.

BONUS: Repeat this exercise, writing the meeting scene from the other character's point of view.

Exercise: Letters between characters

In this exercise you'll explore the relationship between your characters as it develops. If you've ever read some of the many published historical letters, you know letters can tell you an incredible amount about a person. Every written word speaks volumes about the writer’s personality, their relationship with their recipient, and their view of the world around them. Letters between your characters can do the same.

For this exercise you'll need your writing tools, a timer, and an hour (you can do it in two separate half hours if necessary).

STEP ONE: Set your timer for twenty minutes.

STEP TWO: Free-write a letter from one of your characters to another. Let the character guide you and the topic of the letter unfold as you go. Try to keep your own personality out of this and really let the character's individual voice shine through. Write for the whole twenty minutes. Don't worry about the length of the letter. If you want to write a series of extremely short letters instead, that's fine too. The important thing is that it's authentic to your characters.

STEP THREE: Set your timer for another five minutes.

STEP FOUR: Write down everything you've learned in point form notes–this can also go into the "relationships" section of your character profile.

STEP FIVE: Repeat with a letter from the other character.

PRO TIP: These letters don't need to be sent. Your characters might decide not to send them for a myriad of reasons. They might even be writing the letter specifically to burn it and to banish memories of someone who traumatized them. Do whatever feels most authentic for your characters. The only requirement here is that it's formatted like a letter—written to someone, signed by someone, and written entirely from your character's POV.

Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and a columnist at Writer's Corner for both Creating Great Characters and Professional Interaction for Authors. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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