Just as relationships play a pivotal role in shaping our lives, so do they in the lives of our characters. As readers/viewers, the fictional relationships we’ve followed on the page and screen are some of what we hold most dear about the stories we love.
So, how do we as writers ensure that we create relationships that are complex, engaging, and believable? There are certain key pillars to building dynamic fictional relationships that can help.
Here are my tips on creating dynamic relationships in fiction ─ both romantic and platonic ─ that add depth to the story and help move it forward in a natural, compelling way. Be sure to download the free workbook to help you flesh out your ideas.
Other posts you may like:
- Writing Advice from 6 Famous Romance Writers
- How to Create Compelling Characters That Pull You into the Story
- The 4 Keys to Writing Heart-Stopping Romantic Chemistry
Writing Dynamic Relationships in Fiction
Make sure they challenge each other
The best relationships in fiction (as in life) challenge characters to become better versions of themselves. When we engage in a story, we want to see conflict and progression, so relationships that encourage growth in the characters are the most compelling of all.
This helps move the story along and is one of the most important ingredients in creating dynamic relationships in fiction.
There’s a reason “frenemy” and “enemies to lovers” relationships are popular tropes in fiction ─ this dynamic takes the term “challenge” to a whole other level and reveals things about each character in an often messy, uncomfortable but necessary way that forces each one to grow.
While a relationship doesn’t have to have such an intense degree of conflict in order for the characters to challenge each other, they are great examples of why this element is so captivating.
These are the friendships that are steeped in conflict. Enemies to friends start out with the characters at odds but over time, through shared experiences that encourage growth in both of them, they develop an unexpected bond.
Some other examples, though not fully considered enemies, are always walking the tight rope between friends and adversaries or even go from friends to enemies, which has entirely different implications.
Two examples of enemies to friends are Emma and Regina in Once Upon a Time and Jane and Petra in Jane the Virgin. Both started out as mortal enemies with one character being the “hero” and the other the “villain” of their respective stories, but the events that unfolded over the course of the series changed them both.
In both cases, each character learned something from the other.
In Jane the Virgin, Petra softened and became more honest under Jane’s influence while Jane learned how to be bolder and more assertive with Petra’s help.
Other examples that are less clear-cut are House and Wilson in House and Professor X and Magneto in X-Men. The former are dysfunctional friends that have extremely different personalities and thus consistently clash on a myriad of issues, but it’s fascinating to watch because they both challenge each other to see things from a different perspective.
In X-Men, the friendship is disrupted by political differences that are bigger than the characters, adding an extra emotional underpinning to the story’s main conflict.
ENEMIES TO LOVERS
Like frenemies, these characters begin as enemies or have a very conflict-ridden relationship with the added layer of sexual tension.
There is something inherently romantic about falling in love with someone who not only brings out the best in you but also sees the worst and loves you anyway, so these relationships take that to an extreme. And of course, the heated discourse definitely adds some spice to an exchange between two potential (or current) lovers.
I mean, who doesn’t love an exhilarating exchange of sarcastic banter?
One of the most classic examples of enemies to lovers is Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. They are literal embodiments of the title; Elizabeth’s arc is to overcome her prejudice and him to overcome his pride. They both aid each other’s growth in these areas and ultimately fall in love despite harboring negative opinions about each other in the beginning.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, is a master at developing complex relationships that keep you hooked. You can learn about her entire process in her awesome MasterClass on writing, which I’ve reviewed here.
LESS EXTREME EXAMPLES
Jane and Rafael in Jane the Virgin are never enemies, but their relationship throughout the series is sometimes tumultuous as they push each other’s buttons, have disagreements on life choices, and call each other on their bullsh*t. Their relationship is a key ingredient to both of them growing into their respective arcs because of the ways in which they’ve challenged each other’s weaknesses.
In fact, Jane the Virgin is a great case study in character relationships as a whole, as every relationship in the protagonist, Jane’s life challenges her in some way, including the relationships she has with her mother and abuela, the women she is closest to.
They don’t always agree on everything because they all have their own desires and perspectives that aren’t always aligned, and these differences not only deepen their bond as they work to overcome them, but they also feed into each of the characters’ respective arcs.
Don’t make it perfect
No real-life relationship is perfect, so no fictional one should be either. Things are never black and white; even our dearest, closest relationships have conflict at least once in a while.
There are certain things we want to suspend disbelief on and enjoy the fantasy of but if it’s too perfect, you run the risk of pulling people out of the fantasy because it doesn’t feel real enough for them to buy into it.
Fictional relationships that lack any sort of conflict or disagreement are boring.
No one agrees on everything all the time, nor likes all of the same things. Think about how can you use this to deepen the relationship and move the story forward.
Here are some things to ask yourself to dig deeper into a relationship between two characters:
- In what ways do their personalities and/or beliefs clash?
- What relationship challenges will they face due to internal and external circumstances?
- What do they both agree on and value?
- What do they not agree on?
- How do they each choose to handle those disagreements?
Tension (or conflict) is crucial to telling an engaging story, so what plants doubt in the reader that these two characters will ultimately end up together, on good terms, or on the same side?
Think about what stands in their way. What uncertainties are there? Creating a will they/won’t they tension will keep the reader invested in how the story will play out and make them lean in closer.
Don’t make it easy!
Do be careful, though, not to throw in conflict just for the sake of conflict. Does anyone actually like it when two characters are kept apart because of a contrived misunderstanding that could’ve been cleared up by a simple conversation? Yeah, don’t be that person.
Show the trust and support
The most important aspects of any healthy relationship are trust, respect, and unconditional support. If your relationships are lacking any one of these elements, it’s going to be hard for your readers to buy into them.
Characters make mistakes, of course, and some of them will have a longer way to go in their growth than others. It’s okay if they don’t display these traits in the beginning, but make sure they learn and OWN UP TO these mistakes with sincerity. Handle it with care.
With that said, having a flawed character exhibit these traits in their dearest relationships is a wonderful way to show their complexity and potential for growth.
Because we appreciate these things so much in real life, we become invested in and feel compassion towards fictional characters that show they can be counted on by those they love despite other flaws.
Be sure to show this in your story’s relationships ─ a willingness to sacrifice one’s own happiness for someone else’s, showing their love and appreciation for another through ACTION and not just words, and genuinely earning each other’s trust.
Look at your favorite fictional relationships
You can learn a lot about how to make fictional relationships more dynamic by examining your favorites. Do case studies on them to explore what it is about them that has made you so invested in their relationship and earned them a permanent place in your heart.
Look at all different types of relationships ─ romances, friendships, family, mentor/student. What is it about them that drew you in? Why do you love them? Do you notice any common elements? Think about how they affected the story as a whole and played into each character’s personal journey.
To make things easier, I’ve put together a worksheet you can download to use to flesh out dynamic relationships between your characters. Head over to my free resource library to grab it!