In last Friday’s article I started to discuss how to create chemistry between characters.Below are three more things to consider when crafting compelling character relationships.
3. Craft Your Interactions
One of the biggest things is having a rapport between the characters. This is one of the reasons why writers are so fond of using banter to make chemistry, and why it’s so common for love interests to argue with each other. Banter and argument put the characters at odds with each other, thereby creating tension, while also placing them in conversation. (Note: Banter is not a requirement. Some kind of tension or push-back between the characters generally is.)
Similarly, giving the conversations between these characters subtext is a useful way of creating tension. Subtext happens when the characters aren’t putting all of their cards on the table, and it means that the conversation takes place on multiple levels. This is why declarations of love tend to be uninteresting, especially when they come too early. Letting the characters hold a few things back adds complication, subtlety, and interest to their interactions.
Another thing to pay attention to is what each character knows and notices. When people are interested in each other, whether as friends or enemies, they tend to remember things that the other one says. Characters who are closely involved with each other are more likely to know details about one another and to bring up past interactions. Meanwhile, bland or generic conversation suggests that two people aren’t really listening to each other. Check for stock-phrases and small talk—these dampen interactions.
A more in-depth way of creating chemistry is to have the characters pick up on each other’s language. Let them respond to each other’s images, word-choice, and sentence structure. Some illustrative examples of this from Shakespeare:
- Romeo and Juliet’s first interaction with each other forms a sonnet. He delivers a verse, and she responds with the next one. When she responds, she takes the images from his verse and elaborates on them. Not to say that you should be hiding sonnets in your fiction, but the way that they build off of one another’s ideas and verbally complete each other, and how incredibly effortless it appears, speaks to their relationship.
- In Richard III, the titular character attempts to seduce Lady Anne over her husband’s dead body. Even as she pushes back against him, she begins to pick up on his sentence structure and to respond in kind. When he says, “Lady, you know no rules of charity,” she answers “Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man.” When he says, “Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,” she answers, “Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man.” On a structural level, her insults become a flirtation.
4. Build Strong Characters
Easier said than done but, as a rule, it’s much easier to create chemistry between characters if the characters work on their own. This means that both characters should be likable (or at least interesting) and complete. Likable, because if readers don’t enjoy reading about the characters independently they will—for obvious reasons—be unlikely to care about how they interact with one another. Complete because if one of the characters in the equation is a cardboard cutout, you lose out on lots of opportunities for the tension and complexity that make interpersonal relationships worth reading about.
Yes, there are situations in which a particular character is poorly written, but becomes incredibly interesting when she’s interacting with her rival. It is certainly possible to create chemistry between flat characters. However, it’s harder to do, readers are less likely to be interested if you do pull it off, and it doesn’t solve the overarching character issues unless the characters are together all of the time. A significant part of good chemistry follows naturally from good characters.
Developing your characters also provide you with certain advantages. Foremost, you know the ins and outs of each one, and so you can deliberately pair off your characters (romantically or otherwise) in a way that produces the most interesting interactions. For another, the deeper a character’s personality runs, the more strongly you can apply mirroring or foiling.Better developed characters can also have more complex relationships, which means more nuance, more subtext, and more tension.
5. Know What Chemistry Isn’t
Chemistry does not happen when two characters constantly agree with each other, or never have any kind of conflict. This is one of the reasons why the too perfect love interest tends to bore readers. In part one of this article, I talked about how you can make chemistry by having your characters be, quite literally, made for each other. In this case, “made for each other” doesn’t mean that they’re perfect for each other in every way. Rather, they’re designed to create tension.
Chemistry also isn’t constant, endless bickering. Characters who only have one mode are boring. Don’t be afraid to vary up the dynamic. And be prepared to adjust their interactions according to the situation. The sort of banter that’s cute in a coffee shop is just plain uncomfortable at a funeral (unless that’s what you want, as per the Richard III example above).
Chemistry generally cannot happen when one character spends all of their time off stage. If we don’t see the characters together, it’s much harder to establish a dynamic between them. This is especially true if one of the characters gets sidelined—that is, they spend most of the story being kept out of conflicts for their own protection. Showing characters interact during conflicts is a great way of giving their relationship depth. It’s hard to do this with absentee characters.
Chemistry does not happen in a vacuum. It’s tough to write a good story that deals with one character relationship and nothing else. Relationships develop through outside events. Three hundred pages of Alice and Lucy bantering with each other isn’t a story. It’s fluff, and odds are that it won’t result in a compelling relationship. Let the character relationships and the plot work for each other.
And this probably goes without saying, but chemistry doesn’t happen simply because the writer insists that it’s there. If the only indication that the characters are getting along comes from narratorial interjection like, “sparks flew,” or “there was a lot of tension between Alice and Lucy,” most readers aren’t going to be convinced. Let your characters do the work. Likewise, if all of the chemistry exists in a character’s internal monologue–that is, Lucy thinks about how great Alice is, but their actual interactions are lackluster–that isn’t going to cut it. Chemistry takes at least two characters, and it only happens when things are allowed to play out between them.