Using Relationships to Reveal your Characters

by Jason Black

Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Characters are never alone.  It’s simple; we are social creatures. We go better together.  Some part of us needs others with whom to share our thoughts and feelings.

Even characters who seem to be alone often aren’t, although their companions may take unusual forms. In Cast Away, shipwrecked Chuck Nolan had his volleyball.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Dave Bowman had HAL, the murderous computer nemesis who is without doubt the most well-remembered character in the story.

As writers, we create friends, foes, and foils for the ordinary human reasons.  But we also do it because the relationships they provide are marvelous tools for revealing our characters to our readers.  This subject probably deserves a book rather than a brief article, but let me give three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

When you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. A love-struck hero might take up volunteering at an animal shelter when he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog despite his own allergies—they’ve got pills for that, right?—just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too.  I cannot help but be reminded of Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo adopts as his goal the decision of the council: the Ring of Power must be destroyed.  He doesn’t want to be the one to do it, but it’s clear that no one else will be trusted with the task.  And the stakes are so high, he volunteers.  Until that moment in the story Frodo has been driven by events, but in that moment he starts driving.  In that moment, we learn everything we need to know about him.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. Imagine a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends, intending to provide opportunities for people to have fun.  He may be hoping this will make people like him. But how he reacts reveals his deeper motivations: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser?  How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed?  The interaction between the characters is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak and what it means. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Likewise, the love-struck mangy dog owner’s behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, but there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: his motivation has nothing to do with the dog and everything to do with the girl.  How little he must respect her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way.  One wonders whether he even loves her for herself; if he’s so willing to alter his outward image to impress her—and mask his inward nature—perhaps he is more attracted to her outward image than the person she is inside.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Competition can mask self-importance.  Affection can mask selfishness. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals.

Show multiple points of view

No one sees themselves the same way as others see them. If your story is told from characters’ points of view, you can readily exploit this contrast.  For example, the mangy dog owner may think he’s fooling the girl.  But from her point of view, we may understand that she sees right through him.  That, by the way, creates foreshadowing: readers will expect this difference of opinion to come to light in a dramatic clash.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs that goes deeper than simply showing this type of contrast, and it’s one you shouldn’t neglect.  Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is, can you show both sides while still leaving readers wondering who is right?  Can you show both sides without telegraphing whether the competitive friend is egomaniacal or simply fun-loving?

If so, that’s great.  Simply solving the mystery later will be satisfying.  But you can go further.  You also have the possibility of a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by showing yet another layer to the relationship, revealing that nobody is right!  Perhaps the friend is not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he may be creating competitive situations in a struggle to reassure himself of his own abilities.

But don’t let it be a meaningless reversal, there only to keep the reader guessing.  To really work, it had better be part of a character arc that is well supported by the rest of the story.  It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by showing them how to see your character’s earlier behavior in a new and revealing light.

Relationships are a deeply fertile ground for revealing our characters to readers.  This is no surprise.  We are social creatures.  In a sense, who we are is not only revealed by how we interact with others, but is defined by it.  These three short strategies only scratch the surface, but I hope they give you gives a taste of how characters—just like real people—go better together than alone.

Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at

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