There’s a couple of unwritten tenets for writing for performance and even Improv comedy, but what seems to carry controversy is the notion that focusing on relationships is always a priority to plot. The difference here, is you can put two characters together in any situation, and the idea is to focus on how they react to it, rather than the story that develops. If two characters are planning a bank robbery, or found a mysterious package, the notion is to see how they think and bounce off each other, and this should be more important than the robbery or what is even inside the package.
It’s easy to bristle at this idea, as everyone loves a good story. Surely, the characters are there as tools to guide the audience and reader to the conclusion. Most people I have met share this philosophy, and at first I did too. I wanted to see cool, funny stories play out, and use my characters simply as conduits for that to action. However the question remains, if we don’t care about the characters, then why should we care about the story?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this tenet carries on from not just performances, but to almost any story I care about, even the ones with the best plots, twists and turns, I was invested in those because I was invested in the characters, and how they react to each other and the world at large.
Sitcoms only work because of relationships. Friends, Brooklyn 99, It’s Always sunny in Philadelphia, any popular comedy show is funny because of each different, vibrant personality mixing together in a variety of crazy situations. When you break down Brooklyn 99, episode by episode, it’s all very samey. A situation occurs, the cast splits up into groups of three, someone realises it’s an aspect of their personality that is causing problems, they resolve it and everything is fine at the end. Rinse and repeat for six seasons. So why do I keep re-watching it, and why is it one of my favourite TV shows of all time? Because It’s the way the characters interact with each other. Jake’s immaturity vs Holt’s stoic professionalism, Amy’s dedication to Gina’s carefree anarchism, Charles’s passion to Diaz’s reclusiveness. They bounce off each other, learn from each other and they clash, and that’s what we find ourselves interested episode by episode. If each character was a little more similar, or the writer’s didn’t bother to show us how they react firstly to each other, and then to the situation underhand, and then to the resolution, we would just be watching events play out without any kind of investment or humour.
One of my favourite examples of how characters interacting can lead to us investing in the interesting events unfolding around them, would be Game of Thrones, and A song of Ice and Fire that is based on. You might think that this is just alot of really great ideas coalescing and intertwining, but would you have cared about the Red Wedding if you didn’t think Robb was an underdog who might succeed and befriend Walter Frey? Would you have been hyped for the Suicide Squad in Season 7 if we didn’t see all of these bad-ass characters fight in their own separate threads up until this point? Would we have loved the Battle of the Bastards if we didn’t want Jon to get revenge so badly?
For the duration of the series, (Up until season 8 amiright?) the true joy of the show was watching these characters go through their separate journeys and then uniting with other characters in unexpected ways. Like when The Hound and Arya set off on a road trip, trading snipes and growing to respect each other a little, or Jaime and Brienne growing to love each other a little. My personal favourite aspect is the relationship between Jon, the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch, and how his loyalties bend, change and evolve, which shows his ideologies change, through the people he meets and the bonds they create.
The idea of relationships can be broad however, it does not have to extend from a pair, or a group of people. Sometimes it can be between a character and a location. In this I think of multiple characters from the Harry Potter series, and their absolute ties to Hogwarts. Harry, Ron and Hermione and their other friends find their place a safe haven from their other lives, and when Professor Trewlany is heart-achingly kicked out of her home by the Über-bitch Umbridge, we feel that because for five films prior, we have seen how much of a home it can be to the characters.
Sometimes it can be a relationship to an object, such as in Lord of the Rings, every character seems to have some sort of direct or indirect relationship to the One Ring, which they all vocalise. This leads to conflict, coveting and acts of sacrifice, which entangle and develop as the films go on.
Finally. a relationship is built between the audience and a character. As superficial as it may be, we may still root for, or learn to despise whoever is on our screens. We don’t care about the idea of a midget walking through a volcano, but we do when it is Frodo, because we’ve seen his journey and his struggles, and we want him desperately to succeed.
I believe it’s an easy thing to dismiss, but if you start thinking about it a little deeply, it can change your perspective on writing, and shift your focus to character dynamics. Good relationships between good characters is the reason why your audience will be interested in the first place. Think about how different personalities react to each other, to situations and locations. Give them voices, opinions and let us see how that reacts to the world you have created.
Do you agree? Do you have any examples of good relationships you admire? Let’s talk about it.