9 Ways to Approach Relationship Dynamics in Fiction

Creating an amazing supporting cast that can offer important relationship dynamics in fiction will also help develop your protagonist. This isn’t just because great supporting characters will add color, drama, and nuance to your story in their own right. It’s also because every supporting character in your story has the ability to bring out new dimensions and complexities within your exploration of your protagonist.

The primary way this is done is simply through the relationship dynamics between your protagonist and other characters. Mary Carolyn Davies’ famous wedding poem “Love” suggests:

I love you,
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am
When I am with you.

Arguability of the notion’s simplicity aside, this does offer a perspective on how a person tends to be at least slightly different in every different relationship. Different people bring out different facets of our personalities. This should hold true for our protagonists as well.

I was pondering this recently after experiencing a random memory of The Andy Griffith Show. My family watched this classic sit-com over and over and over again when I was young, so I kinda tend to see the world through a Mayberry-tinted haze. (My sister and I slay at the game Taboo when we’re on the same side; all we need is an Andy Griffith reference to communicate telepathically: “You remember when Barney tried to invite Thelma Lou on a date but Opie answered the phone?” “Duck pond!”)

Anyway, not to digress, but my random musing was about how hapless deputy Barney Fife’s every relationship in this show served to bring out a different dynamic within his personality, always to comedic effect. His relatively healthy friendship with his boss Andy showed him as a (mostly) respectful subordinate. But whenever he’d deputize the even more hapless Gomer, he’d turn into a mini-tyrant. More conscious characters like Andy would rarely bump Barney’s fragile ego or antagonize him, but others like town drunk Otis refused to play along with Barney’s delusions of grandeur and would unhesitatingly initiate schoolyard-esque squabbles. Even Barney’s sweet relationship with his official girlfriend Thelma Lou was different from the pseudo-suave persona he used with his “telephone” girlfriend Juanita.

Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret

Part of why this example is so fun—and obvious—is that Barney was an extremely unstable personality who switched personas frequently in order to try to boost or cover up his own raging insecurity. But even with a more mature character, the opportunities are just as rich for dramatizing different facets within different relationships.

A Few Different Approaches to Character Dynamics

Other than just trying to make “every relationship different,” there are also a few more strategic approaches for diversifying your protagonist’s personality via his interactions with other characters.

The Three Primary Characters—and Their Proxies

One of my favorite lenses for examining the roles of characters within plot and theme is to remember there are really only three types of character in any story.

1. Protagonist

2. Antagonist

3. Relationship Character

The protagonist is the central character, whose actions drive the forward progression of the plot. The resolution of this character’s goal (in the story or, on a smaller scale, in any given scene) determines the shape of the story.

The antagonist is the character (or characters or entity) who opposes the protagonist’s forward momentum in the story or in any scene.

And the relationship character is the character who in some way inspires or impacts the protagonist’s motives, actions, and growth.

Obviously, most stories contain far more than just three characters. But if you view your cast through this lens, you will begin to discover the core purpose of any character’s role in your story. Theoretically, every character in a tight story will be one of these three—or represent one of the main three by acting as a proxy in some way. The relationship character, especially, may be “divided” into different characters who can thematically represent different motivating or driving factors to the protagonist (e.g., parent, love interest, child, etc.).

Truby’s 4-Sided Conflict

Anatomy of Story John TrubyIn his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby speaks of “four-sided conflict,” which he illustrates as a rectangle, with a different character at each corner and arrows connecting them all. His idea of story’s relational conflict is that it should not be isolated to simply the protagonist and the antagonist. Rather, every character in the story should be in conflict (whether large or small) with every other character.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to hate each other and be in open war. But even within friendships and loving families, power dynamics (and sometimes outright struggles) are always at play. Even when we are on the best of terms with someone else, we still want something from that person and that person wants something from us. But what you want from your mother is not the same thing you want from your boss, and what you want from your boss is not the same thing you want from the gas-station attendant. The dynamic is different in every case.

By keeping this in mind and remembering that all supporting characters are a universe unto themselves—with their own burning needs, desires, and weaknesses, same as your protagonist—you can keep tabs on how each unique character might in turn bring out something unique in your protagonist.

Parallel Characters

Screenwriter Matt Bird uses the phrase “parallel characters” to describe how each supporting character should mirror something in the protagonist You can also zoom this out a bit and examine how each supporting character can represent the thematic premise in a different way. This gives the protagonist the opportunity to interact with many different moral, philosophical, and practical facets of the central dilemma, which can be dramatized via his or her own strong reactions to these other characters.

6 Different Polarities to Explore in Relationship Dynamics in Fiction

Here are six simple but powerful dynamics you can explore by creating unique relationship dynamics in fiction between your protagonist and the supporting cast. Each is a polarity, a set of opposites. If you can figure out a way to realistically create competing relationships in which your protagonist alternately plays either role, you might find out some things even you didn’t know about your characters!

1. Friend/Enemy

We all need friends, but most protagonists will find at least a few enemies as well. This is usually the most obvious relational polarity in fiction, since we tend to think of conflict in terms of enemies and allies. Regardless what type of story you’re writing and which category is emphasized, be sure you offer a contrast. More than that, consider how your protagonist will interact with each category. He’ll be comfortable with a friend character, but uncomfortable or even aggressive with an enemy character. One gets his love and devotion (or not?); the other gets his resistance or worse. However high or low the stakes, the protagonist’s mode of interaction between these two types of supporting character will be wildly different.

2. Superior/Subordinate

Like our friend Barney Fife, it’s probable your protagonist will encounter some supporting characters who are her superiors and others over whom she herself wields authority. How is she different in these different relationships? Is she respectful to both her superiors and her subordinates? Is she more responsible to one or the other? Does one or the other bring out her insecurities and her ego-defense tactics? The point isn’t that she needs to response well to one person and badly to the other. But if you can emphasize a difference of some kind, you’ll find the hidden complexity.

3. Attack/Defend/Withdraw

These are three common relational reactions. Examine which is your protagonist’s favored mode when under pressure. But also examine your supporting characters. If they’re all reacting with the same mechanism, that’s a missed opportunity for depth. Moreover, there may be reasons why your protagonist (or other characters) choose different tactics in different scenarios. You don’t want to be too random here, but it can be powerfully revealing when a character whose default mode is to “attack,” suddenly chooses to instead “withdraw.”

4. Passive/Aggressive

As we explored earlier this year in our lengthy series about the shadow polarities of various archetypes, most unbalanced responses fall into one of two categories: passive or aggressive. Which does your protagonist favor? And which do your supporting characters prefer? Obviously, the passive/aggressive polarity falls into line with the above categorization of “withdraw/attack.” I would tend to put the classic designation of passive-aggressive (as a third category) in line with “defend” (not in the sense of defending healthy boundaries, but rather in the sense of being “defensive” in a reactionary way).

5. Positive/Negative

Is your protagonist the type whose initial response is more likely to be “yes” or “no”? Does he see his interactions with other people as if the world were half full or half empty? (And, note, that the two questions don’t necessarily align.) We can add “realist” as a third option, although in this context I would differentiate it as simply someone who is centered and does not use a determinedly negative or positive mindset in a reactionary or defensive way. Characters who favor either positivity or negativity can be used to exaggerated and comedic effect, but played with more subtlety they can simply be used to challenge your protagonist’s moods and views in different relationship dynamics.

6. Confident/Insecure

Can’t use Barney Fife as an example without bringing up this one. We all have insecurities, although some of us mask them (even from ourselves) better than others, but we can depend on its being a sliding scale. Examine your protagonist and the characters surrounding her. The interesting question isn’t so much “Who is more insecure than the others?” but rather “How do they each exhibit, cover up, or compensate for their individual insecurities?” And how might their insecurities—or lack thereof—interact with other characters’ insecurities?

***

Because all characters in a book ultimately arise from one personality—the author’s—it can be easy to miss opportunities for adding complexity to your cast. Simply in noticing whether or not every character interacts with the protagonist a little differently, you can begin to observe where your characters may be a little too homogeneous and how you can increase both complexity and realism.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do some of your supporting characters bring out different relationship dynamics in fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Katherine Briggs says

    Thank you! This is great.

  2. Oh, this is right on time. The other day I was looking at the story pitch-bible for the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica.” For each of the principle characters in the series, the creators made note of their character arcs, especially how certain characters will interact with each other.

    They intended for Laura Roslin and Admiral Adama to bond; they explained the push-pull between Kara Thrace and Lee Adama, how Lee Adama and Laura Roslin will form a bond, how the Admiral will get along with Saul Tigh, etc. Each relationship was calculated to show different aspects of a given character, e.g., the Admiral’s backstory with his own parents influences his perceptions of Roslin’s policies.

    The BG creators planted enough plot bunnies and seeds just simply by accounting for how different characters’ outlooks and behaviors would play against another character’s. This made me ponder adding “character interactions” to those character “dossiers” or worksheets.

    However, I needed a good focus for how to *effectively* approach thinking about this aspect of character arcs. And along comes your post. Thanks!

  3. Meredith Gundale says

    I love that show! It always made me laugh so hard! I have 4 siblings, and tons of friends, and whenever we watch it, we crack up so hard!

  4. “Everybody Loves Raymond” is another great example of characters we know so well and expect their interaction with each other. The doting mother, the insecure Raymond, the jealous brother, the long-suffering wife. etc. The action and incidents let us know the deep personality of each of them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve never actually watched a full episode, but coincidentally, I was just thinking about that show this morning.

      • Colleen F. Janik says

        You have got to watch a that program. There were some amazingly memorable episodes: the one where Raymond’s mother tried to teach him the piano again as an adult, the one where Raymond’s mother and wife have a competition of sorts over who makes the best beef bourguignon, the one where the couple’s Christmas company shows up at an ‘inopportune’ time (so funny). The competition between the brothers and the wife and mother-in-law is brilliant and so funny.

      • Try it, Katie, you’ll love it. The characters are deep and they are formed by interaction with supporting characters and sometimes strangers which cements the validity of what you were thinking. Episode after episode builds a long term relationship with the watcher and the reader. You ARE PART of the family and can predict readtions (and have fun verifying your analysis of character) Super writing.

  5. L. Daved Morris says

    Thank you for this lesson and illustrations.

  6. John Warfield says

    This was a good post among many as a lot of stories I’ve read seem to lack this approach and feature characters whose interactions are either too polar or poorly defined. It doesn’t seem to take much to add character depth even through dialogue tone. Once again you’ve pointed out what needed pointing out…

    Heading to my character bios to tweak….

    Thanks again, Katie 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Giving a character a range of relationships is perhaps one of the fastest and “easiest” ways to create dimension.

  7. Another great post! I used to do this frequently when I wrote fantasy, but haven’t done it that much with my romances—except my trilogy, which had a strong fantasy component. I think I did this a little the other day in my WIP. A character who is usually defensive with the people the pair of investigators question was deferential with a priest. We discover (I discovered!) that character was raised Catholic and the priest reminded him of his dead parents, whom he adored. I didn’t think of it then as a withdrawal, but I guess it was, and it gave me (and his romantic interest) a new look at that character and his backstory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Romances can be trickier, since they’re hyper-focused on a single relationship. You don’t want the supporting relationships to be incidental, but they do have the opportunity to bring in a lot nuance.

  8. Wow!

    Now I have an expanded set of criteria to develop and distingush the characters in my novel from one another. Just reading this post for the first time really got my creative juices flowing and thinking about layers I can add to different characters. Am going to go back and study these different approaches in detail.

    As always, thank you for the insight, Katie!

  9. Colleen F. Janik says

    I love this! This is so much what my current project is about and has added so much more to what I’m working with. It is so much to take in in one sitting. I’m so excited, I’m making new notes for my novel, then going back to your post. It is incredibly exciting to me to see the characters in this way, It adds so much LIFE to these people. So exciting. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yay! It *is* exciting. Nothing beats that feeling when character interactions just leap off the page.

  10. Profoundly helpful.

  11. I’m currently writing a first draft. There have been points where I’ve been a bit stuck, then I remembered, ‘hey, these two characters are still around, what do they want in this situation? I assigned them goals and then made them do something to get them. Those two want opposite things, and they both influence the protagonist to get what they want. That got the plot unstuck. (In this case, both of these characters qualify as ‘relationship characters’ since they make the protagonist’s arc more complicated rather than have their own fully-developed arcs).

    I think the relationship dynamics are a large part of why the Mahabharata fascinates so many people over so many centuries (and across cultures too). The relationship networks are so complicated that it’s overwhelming to someone new to the story (some characters have a hundred siblings, some characters have multiple wives, one character has multiple husbands, some characters have two fathers, and that’s just the family relationships, there are also characters who are reincarnations of dead characters, and there are teacher-student relationships, then there are the characters who owe another character a favor or who bear a grudge they will avenge one day). However, once someone has their head wrapped around all this, it provides rich opportunities for showing facets of different characters through their different relationships.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think this is also one of the reasons Game of Thrones garnered such a following: the web of character relationships were vast and varied.

  12. It looks like my previously submitted comment got eaten by the spam filter, so here’s the short version: using relationship dynamics to show different facets of a protagonist (or antagonist for that matter) is great.

  13. I had not seen that scene when Barney tried to invite Thelma Lou on a date but Opie answered the phone and didn’t understand the reference to the Duck Pond. But your comment peaked my interest so I found it online – classic Barney and very funny! So I got both some useful knowledge and a good chuckle out of your post. Thanks for both!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s one of my fave episodes. 🙂 It’s called “The Rivals,” for anyone else who is interested.

  14. Rather than go to my NIP, I’m going to touch on a short story I’m working on write now (pun intended). The protagonist is a sentient magical bow, brought into being to kill a tyrant and bound to a young boy from about age five. The bow and the boy develop kind of an Andy and Barny relationship, complicated when he takes the bow hunting and learns that killing causes it extraordinary pain and weakness. So the skinny little boy goes out and spends years making him self into an axe man, and the bow helps him, but doubts it will work. Along the way the bow realizes that the good wives whose magic created her, see this as a suicide mission, and notices that her boy is not being taught much else. So the boy isn’t very smart, but is tenderhearted and the bow does the thinking and provides guidance. Along the way, the bow becomes tempted to lead them away, and knows she can convince the boy, but isn’t able to find it in its own heart to make the boy live the life he would after betraying his village. So they go through with it, pushing forward through a combination of his brawn and her brains. Until they reach the tyrant who immediately traps them. Then we get to the twist at the end.

  15. Grace Dvorachek says

    I don’t think I’d ever quite looked at the dynamic between characters this way. I love the idea of supporting characters bringing out different sides of the MC… again, I’d been subconsciously doing a bit of this already, but it certainly eases the process when I know the reasoning behind it. This may also help me to create characters that are more complex, since their relationship with each supporting character will bring out a different side of them.

    In the most recent draft of my medieval novel, I have a lot of supporting characters, and I didn’t realize until now how they bring out different reactions in one of my MCs in particular. With her husband (Adric), Eris is more reasonable and tame. With the other MC (Orwyn), Eris’ harsh, vengeful side is unleashed. With Kade, she shows great intelligence and skill. With Zayden, she shows a humorous, light-hearted side. With Duke Sorik and Captain Rian, her worst bitterness and hatred manifests itself. With her sister (Brynn) and her best friend (Shanna), Eris is more compassionate and kind. With Wulf, she is both no-nonsense and fiery.

    Character relationships are one of my favorite parts of writing, so thank you for shedding more light on the subject!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’ve got a well-rounded dynamic!

    • Miriam Harmon says

      Wow, that sounds amazing! Creating so many different “masks” of your character and having them revealed to different characters really is a wonderful accomplishment, in my opinion. I can relate to someone wearing different “masks” or “personas” when interacting with certain people. I once made a character who had multiple personalities, two positive and two negative, and he’d only switch to a negative if he was somehow reminded of his past (the ghost). But I’ve never managed to have a character show a completely different aspect of her personality depending on who she was talking to.
      Keep up the great work! 😄

  16. A great post. And timely. I have a large cast of characters in my fantasy series. I have two characters who always rub each other up the wrong way, and a power struggle for leadership, but I need to look into the other characters, too, I think, now I’ve read this.

    • First time listener/reader here. Reference to Ol’ Barn drew me in 😉. Loved it. A new character recently showed up in something I’m working on and I wasn’t sure whether to keep him. After reading/listening to this he’s staying! Now off to watch “The Rivals” and then get down to work. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds ripe with fun opportunities!

  17. Thank you, and this article is helping me think through how to reposition my protagonist, based on his reactions to other characters.

  18. This is a great post, thank you! One reason why I love ensemble casts is that I cannot fathom the idea of a single protagonist. Life is all about relationships and interaction, inter- and intra-personal.

  19. Tom Youngjohn says

    I just love her voice. Her professional wisdom is a secondary consideration. 🤣

  20. Great content in this post. Thanks. I’ll be posting the link on my blog.

  21. Only three types of character?

    What about when the Protagonist and the MC are different? (or as I like to call them, the Effort Figure and the Change Figure)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The protagonist and the main character, even when split into two characters, are still representing a single protagonistic/forward-moving force within the story. So I would class them as the same “type,” just as an antagonist can have many proxies.

  22. This post is so relatable because Andy Griffith is near the top of my all-time favorite shows. It’s also my favorite “background noise” when I write, read… or do just about anything! My seven-year-old nephew visits often and I even have him hooked on the show, although he focuses more on characters than plot. (Future writer?) His favorites are Opie and Otis, and he was totally jazzed to find out Ron Howard and I share a birthday! (Tomorrow!)

    Thanks for another great post that I can put to immediate use!

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