Hot Tip for Character Relationships: The Relationship IS a Character

Character relationships are at the heart of most stories. Few protagonists successfully exist in a vacuum. Most will be contextualized by their supporting cast. More than that, the relationships between characters are often the single most interesting and entertaining element in any story.

When asking me about my own fiction, people sometimes wonder where I find my first germ of an actionable idea: plot or character? My answer is that I never know if I have a story worth telling until I have two characters talking to each other. (And, of course, that is plot at its simplest.)

Certainly, as a reader or viewer, I am usually less engaged by any one character than I am by character relationships. This dynamic is most obvious in relationship-oriented stories such as romances, but it is key in genres of all sorts. For example, the reason I love the film Warrior isn’t so much because I particularly like any one character, but rather because I am engaged by the relationship between the the two estranged brothers who will end up fighting each other. (Although let’s be honest, hot Tom Hardy doesn’t hurt.)

Warrior Tommy and Brendan Conlon Tom Hardy Joel Edgerton

Warrior (2011), Lionsgate.

This seems obvious enough, but it’s surprising how often writers take for granted the importance of character relationships. I have read and watched waaaaayyy too many stories that sidelined their most important character relationships—and ended up boring and frustrating me as a result. This happens most often in series, in which authors attempt to add layers and deepen complexity by splitting up characters to create new subplots. However, this doesn’t always work for the simple reason that this approach can end up removing or shortchanging the story’s best element.

Think of Character Relationship as “The Third Entity”

One of the simplest tricks for leveraging character relationships in your story is to stop thinking about a fictional relationship as a sum of its parts (i.e., two different characters who come together wherever it is convenient for the author) and instead to start thinking of the relationship as an entity of its own.

Actually, there is a deeper truth here. Every relationship is, in fact, its own entity. Let’s say you and I are friends. Within this equation, there is the entity that is you as an individual, the entity that is me as an individual, and the third entity that is our relationship. The relationship is its own thing, has its own energy, its own container, its own goals and purposes. Healthy relationships are those that are less about one person nurturing the other and more about both people nurturing the container that is the relationship itself.

In Attached, doctors Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller call this a “biological truth”:

Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.

This is a helpful perspective through which to view relationships in our own lives, but it is also a useful way to think of character relationships. In any two-party relationship, you will be dealing with three entities: the two characters and the relationship itself.

When you view character relationships in this way, you can start plotting with not just the characters in mind but also their relationship. This is also a simple means for ensuring your story does not become too plot-centric. Even if the dynamic between your characters is entirely focused on working toward a mutual goal, you get to use this goal to facilitate the third entity, which is the relationship.

What If You Need to Split Up Your Characters?

Focusing on character relationships is easy as long as you’re writing a relatively simple story that allows characters to remain in the same setting with the same goal. But what if you’re writing a sprawling, plot-heavy story, in which logistics require characters to split up and go their own way? Will this irrevocably damage your story and frustrate readers?

It depends. Here are a few options, depending on the needs of your story.

Avoid Splitting Up Character Relationships

It’s always a bit dicey to split up characters who have a good dynamic. If you’ve been fortunate enough to write a character relationship that your audience loves experiencing, then destroying or suspending that dynamic may not be your smartest choice. Before proceeding, dig deep enough to examine whether this is truly the best option for your story. Your audiences is here, first and foremost, not because they want the plot to work—but because they want to be entertained. Or as Matt Bird says in Secrets of Story:

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

Obviously, the plot is important too, but if you bore or annoy your audience, they may not stick around to experience the plot.

Take a step back and truly consider whether pulling an established and successful character relationship is your best bet. Several fantasy stories pop to mind that lost me because they isolated the protagonist from the relationship dynamics that were initially most interesting to me. Beware of overcomplicating your plot at the expense of the most foundational elements. Sometimes  the simplest aspects of a story are the ones that offer the most potential for success.

Choose the Most Interesting Group Pairings

If you’ve double-checked yourself and decided that, yes, splitting up your characters is your best choice, make sure you’re replacing the lost relationship dynamic with a new one. Just as audiences can (and should) enjoy more than one character, they can also enjoy more than one relationship dynamic. Accomplishing this requires care. Particularly if the initial relationship dynamic was excellent, you’ll have to dig deep to make sure the new ones measure up.

If you’re splitting your cast into multiple groups (presumably so they can cover more ground in the plot), then make sure you are creating pairings that offer the most bang for your buck. Look for characters who have chemistry and/or natural antagonism. The best character relationships are usually those that prompt significant growth for one or both characters. This can be accomplished in multiple ways, but the simplest is to make sure these characters have rough edges that rub against each other.

The show Stranger Things generally does an outstanding job of this. Throughout its first four seasons, it successfully juggles its huge cast into multiple different pairings, allowing audiences to experience the characters in different dynamics that reveal different aspects of their personalities.

Stranger Things (2016-), Netflix.

Most importantly, all of the relationships offer stakes that are equally meaningful. For example, Dustin cares as much about his relationship with Steve as he does his relationship with Mike as he does his relationship with Suzie—and all three relationships are also important and interesting to audiences, allowing Dustin to successfully move about the storyworld without viewers ever feeling the show is missing out on something vital.

Provide New Relationship Entities

If you need to send a character into an entirely new situation, you may find you need to introduce new character relationships altogether. You must promptly establish that the new characters can offer just as much entertainment value as those from previous relationships (something Stranger Things failed at in the notorious Episode 7 from Season 2, which focuses on Eleven’s interval with the punk robbers led by her superpowered “sister” Kali).

Stranger Things (2016-), Netflix.

The key is to ensure new characters are not simply placeholders within the plot until your primary character can return to previous relationships. Although this means digging deep to make sure these new supporting characters are as dimensional as anyone else in the story, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character requires a huge backstory and lots of detail. What’s important is that the relationship dynamic is charged enough to be entertaining. Your audience needs to be so engaged with this new relationship that they will want to experience it for its own sake, rather than wanting to skip ahead to get back to a more interesting dynamic.

For example, when the fellowship breaks in The Lord of the Rings, characters go off in different directions, all of them forming new relationships—all of which are dimensional and thematically entertaining in their own right. Most of members of the huge cast in this story are not introduced until the second installment, but almost all of them are so fully realized in their relationships with the original cast members that they are just as iconic as those from the first book.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema.

Make the Time Apart About the Relationship

If a certain relationship is of primary importance to the story and yet you still feel the need to split up the characters for a time, consider how you can make their time apart about the relationship, thereby keeping alive the original dynamic. This is by far the trickiest aspect to pull off, but sometimes it must be done due to the logic of the plot or simply to create the necessary stakes or consequences of time spent apart.

>>Click here to read “How to Structure Stories With Multiple Main Characters?”

Warrior did this well; the brothers are hardly ever together within the story’s timeline, yet their relationship is always front and center.

Tom Hardy as Tommy Conlon in Warrior 5

Warrior (2011), Lionsgate.

Another successful example is from the western romance Sing My Name by Ellen O’Connell, which splits up the romantic couple for a lengthy section, but keeps readers attention via skillful characterization as well as all of the abovementioned techniques.

What Creates Successful Character Relationships?

Character relationships offer a vehicle for expanding and improving almost every aspect of fiction.

Character relationships are at the heart of character arc and development, providing catalysts and conflict to reveal personality and to prompt growth and change.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Character relationships create a medium in which to develop the plot. Protagonist and antagonist are the most obvious duo to drive plot, but any important relationship in fiction offers the opportunity for stakes and consequences. Relationships highlight what is important in a character’s life (whether the relationship is what’s most important or not), offering motivation for all actions.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

Character relationships are also the proving ground of theme. The differences and similarities amongst characters is what offers the thematic contrast and context that illustrates any thematic argument. Therefore, good character relationships are simply good fiction. If your character arcs, plot, and theme are working well, it’s likely because the foundation of good character relationships is already in place.

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

More than that though, character relationships give birth to one of the single most entertaining aspects of fiction: dialogue. Whether or not a character relationship works and engages readers depends in large part on how well the dialogue works. If the characters’ chemistry allows them to demonstrate and develop the relationship through skillful dialogue, it’s almost a sure bet audiences will like the dynamic and want to follow it through the story.

This is obviously true in a relationship-centric story, but it’s just as true in stories in which the primary relationship character functions as little more than a dialogue buddy. For example, most of us enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories as much for the dynamic between Holmes and Watson as for the plot elements of the mysteries.

sherlock holmes lessons for writers

Sherlock Holmes (2009), Warner Bros.

Perhaps the single most useful litmus test for successful character relationships is simply whether or not they matter.

  • How does the relationship affect the outcome of the plot?
  • How does the plot affect the outcome of the relationship?
  • How is this relationship a proving ground for everything that happens in this story (whether your story features a romantic couple or a parent-child dynamic or friends or colleagues or enemies or strangers who pass in the night)?

Ask yourself whether engaging character relationships show up on every page of your story. If yes, that’s your first green light. Then ask whether the prominent character relationships matter to the story. If yes, that’s your second green light—and you’re good to go.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think creates dynamic and engaging character relationships? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. Petra Veenstra says

    thanks for the thought, the relationship is a character. Now i have something to chew on! The interesting relationships i like to read about thrive on the opposites between the protagonist and antagonist. In a lovestory this is clear, like in pride and prejudice, but also in al lot of other love storys. Almost allways the question is: can the lovers change enough so that they can come together.
    Jill Chamberlain, a script consultant, who developed the nutshell technique for writing, asks the question if the protagonist can overcome his flaw towards his strength .The flaw is what you call the lie. In creating characer arcs you deepend this subject in many ways, amoung others in adding the ghost. ( i hope i am correct so far?)
    But in order to overcome a flaw you need action, and it needs at least 2 people to make clear what the story is about. If the second person only agrees with the first, you don’t have an antagonist. The second person isn’ that interesting, if he only agrees with the first.
    It even counts if you have a catastrophy. It only becomes an interesting story if several people react on different ways.
    For me the most interesting characters are the ones who have opposite meanings, believes, or goals. They are the best to show the lies of their counterpart. They are also the best characters to show the shadow of the other one or represent the antagonist.
    They can also be found in crime series, where unwilling commissioners, lying whitnesses or corrupt policemen are stopping the protagosist from finding the murder.
    Some of the most interesting character pairs for me are Frodo and Gollum and, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. If i had to say what character Frodo and Gollum are, y would say they are twins.

  2. Great post, thanks! Does the relationships of the main characters and the antagonist differ with the relationships between the main characters? I’m asking this because in my story the antagonist appear just few moments before the climax, although when he appears is to attack weak points of the main characters I’m not sure if it’s enough time to build a relationship. Given that the antagonist should build tension until the climax, I was wondering if there’s something we have to do differently to put the reader in a situation that the final encounter has more weight.
    Something not related: Do you have any tips on how to handle situations when characters are totally covered with costumes, like superheroes? I read one of your posts saying that if we cannot see the real person it’s difficult to empathize with them (like Hulk in some battles), but I couldn’t find a way to fix that. I guess one option is to do something like Marvel does with Ironman that they show him inside the suit, but they don’t do this with Spiderman.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The protagonist and antagonist don’t need to have a personal relationship, although the structural relationship needs to be appropriately represented throughout:

      I will be talking about how to utilize antagonistic proxies, in lieu of an appearance by the main antagonist, in a future post.

      As for showing your protagonist, this is usually a minor concern and can always be overcome by good characterization. If you’re writing a novel, versus a visual medium such as film, then it won’t matter at all.

      • C. O. Merp says

        Regarding characters in costumes, yes, it’s a matter of using other characterization tools. In my books I’ve had multiple OP warriors who like to wear masks or hide their identity in some other way. That’s where you pull out all the dialogue tricks to give us a sense of who this character is (or at least the face he wants to show the world!). Also, in that situation you can make capital out of other people’s reaction to him based on his reputation.

        • Thanks. In my case it’s for a game instead of a book. The characters in the game can eventually transform and I was worried if during that transformation the player will not feel connected with it since the character is not visible. But as you and KM mentioned, I just have to make them express themselves enough and show their emotions in the transformation, and hopefully everything will be fine.

      • I’ll be waiting for that antagonistic proxies post! In my story I have an antagonistic force (authoritarian system), where the protagonist wants to go against the system with their allies, but there’s an antagonist also going against the system using other methods with their allies, affecting the main characters. If you could mention a situation like that in the post it would be very helpful.

  3. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I hadn’t thought of looking at relationships as an entity unto themselves, but that’s a good idea.
    Here’s an idea for another post: How do you deal with relationships when the protagonist is isolated from all other humans? I can think of two examples off the top of my head: the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks, and Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ha. I just rewatched Cast Away last night. The most pointed answer is that these types of stories naturally expect more from the audience and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (pointing to one possible reason Russell Crowe’s role in Gladiator beat out Tom Hanks for that year’s Oscars). However, even in stories like this, there are ways to “fake” relationships for the sake of character development, as we see in Cast Away with the device of Wilson the volleyball as Hanks’s companion and “dialogue buddy” while on the island.

  4. Great post as always! Would you mind elaborating a little bit on the part that, if the primary relationship has to be split up for a time being, how to keep the dynamic and the presence of that relationship felt by the reader? Is it done, among other things, via their thoughts of one another, internal dialogue related to their relationship/ split, via showing how the splitting up is affecting their lives – both inner and outer?
    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes to all of the above. But there is more than a bit of an “it” factor at play. It’s tough to make this work well and simply having one character thinking about the other isn’t necessarily going to engage readers. The secret, IMO, is creating drama *through* the separation. What is actually interesting about the characters being *apart*? Why does their separation make the story more interesting? If it doesn’t, then it very likely *isn’t* interesting enough to really sustain the separation in a way that makes it as compelling as the “together” scenes.

  5. Character relationships are exactly the dividing line for me on whether characters are real or cardboard. If Merry is just cardboard then him appearing on the road at the moment Frodo and Sam are concerned about Ringwraiths (in the book version of Fellowship of the Ring) is just a jump scare. Or he wouldn’t be there at all.

    But Merry explains he’s on the road because Frodo was late in arriving, and he was worried Frodo had fallen into a ditch while traveling in the night. For me that was the part where the Lord of the Rings came alive, because Merry’s actions were what a living, breathing human would do for a friend.

    This is another reason why I like to recommend the series pitch bible for Battlestar Galactica (available at Even if someone isn’t a fan of sci-fi or the show, take note of how they outline the character relationships and arcs between particular pairings (whether as friends, enemies, lovers, etc). It sets up many seeds, so it makes sense that Admiral Adama and Laura Roslin will clash (his backstory is that his mother was a civil rights attorney; Roslin is obliged to suspend civil rights for the sake of humanity’s survival). The writers specifically say they’re subverting expectations by having the admiral be the dove and the politician be the hawk (the rough edge to rub against).

    Often writers like to use “character sheets” that delve into a character’s personality and backstory. I think it is worth it to add a section for how a given character gets along with other characters, and consider the arc of their relationships.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I’m adding that to my own character interview list right now! (As I’m neck deep in character interviews for my WIP.)

  6. I’m planning/writing the better part of a novel in which the core relationship is split up (for plot reasons), which includes magic which makes it difficult for them to remember where the others are and if they encounter each other they will have great difficulty recognizing each other. So I struggle with this. I fear dropping in too many reminders of the relationship might annoy the reader or distract from the present action, but if I ignore the relationship then it feels like it doesn’t matter. (context: one of the characters involved uses the magic on purpose so that if the other gets caught and interrogated she can’t give away their refuge’s location, not sure if the character who uses magic will disclose this or ask for consent in advance)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, you gotta love these complicated plot situations we so willingly get ourselves into. 😉

  7. Love this! And you’re right–I’ve stopped reading series in the past when a relationship that kept me engaged disappeared, even when the worldbuilding or plot was unique/interesting. I’ve also stuck with books with poorer plot structure all the way to the end because the characters are engaging and entertaining.

    Your post also makes me think about the relationship that my protag has with herself. Just as I have a constant inner monologue when going about my own day, so does my main character (well, hers isn’t constant to avoid annoyance from readers, but it’s there nonetheless). And I enjoy reading inner monologues or writing styles that keep the point of view very close to the character’s emotions. I feel that it gives me a deeper, more intimate relationship with the character.

    It’s this inner monologue (or dialogue perhaps) that somewhat personifies the Lie and the Truth borne out of it. The internal conflict is that fighting relationship between the Lie and the Truth, though Truth starts out as more of a small tickle inside the mind and grows with the story. Obviously it’s not an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other situation where there is literal dialogue between the two, but I do think the push and pull has to be interesting.

    The trickiest part for me (and my question to you) is how to balance the two while infusing Truth over time at the right moments, but also making that internal dialogue and relationship between Truth and Lie interesting. Hoping that makes sense. 😆

    I have enjoyed reading your posts over the past several months. Not only have they increased my love for writing, but they have helped me understand my own personal growth as I pivot and grow into my next arc in life. ❤

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad you’re enjoying the posts. 🙂

      Internal dialogue is important for communicating a character’s evolution. However, the strongest moments for creating change in a character will almost always be those that are “shown” via a dramatized situation that, ideally, doesn’t require a lot of explanation from the character in order for the reader to understand how the catalyst has affected the character.

      Otherwise, it’s really just a matter of seeking to be as honest as possible at every moment of the character’s experience. What questions and quandaries would a person realistically be experiencing at any given moment in a transformation?

  8. This one made me think. I listened to it twice and reread parts of it. I don’t know that I think about the relationships as something separate from the characters themselves, trying to put characters together who are different in interesting ways, or the same in troublesome way. I think perhaps I should spend sometime noodling through the relationships separately. This is interesting stuff, though when I heard the title, I thought “oh boy, Katie’s finally going to dish on how to create saucy love scenes!” This might have been better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of course, not all stories will focus heavily on specific relationships, as when a character moves episodically through many meetings. But most stories are all the better for focusing on solid relationship dyamics for the protagonist.

  9. This post was really eye opening to me! I hadn’t even thought about the fact that it’s the relationships that draw me into books or shows. But looking back it was the tension between brother and sister that had me on the edge of my seat in my recent read. And I love how not only did you use lotr (my all time favorite movies) as an example, you specifically used the two towers which my family of ten just watch last night!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Two Towers is incredibly special to me as well. In a few months, I’m going to be posting a bit more about what makes it, specifically, so powerful.

  10. This is so helpful right now. I’ve been unhappy with my opening scene in which my mc is walking to work, so he’s alone. But I’m thinking now of highlighting his relationships (to family, employer, himself) to add some zing. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s great to open with dialogue in the first scene if it makes sense for the story. It’s a great hook and also offers lots of opportunities for characteristic moments and showing vs. telling.

  11. Your post reminded me of Supernatural, one of my favourite TV series. The relationship between the brothers, Sam and Dean, was the most interesting aspect of the series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I enjoyed it most in the early seasons when the focus was on monster-of-the-week with a heavy subplot of the brothers’ relationship.

  12. This really is the best tip I have received in a long time! I am finishing a historical novel and your suggestion to consider a relationship as its own entity is golden. You ask us for comments and maybe a tip back. In my story, the single mother (widowed) lives separated from her children due to tragic circumstances. The last quarter of the book she writes letters to the children about how she found the devastated village and how she is doing her best to make their house habitable again so that the children can come and live with their mother again. By the way, the letters are real and form a historical document.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That sounds like a lovely way to tie in the relationship even when the characters are apart.

  13. Jan Maarten Maarten Dalmeijer says

    Yes, it probably is. It was a decision I made on instinct, but your blog on the subject made me more aware of it. Many thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Instinctual decisions are usually the best! Always gratifying to have them consciously validated though. 🙂

  14. These days I right triangles. I’ve found in my own life navigating life in threes is more electric than navigating life in pairs. My definition for a relationship is an interaction between three people not two people.

    I write a protagonist.

    An antagonist.

    A sidekick.

    Three little pigs

    Goldilocks and the three bears

    Three blind mice

    Three wise men

    I use the rule of three in my own life and in my writing

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