5 Steps to Writing Great Character Chemistry

5 Steps to Writing Great Character Chemistry

5 Steps to Writing Great Character Chemistry PinterestWhat is character chemistry? And how can you use it to make your story un-put-down-able?

We most often hear about character chemistry in reference to actors—particularly those playing love interests to each other. Chemistry is hard to define but easy to spot. When two people show up on stage together and the result is a special “spark,” you know you’re seeing chemistry.

Chemistry is the “it” factor in all great fiction.

Scratch that.

It’s the “it” factor in life.

Consider some of the people you know. Even assuming you like them all equally, I’ll bet you don’t respond to them all in the same way when they walk into a party. Some of them get a smile and a casual wave from you. Others, however, light up the room. They amp up your energy, instantly make you happy, and make it easy for you to be your best self.

What Is Character Chemistry?

To one degree or another, chemistry exists in all relationships, whether they’re romantic, familial, friendly, or just casual. Some chemistry is positive; some negative. Either way, chemistry is basically just an energetic exchange between people.

Instinctively, humans respond to one another according to any number of social and subliminal signals that end up creating paradigms that belong uniquely to any two of us. It’s a subtle dance, in which we take cues from one another, testing out our moves, discovering to what degree we can unleash the full power of our personalities in an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony.

When we have great chemistry with someone, we discover an almost instinctive synchronization that allows us to rest into our peak energy while easily batting back and forth the ball of interaction.

Hello, friendly banter.

But chemistry doesn’t necessarily have to be friendly. We can potentially do this dance with our worst enemy just as surely as with the epic love of our lives.

And that’s where character chemistry becomes so valuable to fiction.

In fiction, as in life, the chemistry between people lifts simpleexchanges of dialogue or action beyond the status of basic information and into “entertainment.”

Think about some of your favorite scenes. What makes them great? They’re not doing anything more than presenting characters who are either showing or telling you something. And yet these scenes are branded into your brain. You love them. They’ve engaged you permanently, either because they’ve intellectually stimulated you, emotionally engaged you, or (a combination of the two) entertained you. I’m willing to bet my typewriter that character chemistry played a huge role in creating this dynamic (and, yep, even if the scene only featured one character—because, guess what? that character still has chemistry with you).

The Riddle of Character Chemistry

Long ago and far away, I ran a poll asking readers what they’d like me to write about. That was years ago and I’ve long since written about almost all of the viable ideas from that poll. The one that I neither wrote about nor threw away was a request for a post about—you guessed it—character chemistry.

I’ve been kicking that idea around for a long time, trying to get a handle on what it is that creates character chemistry. It’s such a nebulous thing, right? Even after I spent those nine paragraphs up there explaining what chemistry is, do we actually have any solid info on how to create it?

Nope.

It’s kind of like theme in that we all know it when we see it, but we don’t instinctively understand how to break down something so abstract into a practicable approach that can be applied consistently to our own characters.

Character chemistry shares another similarity with theme: it’s far too important to leave to the whims of our subconscious. Character chemistry can make all the difference in creating a superior story.

I’ve read far too many books that were excellent in all respects except their characters just flopped around on the page like dying fish. They were bland, they were boring, and they had zero chemistry. This is perhaps most obvious in by-the-numbers romance stories that throw flabby Marty-Stu and Mary-Sue characters together and expect readers to care just because there’s gonna be a kiss in the end.

Contrast that with books that offer great character chemistry. You know what I’m talking about: the ones where you just can’t wait for two particular characters (whether they’re romantic or not) to get together on stage because you know the results are going to be electric.

For a very basic example consider Barney and Otis in the classic sit-com The Andy Griffith Show. These archetypal frenemies lit up the screen with their bickering every time they were together.

Or how about Jo and Laurie from Little Women? There’s a reason everybody ships them—and it has nothing to with romance and everything to do with chemistry.

Or how about Cathy and Heathcliff’s love/hate relationship?

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Or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s odd-couple pairing?

How Scene and Chapter Length Control Pacing

Or friends-on-the-run Thelma and Louise?

Thelma and Louise Geena Davis Susan Sarandon

All of these characters are great in their own right. But they’re better together, yeah?

5 Ways to Create Scintillating Character Chemistry

Today, let’s consider five ways you can double your money by bringing your already-dynamic solo characters together in powerful ways.

1. Bring Together Two Lively Characters

Great character chemistry begins with great characters. Those flabby Marty-Stu and Mary-Sue characters I mentioned above aren’t ever going to light up a scene no matter how many chemistry-clever tricks you pull. The foundation of good fictional relationships is good characters.

This goes without saying. Still, creating these fabulous characters remains one of the greatest challenges in all fiction. Double-check yourself.

Have you created characters with:

2. Create the Dance of Opposition and Harmony

Remember that dance I talked about earlier? Character chemistry is never static. It is an ever-shifting dynamic of opposition and harmony.

The perfect example of this is banter. Whether in real life or in fiction, banter is a generally playful exchange that takes on the appearance of an argument, in which the engaged parties try to verbally one-up each other. This can have various undertones—from being totally lighthearted with no consequences to verging on a real dispute with grave stakes.

Great fiction is often noted for its witty banter, and great banter is always a sign of character chemistry.

Back to the dance metaphor: think about professional dancers out on the floor. They are always in sync, but they are always moving. One pushes, another yields. Then the roles are reversed. Back and forth, back and forth. They’re not fighting. Their energies are harmonized (in this instance, toward the mutual goal of a seamless performance), perfectly balanced against one another.

Even in instances where two characters are fighting (whether subtextually, verbally, or physically), the balance remains. They are evenly matched. Each gives as good as they get—and there is inevitably a certain measure of respect, one for the other’s skill.

Consider Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. They spar almost from the moment they meet. Their arguments are earnest, but their energy is always aligned. There’s a reason these two still top the list of fictional lovers, and that reason is character chemistry.

Jane Eyre Edward Rochester

3. Focus on Dynamic Character Archetypes

Again, this dance of character chemistry is founded on the adjoining ideas of resistance and acquiescence. Some of this can result from a careful use of character archetypes.

As in life, some of the best exchanges and relationships arise when one character pushes against his assumptions about the other character—only to eventually be met with resistance as those assumptions are subverted.

For example, the best banter always includes moments of surprise. The banter rolls on pretty much as expected—an instinctive script of classic responses—until suddenly one of the characters no longer fits the expected role. She says something unexpected, and the entire dynamic shifts. The other character is forced to adapt a new response.

Nowhere do we find better banter (or, generally, better character chemistry) than in the heyday of Golden Hollywood. For example, from one of the great romantic pairings of all time, William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man:

Nora: All right! Go ahead! Go on! See if I care! But I think it’s a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.

Nick: You wouldn’t be a widow long…

Nora: You bet I wouldn’t!

Nick: …Not with all your money.

Thin Man Nick and Nora William Powell Myrna Loy

4. Enact Change

The energy present in strong character chemistry means there must be movement. There must be progress. Evolution. Change.

Bringing together these two dynamic personalities on the page is like smashing clouds together in a thunderstorm. There’s gonna be lightning.

Mutually strong characters who share storytime for any length will necessarily change each other. Again, it is a search for balance. They spark against each other because of their differences, but if they’re to remain in the same space, they must each adapt. Either one completely overwhelms the other (as is usually the case with protagonist/antagonist relationships), or they start rubbing off a few of each other’s rough spots.

To some degree, the amount of change present will depend on the type of relationship you’re creating.

Relationshps like Barney and Otis’s in The Andy Griffith Show and Jack and Stephen’s in the Aubrey/Maturin series are designed around static characters. If they changed, the show would lose the opportunity to reuse their schtick time after time.

But in standalone stories, such as Little WomenWuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, the characters must change if they’re to reach their individual goals. It’s telling, in fact, that Cathy and Heathcliff—the one pairing in this group of examples that do not change—are the only ones who do not ultimately reach harmony in their relationship and success in their external goals.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

5. Create Coherent Conflict

In my opinion, here is the entire secret of character chemistry: it must be thematic.

What we call “chemistry” is what happens when we have two characters on the page whose interaction is interesting because it is pertinent to the theme, with each character illustrating different facets of both it and the conflict.

It’s “coherent conflict,” so to speak.

It’s completely possible to create characters who are witty and fun together even if they’re misplaced within the larger storyform. However, for character chemistry to be a worthy piece of a larger whole, it must, of course, contribute to that larger whole.

When character chemistry becomes the fuel in the engine of a well-designed story, it then becomes the driver for the back-and-forth piston of plot and theme.

In designing characters who will work well together, always look to theme first. How will they represent different facets of the thematic argument? How will they contrast each other’s pertinent strengths and weaknesses? How can these very differences become important catalysts within the story itself?

In short: it’s not enough to create characters who can argue in an entertaining way. You need to make sure these charged exchanges are moving the plot.

***

Character chemistry is one of the secret “it” factors of great fiction. Learn to inject it your own stories, and you can be sure you will create the kind of scenes that stick with readers long after they close your book.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you create character chemistry in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. GREAT thoughts. I’ve puzzled over this a lot, and this post was super helpful.

    I think one key ingredient in character chemistry that wasn’t specifically touched on here is when both characters want something different out of the relationship, or they both want the same thing but have completely different ideas about how to get it/how it SHOULD be gotten.
    Jane and Mr. Rochester, for instance. Excellent example. By the middle of the book they’re both very much in love, but Mr. Rochester has different ideas about how they should handle that than Jane does.
    In short, they are united in purpose but divided in outlook. The differing worldviews of the two characters push them apart while their common grounds struggle to pull them together, creating not only great interpersonal conflict but extremely resonant inner conflict as well.
    I don’t know if this would work as a rule of thumb for every character relationship ever, but for my part this is one of my favorite things to both read and write. A wildly independent and distrustful protagonist who has his own way to make and wants to make it alone, but who also loves his big brother and desperately wants to make him proud— even though everything in his whole inner world revolts against trusting and working as a team as his brother insists he try to do.
    Or, in a slightly different twist on this kind of chemistry, a judge who needs information from a spunky and outrageously cheerful prisoner, but in the process of interrogating him ends up half-wishing they could be friends. The goal shifts despite the character’s stubborn determination to have what he needs, and instead it becomes an unrealistic wish that he could have what he wants. Which obviously he must deny himself. 😛

    It’s the same concept of the ‘dance of opposition and harmony’ you were talking about, but with an extra layer inside each character.

    Anyway, awesome post. I’ll be coming back to this one. 😉

  2. A lot to think about.

    Like Kate Flournoy said, a lot of it comes from opposition and harmony… or that could mean, to conflict and sometimes extending that to conflict about whether they’re in opposition at all.

    Some of that’s in the plot, and the background. When characters have clear reasons for wanting different things–or wanting the same but not in easy ways–and the story’s made us care about those, that sets everything up for chemistry the moment they’re together. And the more the plot shows them being active, actually changing the balance of who’s getting what, and surprising us with what comes next, the more putting those people together puts us on the edge of our seat. Is he finally going to apologize to her this time, and is it too late? Is one of them going to drop the battle of wits and just attack?

    And dialogue… is the same thing, in miniature. Each line is an exploration, of where they have common or how they fight out their differences. Dialogue simply lets us explore that at almost the speed of thought, with no slowing down to “do” something. Its strength and its weakness is that there’s less at stake usually: people can and will say anything, but it challenges a writer to make those clashes feel like they have enough weight to matter for the moment. Or for a conversation that changes the story to feel like it.

    Chemistry is conflict, I think. Even when characters aren’t “sparring” at all, it’s conflict between the best they can be for each other and what might be in the way. Great mentorships like Karate Kid and Spider-Man: Homecoming have a teacher with something to say and reasons (on both sides?) the student isn’t getting it for a while. Happy lovers can still touch us with the “conflict” of revealing what one really needed because the other saw it first, whether it’s the perfect reaassurance or calling them on their mistakes.

    It’s digging into how many reasons two characters might disagree… no wait, he might have just what she needs after all, if only… and of course she’d only do this HER way… However playful or serious it is, I think it’s all in making us believe in and care about the differences between them, and whatever it’s working its way towards.

    It’s all pure storytelling, brought down to two people.

  3. Totally agree, m’lady. Since I’m a pantser…don’t outline…The first thing I do is create the characters, their backstories, personalities and relationships. The next thing is get the hell out of their way and let them tell the story. It’s always all about the characters, to me…way ahead of story and plot points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, it’s always about the characters. The whole point of story structure is to make sure we’re creating a cohesive plot that is serving the characters.

  4. Andrew Lewis says:

    A great and valuable post.

    I must say for years I’ve tried to put onto paper my thoughts and ambitions for storytelling. Little did i realise I was following the pantsing method. Your posts and books have been of tremendous help and guidance, and I now feel back on track.

    Sincerely Thank you.

  5. LOVE this!
    Not just “coherent” conflict—*valid* conflict. Something that will continue and intensify throughout the bulk of the book. Lovers’ spats and friends’ disagreements need not apply.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! And, yes, I totally agree. Nothing is more irritating in fiction–especially romantic fiction–than what I call “false conflict”–which is the opposite of this.

  6. Sarah Beth Ennis says:

    Gone with the Wind has some problematic subject matter, to be sure.

    But character chemistry simply oozes, drips, and sizzles from every blessed page.

  7. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7 says:

    Wonderfully insightful post, Ms. Weiland! I especially love the examples you gave from various books/movies. Solid examples.

    Do you think it would be safe to call the friendship between Sherlock and Watson “chemistry”? (I’m referring especially to the BBC adaptation, but the original stories would do as well.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely. Buddy stories (good ones anyway) always feature chemistry, same as romances.

  8. Great post, Katie. I really like when you tackle very difficult topics like this one. Those “it’s hard to say what it is but you know it when you see it” subjects are so tricky to break down. If you can’t explain a subject to someone else in simple terms then you don’t understand it yourself, so I appreciate how much thought must have gone into this post. Good luck finding anything in the blogosphere about what chemistry is, let alone how to create it on the page. This is not something that was consciously on my radar, but it clearly should be. You gave some great practical tips, and I’m going to try to incorporate some of them into my current book and be more mindful of which characters are getting screen time together. Side note: Whenever I’m outlining a new book, I always reread your story structure and character arc resources and I’ve been all over them the past few days! They are gold, thank you for those. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Chris! Great to hear you’re finding the info useful. 🙂

      And I totally agree. My take is that when take subconscious knowledge and make it conscious, that’s where we find true mastery.

  9. Richard Marcott says:

    Great post Katie. My main character is an unattractive, young, naïve, woman who has been subsumed by her husband’s life as a classical musician. When he is killed in an accident, she is not prepared to step into the world in control of her own life. She recently met a church lady who serves as her Jiminy Cricket friend. She is her conscience, and inner voice (through dialog) that is free to express feelings about the introverted main character’s husband that she herself would never express. She is the impetus for a change-over that eventually brings her happiness. The friend is her opposite; extroverted, uninhibited, comic relief that saves the day, but remains a minor character (with influence). Everybody loves her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “opposites attract” principle often creates fantastic opportunities for chemistry.

  10. Great post. I learned a lot from it about character chemistry. I now feel I want to go back to the beginning and re-write everything with this in mind.:-/

  11. Glad you tackled this subject. Nice food for thought.

    This subject made me think of my deserted island 5. Books I couldn’t live without.
    O’Brian’s Master and Commander series.
    LotR
    Harry Potter
    (And sadly Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series.)
    But topping this is The Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny.
    Since your choices are similar to mine, have you read Zelazny? Snappy dialogue and descriptions and quick but powerful character sketches are the strength of these books. Maybe they’re a little dated but I still go back to them time after time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I read Nine Princes a long time ago. It didn’t quite do it for me, although I don’t remember exactly why.

  12. Also…
    Does your library have Overdrive or Hoopla?
    That’s where I get my audiobooks, and they are free because they’re attached to your library.
    I listen to one or two a week as I work or travel.

  13. Whenever I see a post about character chemistry I think two things:
    1. How does this apply to my characters?
    2.Great examples for chemistry in my opinion are Tyrion and Bron and Tyrion and Tywin. I think it works with those characters because of their relationship with each other. Tyrion and Bron are friendly, but it’s merely on a “hey, I’m paying you” kinda level and then later a genuine friendship. Also Bron is from a completely different world than Tyrion. Tyrion and Tywin is of course because of their long standing hateful relationship. They don’t fly at each other’s throats because it wouldn’t benefit either of them or their family, so they have to work together. And I think Tywin does respect Tyrion in multiple ways but is reluctant to admit it (except when he’s held at “gunpoint” with a crossbow).

    When I try to create banter in my own book, I always make sure there’s a point to the banter and then let two characters dance around the point they’re trying to make while either being friendly or hostile, but not ever stating it directly. The point of letting your character say something unexpected, perhaps even a bit out of character, I think is a very good one.

  14. Thanks so much!

  15. Michael says:

    Definitely food for thought. What comes to mind is also the use of extra characters to create more chemistry, not necessarily just the main protag/antag. Like real life, a 5 min chat with a stranger that draws out perspectives not seen, or humour not heard etc within your primary circle can add real colour to life, and, i believe in writing when especially linked to theme/plot etc.

  16. Doing the dance. You know, that’s a solid analogy.
    In some aspects, it’s also a fight, like one of those foam jousting setups where each advance from one person causes the other to shift their balance so as not to fall. Chemistry happens when both sides are skilled in maintaining their own balance while constantly forcing the other side to shift theirs.

    I’m glad you’ve gotten around to discussing this topic. As with most things in writing, it all comes back to theme, doesn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, dancing and fighting are a lot alike sometimes. 😉 That’s a good differentiation within the analogy, too, since character chemistry is just as important in antagonistic relationships as friendly ones.

  17. Firing up the chemistry between characters is the weakest element in my now completed first draft. Before I start the second, I have work to do. This amazing article (and comments from other readers) is going to be a great help. Thank you so much. 🙂

  18. One thing I always think of in regards to chemistry of characters is literal chemistry. What happens in chemistry? Two things combine and REACT. So, if I ensure that I take two interesting elements (characters) and put them together in a scene, they need an interesting reaction, or the “experiment” is going to flop.

    The worst thing in the world for an elementary-school kid would be to have a science fair volcano, that, when you added the vinegar, just sat there.

  19. Gabriela says:

    Is it possible to create 3-dimensional characters who have terrible chemistry? I’m trying to create a romance novel with two characters, but I’m developing them individually. I’m afraid that when they start interacting in the book they will have bad chemistry, even if they’re well developed characters. . .hmm . .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If that’s so, it’s probably because they have too much in common. Give them opposing goals, personalities, or motives–and the sparks shoulder fly.

  20. Fantastic tips! I must say I’ve always struggled not to cringe as I write about relationships progressing. I think it’s time to start from scratch 🙂

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