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?

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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 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. Amazing, detailed and well presented blog. Thanks for sharing.

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