Character Relationships: Give and Take
Character is one of the three key elements involved in every story. Readers want to follow characters whom they can relate to and love—or love to hate.
Just as important as having an intriguing cast of characters is having interesting relationships between those characters. I’m not just talking about the love-triangle trope; I’m talking about real friendships, romances, rivalries, and other relationships that have depth and nuance to them.
So what makes for a good character relationship? Plenty of factors feed into this, but one thing many writers may not think about is the amount of give and take present in their characters’ relationships.
How Characters Give and Take
By characters giving and taking, I’m talking about how much your characters influence each other. How do your characters convince each other to do something they want? Do any of your characters influence others simply by their example? Which characters guide your main protagonist to change, for good or bad?
Each character will have a unique balance of how much they give and take in each of their relationships, just like we all do. Think about those people who can convert you to an activity or brand just by suggesting it once. In those instances, they give and you take. Now think about someone who comes to you for advice. Here, you’re giving and they’re taking.
Now, few of us only give or only take in our relationships, and neither should our characters. For most of us, and most of our characters, we’ll probably give about 50% and take about 50% from a lot of our relationships. Most of us probably won’t give or take less than 25% in most of our healthy relationships. Think about this ratio as a guideline: when you write or revise, look at how often your characters are giving and taking and think about whether you’ve established a realistic balance.
Exploring the Consequences of Giving and Taking
Of course, some of your characters will be exceptions to this rule. Some people give or take more than is perhaps healthy in some of their relationships. This is a real thing that you can definitely portray in your stories! The trick to keeping this unbalanced relationship flow realistic is including the consequences that come from being at such an extreme.
For instance, characters who don’t take and mostly give are probably really confident. They can stand their ground and don’t need other people to tell them what to do; that’s why they’re more likely to give advice rather than take it. However, sometimes that confidence could get them in trouble. Maybe it makes them arrogant or stubborn. They’ll probably make some pretty big mistakes sometimes because they won’t be as willing to listen to other people’s advice.
Characters who take more, however, are often influenced by others’ opinions and decisions. These characters are probably very kind and generous—but they might also be a pushover or indecisive.
Now, there can be consequences for having equally giving and taking characters, too. For instance, a character who tries to find the perfect balance of giving and taking might get taken advantage of sometimes or have to go against some of the principles they believe in. On the other hand, these characters might also be really good at compromising and peacemaking.
This balance will change from character to character and relationship to relationship, and the consequences, both positive and negative, will vary as well.
Picture by Mike Scheid on Unsplash.
We’re all influenced by the people around us. We tend to start talking like the people we interact with most. We start to develop the same tastes and hobbies as our closest friends and families. We even avoid some things in life because we associate them with a bad relationship!
The people around us make us who we are, and the same should be true for the characters in our stories.
Practice the Principle
If you have a work in progress, take some time to assess how your characters interact with each other. Does anyone stand out as more of a giver or more of a taker? If you notice anyone who seems out of balance, think of ways they can either give or take from other characters to restore that balance. Or, add in the consequences that come from being on one extreme or the other.
If you want to start writing something new, pick some sort of relationship between two new characters (like two students paired up on a group project). Explore how they’ll give and take from each other based on who they are. If you find these characters lean toward giving or taking more, practice balancing the flow of their relationship and including the natural consequences of that flow.
Who are some of your favorite characters who clearly give or take more? Which characters are a good balance or accurately portray an extreme? I'd love to read your comments about who some of your favorite examples are.