Step 2: Characterizing Character Dynamics
Today, you will learn to get characters to interact with one another. I know most of you struggle with this in real life, so this step will probably be challenging for you. Luckily, I’m here to solve your problems with fictional conversations! Disclaimer: not to be confused with actual conversations—you’re better off seeking professional help for that.
Just to clarify, the ‘consistency’ I’m referring to here isn’t one of many qualities Dutch food lacks. I’m talking about ensuring your characters don’t act… well, out-of-character. For this, I’ll share 2 tips:
Always keep in mind a character’s backstory. A person’s worldview is influenced by their environment, profession, and the company they keep. For instance, a character with a military background will likely use war-related metaphors, while a character who is a therapist might find themselves ‘fixing’ people in everyday conversations.
Our intrinsic values play a large role, too. For instance, when writing villain protagonists, there is usually an extent to how far they’re willing to go—some villains might draw the line at murder; others may assassinate anyone who stands in their way except if they’re a child—and these skewed metrics by which one views morality ought to remain consistent (with the exception of the character trait(s) that are meant to develop).
It’s easy to identify when someone acts out-of-character. Here’s the quick audience activity for today—reply to this post with: “I dare [CYS member] to [do something that’s out-of-character for them]”. Chances are, they won’t complete this dare because it goes against their motives and values. The only exception is if they value the quality of fulfilling dares more than the negative consequences of the dare itself.
This is why I’ve emphasized the importance of internal conflict. It’s the map that your characters’ actions will follow. In order for characters to have satisfying dynamics, they must always be trying to achieve their desired goal unless: 1) something significant prevents them from doing so, or 2) they have developed as a character.
Because I’m generous, I’ll apply this to real life scenarios too. If you’re struggling to make acquaintances, a good way is to find out someone’s desires and fulfill them. Let’s say Person A is looking for someone to share fun experiences with (e.g. traveling, trying new things, etc). If you want to befriend them, use this same logic of helping them achieve their goal! This could mean inviting them to events or teaching them something new. We do this subconsciously in our lives—our best friends fulfill purposes that are dependent on our values (e.g. emotional support, accountability partner, mutual understanding, person to pick on noobs with, etc).
You could also use this to discover why you don’t like certain people: Their actions impede you from achieving your goal. An example could be Person B, who constantly complains about how much they need a break when they’ve been on ten consecutive holidays. Your goal is to live a happy life, but their whining prevents you from doing so. That’s why you can’t change your interactions with people unless you change their goals (and the misbeliefs that perpetuate these goals).
I didn’t expect this post to include life advice too, but I suspect that for some, it’s as greatly needed as the writing advice.
When in doubt, follow Mizal’s advice: “Think of yourself and someone else interacting, then make them 50% less awkward and autistic.”
There are common archetypes most side-characters follow, such as the mentor (goal: to help the protagonist improve, along with a possible secondary motive), the lover (to win the protagonist’s affections) and the innocent/ victim (to survive, thus forcing the protagonist to rescue them). With these, you have straightforward character interactions.
I challenge you to take it a step further! Even if you use these as a starting point, each character should come with unique interactions. Here are a few ways to achieve this:
Imagine a conversation involving your favorite group of characters (apologies to that one person without an imagination). I suppose they aren’t sitting around and agreeing about everything, are they? The best interactions occur when characters disagree.
A conversation of yes-men is typically a chore to read. It isn’t much of a conversation either. But when the characters have different beliefs (again, this ties back to the first part of this advice), it sets the stage for some well-executed dynamics. Bonus points if two characters are always getting on each other’s nerves, leading up to a breaking point (usually a messy fight or emotional argument).
Think of the enemies-to-lovers trope. It’s fun to read about characters who absolutely hate each other, bantering and bickering, gradually developing feelings for their ‘enemy’. Or think of the found family one, where characters are forced to work together, constantly getting in one another's way. Their clashes in values and goals create a dichotomy that you cannot craft if your characters are always in agreement.
Note: I'm not saying characters have to argue about everything. That would get old quickly. But they should challenge one another's beliefs, contribute somewhat equally to a conversation, or even try to prevent/ perpetuate certain plot points. Every conversation ought to: 1) advance plot, 2) develop a character, and/ or 3) change the emotional state of a character.
2. Avoid ‘boring’ conversations
I urge you to remember those awful “storygames” of the past—badly written, barely readable, boring plots. They always start the same way: waking up in the morning. Then you get to choose whether to get up or remain in bed (the latter ends your suffering and gives you a free point). Unless there’s a specific effect the author is after, this type of beginning doesn’t hold the readers’ interest.
Similarly, try to avoid everyday conversations. Skip the “how are you”s and “the weather is pleasant, is it not?”. There will, of course, be exceptions, but don't bore your reader. If your characters are meeting someone for the first time, aim for an introduction where their personality shines through or just skip it with a one liner (e.g. we introduced ourselves).
3. Subvert expectations
Most people are predictable. For instance, I can guess which—if any—members are likely to read this post, and which ones will reply with a dare. But sometimes, you need to keep your readers on their toes. No one will praise your character dynamics if it never transcends that of archetypal, basic bedtime stories.
If the relationship between two friends has always been “I’d die for you”, maybe it’s time to give the deuteragonist a love interest. If the victim has always needed the protagonist to save them, perhaps give them an opportunity to save themself. If a certain member has always posted remarkable reviews and writing advice, maybe—just maybe—the mods could give her extra pointless points. (That last example is very important).
Now, this is not to be mistaken with acting out-of-character. Everything a character does must align with their internal conflict/ motive. Yet, people’s method of achieving their motive may change. Think of a CYS member whose goal is to be a part of the community. They may have started off rating every game and leaving reviews, but over time, they became lazier and stopped doing so. Is this change out-of-character? No, because their goal remains the same. They just found an easier way to achieve it! Similarly, characters may act in ways that seem strange to the protagonist, only for them to later discover the reasons behind this shift in dynamics.
While we’re here, I’ll recommend Mercenary by Ninjapitka. It’s really good at subverting readers’ expectations through plot twists while maintaining strong characterization. I implore you to read this as you wait for tomorrow’s text wall.
Can’t wait? Sign up for MysticAdvice+ to get 10% off and view the next installment right now!