All right! Let’s assume you’re plotting your characters for a full-length novel. You’ve used the character sheet to form a baseline idea of where everyone comes from and what they’re capable of. You’ve plotted out character arcs to figure out how the story’s plot is going to affect each character, and how they’ll react in turn.
As you might realize while arc-plotting, these characters don’t exist inside glass bubbles, totally separate from other characters. They (gasp!) interact with one another in various ways. They might make beautiful music together- or, claw each other’s eyes out. How do you know? You don’t, unless you take some time now to think over and plot the progression.
You’re going to identify the most important relationships in your story (ex. Bob and Diane). Then, in a fresh word processing document or notebook, you’re going to spend a few paragraphs detailing the arcs of their relationships:
- Do these characters know each other prior to the story’s events? If so, how?
- At what points in the story do they interact?
- What is their interaction/dynamic like at these each of these points? Respectful, friendly, abusive, etc.? Take their personalities, goals, and history (if any) into account.
- How does their relationship change during the course of the story (if at all)? Why does this happen?
A lot of these details may, and should, be for your own information only. They won’t appear in the story at any point, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to jam them in. For instance, if two characters have known each other for 15 years prior to the story, chances are you’re not going to painstakingly detail those years of interaction. However, you need some idea of what went on during that time to best determine what the characters’ dynamic is like now.
It’s your job to make that dynamic come alive to the reader. If you don’t know why two characters would do anything for each other, or why two characters have put aside stark differences to cooperate, you may have a harder time selling it.
That’s not to say you have to know every little thing that’s ever happened to these characters- but the more you know about them, the better you understand them, and can weave that understanding into your prose.
So, why write all this down? A few paragraphs per relationship? That’s pages of writing right there! Some writers just “know” their characters top to bottom, in their hearts. That’s sufficient, right?
For some of us, maybe. If you’re dealing with a short story and a tiny cast of characters, you may be able to internalize all that and get on well with it. However, if you’re writing a longer work featuring lots of characters, and each of those characters has a complex relationship with each of the others… well, you may completely forget what you had in mind for them as you’re drafting. You might spend months working up to a particular scene where a new character is introduced, only to go, “Oh, shit! Who is this again?” (There’s also the ever-popular “Wait… didn’t they already have this conversation?”)
It’s always good to have reference notes to fall back on :) That’s not to say your ideas won’t change over time, and that your notes might become obsolete, but they’re still a good starting point.
Also, in the midst of concentrated character-focused brainstorming, you might come upon ideas you never would’ve had if you’d just launched right into drafting: ideas about the characters themselves, and various interesting ways they might clash with one another. I’ve had quite a few “Eureka!” moments that later turned into neat character details and plot twists!
How do you like to handle relationship tracking? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!