Cooking up Chemistry between Characters

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Good characters can make or break your novel.

An audience will follow an extraordinary, kick-ass character through any number of complex scenes, plot twists, and controversial decisions. As a writer, you already know that the best characters are layered, multi-dimensional beings who can think for themselves. You know that you have to go inside each character to get something awesome happening on the outside.

But characters aren’t isolated robots living on a desert island (unless of course, your character actually is an isolated robot living on a desert island, in which case this post is not for you). Characters, like real people, exist in a world full of other people. And other people, as you already know from your real life, constantly surprise, delight, disgust, and trouble us as they run around carrying out their own agendas.

Just as you are in your real life, every one of your characters is affected by the other characters in your story.

It might happen in a very small way. You character receives a letter from the postman and that letter moves the action along. The postman’s influence is slight, yes, but it’s there. Or you start your novel off with an account of an Italian immigrant making his way across the Atlantic, when you know the plot will revolve mainly around his great-grandson, living in New York 60 years later. The immigrant’s story is at the root of his great-grandson’s story, even if his great-grandson doesn’t know that.

But the real chemistry between characters happens when they affect each other in big ways. Just like in real life. When two people are so attracted to each other they fall in love, or so repelled they become mortal enemies. Or when two wildly different personalities are forced to work together and find out they’re more alike than either of them ever suspected. The chemistry occurs when you bring two characters together and they change in some fundamental way as a result of their relationship.

Chemistry happens when characters act as a catalyst for each other.

The definition of catalyst is: An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. And one of the speediest ways to provoke significant change or action is through conflict. Irreconcilable viewpoints, clashing personalities, opposing interests in the outcome of a certain situation—these types of circumstances provide incredibly fertile ground for dynamic chemistry to spark between characters.

For example, if you put your character in a situation that leaves them no choice but to compete for an essential, yet limited, resource against another character, the sparks are bound to fly. Whether your character experiences triumph or defeat, they will be forced to undergo a crucial inner shift, and that deeply personal change will be intertwined with the character who serves as their competition.

Think about Frodo and Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Frodo starts out totally disgusted by Gollum, as does the audience. But as they come into conflict over the limited resource they both need—the Ring—Frodo begins to change. We see the darker elements of his personality come to the surface. We also see how pitiful Gollum is because of his enslavement to the Ring. Because of the conflict over this one resource, the characters of both Frodo and Gollum grow and deepen. And they end up having a weird sort of chemistry between them that’s pretty cool to watch.

Not all characters need to be a catalyst for each other in order to have chemistry, though. It also works if a couple of characters contain enough contrasting elements to serve as foils to each other. This is why the “straight man” is so essential to comedy. Jokes can bounce higher when set off by the presence of serious gravity in the room. Or similarly, we might see the serious, pure-hearted maiden of the story set in sharp relief by her frivolous old aunt who plays the greedy buffoon. Whatever one character is will be brought more strongly by all that another character is not.

Drawing well-textured characters is challenging. For more advice and ideas on what makes characters tick, check out some of my other posts on character development:

How to Develop Characters Intuitively
Introverts, Empathy and the Art of Creating Character
Getting to Know Your Characters
Want to Be a Better Writer? Watch More Movies
Does Your Hero Have a Hidden Dark Side?
Compassion and Character Study

And never forget the first good rule of character development—let your characters do what they want!

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6 Comments

  • Reply Miranda Rush 12 September, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Awesome post. Definitely helps one when developing a character as someone for their audience to love or hate. . . because it should be one or the other for main characters..

  • Reply Joshua Robertson 12 September, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Another great post. Information I will be definitely taking to heart in my own writing.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 13 September, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Thanks for this. I have character struggles in my writing, but helpful stuff seems to be coming in from all sides.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 13 September, 2013 at 8:27 am

      You are very welcome. I think things tend to work out that way. We have a problem with something and then suddenly signs start showing up to help us out.

      Thanks so much for reading.

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