More Tips For Portraying Believable, Functional, & Healthy Relationships
More tips for writing ships! Some of this article is particularly relevant to those who want to ship their OCs with canon characters (though it also holds true for writing any relationship!). And while this is written largely with romantic relationships in mind, most of it applies to platonic relationships/friendships as well.
Table of Contents
- Separate what you know and feel from what your characters know and feel.
- One should not have to change or give up a major, character-defining trait for the other.
- Use a little logic when figuring out how the characters would react to and interact with each other.
- Don't use love to redeem or fix a "bad" and/or broken character.
- So, to recap...
Separate what you know and feel from what your characters know and feel.
Unless you do this, it's going to be virtually impossible to write a character who behaves in a believable manner, because what you'll end up doing is writing about someone who acts as if xe lives outside of the story's world, not in it.
No matter how you slice it, your characters would have very different vantage points of each other than you have of them. For a start, you'll have knowledge about them that they won't be privy to. For example, maybe you know that a character had a rough childhood or a betrayal that left xir embittered and that makes you feel more sympathetic to the character, but for another character who doesn't know about it, then that sympathy shouldn't be there.
It's also easy to gloss over and ignore a fictional character being rude, callous, cruel, or creepy because none of it ever actually personally affects you, nor anyone or anything you personally know or care about. However, your characters don't have the luxury of putting down the book or turning off the TV to escape an unpleasant person or situation, nor the luxury of knowing ahead of time that everything will turn out all right. For example, while you might be able to look at being kidnapped by a handsome stranger as an "exciting adventure," your character, if portrayed realistically, would likely be terrified over the prospect of being hurt, raped, killed, or never seeing xir family, friends, or home again. It's also one thing to see to a fictional character tease or taunt another fictional character, but quite another thing to actually be on the brunt end of that taunting, or to see another real person on the end of it - especially if that person seems like someone who doesn't deserve it or is someone you care about.
Stop and ask yourself:
- How many times, when someone you didn't know well treated you rudely or cruelly, did you stop and think, "I bet that person just has something bad going on at home; I'm going to make it my job to find out what so I can make this person all better!"?
- How many times have you seen someone harshly criticize or make rude comments about you or someone who was part of your family or immediate circle of friends (or at the very least didn't seem deserving of that kind of treatment) and thought, "Wow, this person is so gorgeous; we should go out and get to know each other better!"?
- How many times when someone acted like a creeper did you decide that person was just a lonely, misunderstood soul who needed your tender, loving care?
- How many times when someone insulted or put down something that was near and dear to you or was even a part of your identity, did you want to want to become closer to that person?
- Ever notice how when people act in rude, cruel, or creepy ways that personally bother you, they start seeming less and less attractive?
If any of your characters are going to treat each other this way, then you need to take it into account. Why should they stick around, let alone get into a relationship with someone who behaves so obnoxiously or repulsively?
On the flip side, if your character was never there to see or experience a character being cruel or rude, nor would have been exposed to any news, rumors, or gossip of such, don't preemptively give your character a sour opinion of other. This happens far too often, with characters treating people they know little to nothing about rudely or contemptuously. As a result, they look like bullies brats, or seem irrational and paranoid. If you want to create tension between the pair that don't make one (or both of them!) look like this, then make sure that there's an actual basis for it beyond a funny gut feeling.
One should not have to change or give up a major, character-defining trait for the other.
While there's nothing wrong with some character development that makes one or both characters better relationship material, there is such a thing as taking it too far - such as making characters give up something they've been established as being truly passionate about or dedicated to, or something that they love and enjoy deeply, or something that has otherwise been established as a definitive trait of the character. (Those of you who want to ship an OC with a canon character, pay special heed here.)
One character should never have to ignore or neglect dreams, hobbies, passions, ambitions, responsibilities, etc. that defined xir as a character in order to be with the other. Imagine something that you love doing or believe in with all of your heart, or something that you consider a fundamental part of who you are. Would you give that up or ignore it for someone else, even if that person was attractive? You might consider it, and you might even try it for a time, but after awhile ignoring or neglecting it would likely make you feel unfulfilled or untrue to yourself. You probably already have people in your life you have to hide aspects of yourself you consider important from; consider how frustrating and stressful it can be to deal with these kinds of people. Would you really want to get into a long-term relationship with someone like that?
Use a little logic when figuring out how the characters would react to and interact with each other.
Essentially, when you're writing your characters' interactions, stop and think out whether their interactions make sense based on their life experiences, prior behaviors, age group, etc.
Think carefully before trying to play up one character as totally unique or one-of-a-kind in the other character's experience. It's one thing for a fairly young or inexperienced person to meet someone who is (or at least seems) totally unlike anyone that person has ever met before and to be caught up in the novelty. On the other hand, it's a stretch to believe that someone such as a well-traveled thousand-year-old alien has never before met a quirky, struggling musician with anxiety issues or a fiery art student with parents/caregivers who just don't understand. (As discussed in On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents, many traits that people use to play up their characters as unique aren't that unusual, and the longer a character has been around interacting with other people the less plausible it is that this character would encounter someone who was completely and totally unlike anyone else.)
Also, most people past their mid-twenties don't typically obsess over attractive people they meet or see. It isn't too unusual for a 15-year-old to spend hours daydreaming over being with someone, but it would pretty strange (and rather creepy) for a 30-year-old to do the same.
If you're trying to write a canon/OC ship, think out how the canon character has reacted to similar characters before, if applicable, and use that to determine how the canon character will act. For example, when Harry Potter saw Cho Chang for the first time in Prisoner of Azkaban, he didn't marvel over her "raven locks" or her goddess-like beauty or some nonsense. He just noticed that she was "extremely pretty" and got butterflies in his stomach. That was it. The only character whose looks he fell spellbound under was someone with explicitly magical attractiveness (Fleur DeLacour), and even then Harry only reacted that way once. He didn't stay up at night obsessing over how beautiful she was or get distracted daydreaming about her in class. So basically, you wouldn't want to have Harry doing this over your OC.
Again for canon characters, did the canon character ever interact with someone with traits similar to your character's traits before? If so, how did this character treat the other, and why? If a canon character grew bored listening to someone talking about martial arts techniques before, then it might be a bit odd if this character was suddenly all ears when listening to your OC talking about the same.
Don't use love to redeem or fix a "bad" and/or broken character.
Some people use a relationship (typically a romantic one) as a means to bring out or encourage better behavior in a person who is "good deep down inside" or as something to give the character something positive to focus on so xe can forget or at least overlook personal issues that have been at the root of the character's negative behavior. While these might seem like good ideas at first glance, in reality they don't really work out so well.
First, the concept of "good deep down inside," as addressed here, isn't really how people actually work. People can be (and usually are) a blend of "good" and "evil" at the same time rather than having one layered over the other. And it's not that "evil" people are evil to anyone for any reason, but instead are evil to specific people for specific reasons. If someone who goes around kicking little old ladies suddenly pets a puppy, it doesn't necessarily mean that this person has a repressed affectionate side or just needs more puppies to pet in order to not want to kick little old ladies. It just might mean that the person is really fond of puppies and really hates little old ladies at the same time, because, who knows, maybe this person's grandmother was a nasty old snipeviper and this person developed an irrational hatred of old ladies because of it.
Secondly, if what the canon character needs to become "good" is to get over some personal issue or other, then what the character really needs is a therapist or counselor, not a lover. While a relationship can temporarily make a person feel good (or at least better), what it won't do is help the person genuinely work through these issues. Being in love isn't going to make a deep, visceral hatred of little old ladies just evaporate, which means that family dinners with Grandma are probably going to end up being pretty awkward.
Thirdly, loving someone indefinitely with unwavering loyalty or unconditional devotion even as the character is behaving badly will not eventually lead up to an epiphany where the recipient realizes just how lucky xe is and changes xir behavior for the better out of gratitude. Instead, that person will keep on being as bad as always (if not worsen!) because the person will come to take it for granted that everything will keep on being peaches and cream no matter what xe does, and may even take the other person's continued devotion and affection as proof that xe's doing something right.
Basically, if a character is to be fixed or redeemed, it should not come from the power of love melting all of the badness away, but rather from positive actions and personal improvement stemming from genuine effort to make personal change.
The same principles go for giving a character a lover as if it's a magic balm to fix any other problem that isn't actually caused by or immediately connected to not having a lover. If your character just really needs someone who really and truly understands, a close friend can fill that role just as well as a lover - and it's a lot easier to maintain a friendship than a romantic relationship. Having a lover won't make self-esteem issues or insecurities magically melt away any more than it'll melt away deep hatreds of little old ladies. Essentially, if your character's problems could be helped by having a good friend, therapist, counselor, mentor, self-help program, or something along those lines, that's probably what your character actually needs.
Love is great and all, but at the end of the day trying to fix or redeem someone through the power of ~love~ is like trying to put a broken vase together with Scotch tape. It might be in more or less the right configuration, but it's still broken and the Scotch tape won't hold it together for long.
For more on potentially turning a character to the side of good, check out Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably.
So, to recap...
- Make sure you separate what you know and feel about your characters from what they know and feel, or else your characters' reactions won't feel authentic.
- Don't make one of them give up a character-defining trait, interest, or passion for the other.
- Ask yourself whether the way they're interacting and reacting to each other makes sense, given their personalities, ages, etc.
- Love isn't an elixir/cure-all for bad behaviors or insecurities, and should not be treated as such.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
Basic Tips To Write Healthy Relationships
Tips to Write & Roleplay Believable Successful Long-Term Relationships
Yet More Tips To Portray Believable & Healthy Friendships & Romances
Tips For Writing Fanfiction With An OC Protagonist