The Secret Behind Great Character Relationships
Look to the dynamics of a relationship: the ebb and flow, the growth and the dissolution.
What we know simply marks the beginning. While comprehensive and enlightening, our understanding of story today will seem simple and elementary ten twenty years from now. Our responsibility as writers lies in excavating the truth beneath our superficial grasp on reality and applying that to the characters we bring to life.
The Relationship Throughline of a story consists of two unique perspectives. Typically we describe these two points of view, held by the Main Character and Influence Character, as coming into conflict over the best way to solve the story's central problem. They argue over the appropriate way until finally one gives over to the other.
The reality of this coupling speaks of so much more.
Some relationships grow. Others dissolve. The presence of two perspectives naturally encourages comparisons of unity or sameness, while at the same time fostering division and differences.
The Dramatica theory of story circa 2014 touches lightly on this fascinating aspect of narrative. Assuming the bias towards Objective Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline, the model tends to sketch rather than enscribe the various forces at work within this more Subjective view.1 When delving into this area of a story, one senses the need for more to work with, more to explain and illuminate the intricacies of intimate engagement.
Same or Different
Bearing witness to the oft-used line of "You and I are Both Alike", one sees how the notion of "Two Sides of the Same Coin" work within narrative. One side feels they are the same, the other sees only difference. This happens because in one context the two competing perspectives exhibit similar properties, in another they differ.
Aligned diagonally across from each other when assigned their prospective domains, these Throughlines both exist as either states or processes. If Situation and Fixed Attitude, then they share a static (state) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we're both stuck," would describe the perspective that sees these similarities. If Activity and Way of Thinking then they share a procedural (process) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we just can't stop ourselves, can we?"
The other context sees these Domains in terms of external or internal. Situation and Activity tell of external conflict. Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking describe internal struggles. If set in Situation and Fixed Attitude one character might say "we are both alike, we're stuck" whereas the other would retort, "We're nothing alike. I know where I stand (external), you don't even know yourself (internal)".
When caught up within the turmoil of a relationship, one character will see the forces driving them towards a shared sameness while the other will only see apparent differences. Neither claims accuracy: they're both right, and they're both wrong. The direction of their relationship determines how close to unity they ultimately will reach.
Growing or Dissolving
At the heart of every Relationship sits a motivating source of inequity. Dramatica refers to this disparity as the Relationship Story Problem. Whether a lack of faith or trust, an inability to accept or a longing for something more, this Problem motivates the Relationship forward.
Problems naturally call for Solutions. You can't have one side of the equation without the other, you can't have inequity without equity. The "problem" with the term Solution lies in the assumption that this resolution brings the two characters together. Naturally one would assume that if there was a problem, then the solution must heal their differences.
But what about relationships on the decline?
Relationships rely on tidal forces. Ebbs and flows. Directions and tides. When situated on the path for dissolution, a relationship turns to the Solution to end it all, once and for good. Whether together or not, the resolution of the inequity in their lives ends the conflict between them. Contrast this with the Solution for a Relationship on the rise. Here resolution brings two hearts together, ending conflict by bringing two together.
Neither approach claims superiority over the other. The responsibility for determining the direction of the Relationship and the proper application of the Solution lies within the writer. They must appreciate this reality of narrative for themselves and for their story.
In Ernest Lehman's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Main Character Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) joins fellow Hunsecker pawn Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) in a somber display of a relationship in decay. Tasked with ruining Susan's relationship with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), Sidney uses their friendship to slither in close enough to gather the information he needs. Whether great friends or simple acquantences prior to the story's start, the two slowly move apart. The banter between them, centering around inferences of the other's weakness in the presence of J.J. (Induction), drives their relationship towards its inevitable end. Once Susan concludes her brother's involvement and Sidney's part in it (Deduction), the friendship dies. Having learned how to play the game herself, Susan moves past Sidney and moves on.2
Contrast this with the growing relationship between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge!. Driven to torment by Satine's apparent ease with which she gives into lustful desires (Temptation), Christian begs, argues, and ultimately insults his love on the public stage for all to see. Only by mutually refusing to take the easy way out and forgoing their own egos (Conscience) do they finally find a place where they can come together. While death tempers this synthesis, resolution completes the Relationship's positive development.
A Greater Truth to our Work
The Relationship Throughline whispers something more than simply the presence of two alternate perspectives. The growth and development of this kinship in conflict calls for an appraisal of its direction and a nod to their similarities and differences. The Dramatica theory of story represents a watershed moment in the history of our understanding of narrative. However what we know now and appreciate as reality only scratches the surface of effective and lasting storytelling. Delving into the forces at work opens our minds and encourages greater breadth to our own writing.
- Point of fact, earlier iterations of Dramatica referred to the Relationship Throughline as the Subjective Story Throughline. The switch was made to encourage engagement from Western writers who prefer the individual and logic over the couple and holism. ↩
- For a complete analysis of this film see the Dramatica Users Group analysis of Sweet Smell of Success↩