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Character Group Dynamics

Trick Shot by Ben LoOne of the most important tasks of a writer is to get the reader to engage with their characters, but almost as important is how your characters engage with each other. Their interactions are what make up the narrative and drama of the book, bringing the story to life. How can your hero show off his quick wit if there’s no one around to impress, how can your villain be cruel if there’s nobody to terrorise? It’s only in concert with each other that the characters really start to shine.

There are a number of memorable partnerships and groupings throughout fiction, think of Sherlock and Watson, Han and Chewie, or the entire Fellowship of the ring. The success of these characters isn’t just down to the individual protagonists, but also to how well they work together, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They play off each other in ways that allow the characters to shine, following classic writing patterns in order to get the maximum entertainment value. The nature of these groupings isn’t random, the author will choose the best mix that makes use of each character’s strengths and engineer matchups that will lead to great action.

Female Warriors by FetschIf you think back to some of your favourite books it’s relatively easy to spot the formulas which lead to success. Whether in a partnership or group there are specific archetypes and forms that just fit better. Looking at partnerships first, there are a number of traditional groupings commonly used in fiction, for instance the pairing of a protagonist with a foil. The foil is a supporting character that will usually serve as a counter to the protagonist, someone to banter with and who will often have a wildly different personality type.

Malus and Hauclir from The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade are a great example of this formula in action. As a character, Malus is often driven and brooding with a cynical attitude, while the chatty guard captain serves as a humorous companion with a dry wit that cuts the arrogant Malus down to size.

“So far you’ve promised to rip out my nails for being late with breakfast and then you said you’d gouge my eyes for airing out your good cloak and getting it soaked with salt water.”

Malus frowned. “All that since we came aboard?”

“All that since this morning. Yesterday you said-”

“Never mind,” the highborn muttered, grinding his teeth. “When we get back home I’ll have you fed to the cold ones and we’ll leave it at that.”

Hauclir nodded his face impassive. “Very well, my lord. I’ll make a note of it.”

While the foil can be an antagonist, Hauclir serves as Malus’ partner, a confident to reveal his plans to, and in their dialogue his casual impertinence and sarcasm only serves to give greater impact to Malus’ serious nature. Without Hauclir it would be much harder to create humour in his scenes and show Malus as a more rounded character as they banter.

Another partnership formula is the opposites pair, two completely different individuals forced together for the duration. Often the plot of the story centres on the relationship of the two, watching them bicker and fight to begin with, then slowly coming to respect and admire each other as the events of the story bond them together. They provide the author with the opportunity for some great moments of conflict but also to showcase the developing relationship between the two.

Halls of Undermountain by Belibr

A common plot device will follow the characters into a situation where one is out of their element and is led along by the other. This is usually to reinforce a theme like poverty, as in Den of Thieves where the streetwise Malden drags a naive knight around the dregs of city, trying to keep him out of trouble despite their growing dislike of each other:

His business in the lair done, he headed back to the surface. Perhaps Croy had been filleted by the beggar children, he thought. Or maybe they’d just doused him with lamp oil and set him on fire.

One could hope.

The needs of the plot can dictate the character pattern, depending on whether the relationship arises organically from storytelling, or is related to the larger narrative. A number of partnership formulas are tied to the plot, a classic fantasy example is the mentor and student dynamic, when the hero is required to train in order to confront some great threat, facing it with sword or learning magic from a wizard. There is room for a lot of variation in this formula, the same format can have completely different tones. One book might have the student holding their mentor in reverence and awe, while another can have a stubborn brat being forced into an education by a grouchy tutor. The teacher student formula appeals because it’s something we’ve all been through, it gives us a chance to learn an interesting skill with the character and have some fun along the way with trails and mistakes to be overcome.

Professor Stein and Make by Unknown ArtistSome of the best teachers I’ve seen in fiction have come from anime, characters like Kakashi from Naruto and Professor Stein from Soul Eater bring their unique eccentricities to class and inflict them on their hapless students.

“Professor, isn’t that an endangered animal?”

“All the more reason to dissect one, before the entire species dies off.”

A partnership might be successful because the reader see’s the bond between the characters, the classic “us against the world” mentality prevailing against overwhelming odds. A growing sense of friendship and brotherhood can add a dramatic backdrop as the reader watches two characters face off against trouble, every danger can add much more suspense when we know how the characters care for each other. In fact it doesn’t even have to be a human partner. Drizzt and his pet panther make a fearsome team, and yet in Exile when the figurine that gave him access was damaged, the relationship came to the fore as Drizzt feared to lose his only friend.

Legolas and Gimli by ilxwingWhen it comes to larger groups things are a little different, it can be easy to identify some common archetypes within a group, the tough guy, the joker, the smart one. Having a mix of these is a good start but it can be a danger to get too formulaic, especially in fantasy and have your cast looking like a D&D party roster. The best group is unique to itself, so it’s a good idea to try and subvert the expectations of the reader, twist some of the classic archetypes – like maybe that guy in all the armour isn’t the “tank” of the group, maybe he’s a bookish scholar who wears all that armour to protect him from danger? Also the specific roles in the group should feel natural; there must be a reason for there being a smart guy in the group, not just that the plot requires someone to figure everything out. The reasons the group got together and the history of it can affect the whole tone of the writing.

There’s a lot more complexity and interaction in the larger groups, and to make them a success the focus should be on the inter-relationships within the group. A large group won’t always have an even interaction ratio, there will be smaller cliques within the group that often team-up together. Think of Mal and Zoe in Firefly, their past as soldiers and experience makes them a logical team up and they often form a duo on missions in the series. Or look at the multiple cliques in the fellowship, Merry and Pippin with their mishaps, Gimli and Legolas with their competition, Aragorn and Gandalf making plans, and of course Frodo and Sam’s struggles.

It might not even be an amiable relationship as all groups have potential for conflict, in The Black Company the narrator Croaker often comments on the ongoing magical feud between wizards Goblin and One-Eye, a smaller pair within the group usually seen together. The antics of the pair help to give the whole company an impression of character as other soldiers watch the feud for entertainment on long marches.

Mal and ZoeZoe: “In the time of war, we never would have left a man behind.”

Mal: “Maybe that’s why we lost.”

A group dynamic will have more weight if you can work in some subplots to do with their relationships as well. Frequent examples are rivalries, love interests and hidden secrets, all of these will give the group more depth and make their interactions more realistic, giving a sense of lives intertwined together and affecting how the relationships move. Not only will the reader start to care about the group as a whole, but they will be drawn into individual plots that are threaded through it. The gang from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a perfect example, the group’s messy, tangled lives are all woven together over several seasons, developing and changing as the series progresses and making for great entertainment.

There are almost limitless possibilities for character interaction within fiction, new stories to be told, new people to meet, new friendships to form and enemies to battle. Fantasy may show us sweeping stories and grand plots, but it’s the characters that we follow through it all. How they deal with each other brings life and humanity to the words. Write your scenes to play up the characters, give them a chance to show their stuff, and let them shine.

Title image by Deisi.

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One Comment

  1. Lanko says:

    “Professor, isn’t that an endangered animal?”

    “All the more reason to dissect one, before the entire species dies off.”

    Hahaha, both article and this passage were awesome.

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