Whether your characters live on planet Earth or in a galaxy far far away, all fiction is really about is relationships. Conflicts arise in relationships due to the disagreements people have with each other’s goals and motivations, and the aim for good fiction is to avoid painting these conflicts in black and white.
What makes the most interesting character to character conflicts is when each party is (or believes they’re) right, but their opposition believes their needs and preferences take presedence over them. And I’m not just talking about the basic hero vs. villain dynamic: Hero wants to save the world, Villain wants to destroy it, big whoop.
Readers and viewers of fiction are drawn to moral gray areas because they allow the consumer to make their own decisions about who’s right or wrong according to their own moral code. It gives them the freedom to feel the way they want to about the events, instead of being spoon fed like melodramatic stock characterization so often does.
The Greatest Allies = The Greatest of Enemies
Some of the best conflicts usually happen within the same alliance, as opposed to the standard “my team is better than yours,” spiel. Take the classic example of Professor Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men series, particularly the First Class storyline.
Sure, as seasoned veterans of the mutant war they each have their own teams of mutants on their sides, and are at constant odds with each other on what the fate should be for humanity’s relationship with mutants. But when they were younger men still discovering and developing their own respective abilities, they were friends. Together they formed the first team of X-Men that ended up dividing due to a conflict of interest.
Professor X wanted to train fellow mutants and help them understand their own unique powers, but wants to keep them blended into society, if not hidden from it completely. After all, the world would not have be ready to accept these strange individuals.
Meanwhile, Magneto wanted mutants to embrace their individuality and stand out from the rest of society. That they should be world reknown and a force to be reckoned with if they were met with disgust and indifference. This causes him to rile against a world that initially becomes afraid that such beings exist.
Professor X and Magneto admire each other’s abilities and tenacity, but this clash of values is what creates nearly a century long feud between the two. Yet despite of all the broken bones and epic fights between their factions, along with all the havoc and destruction the common populace has to experience amidst all this…the two can still kick back and have a nice little ol’ game of chess and chill like old times as old timers.
X-Men features a huge cast of different mutants, some more popular than others–
and they all have their own ways in which they relate with each other.
How I Met Your Mother By Becoming a Better Friend
However, a personal preference of mine is to keep casts to a smaller number. A handful of characters is all you ever really need to write compelling fiction that’s rich with unique relationships between all individuals. Such is this case with one of my favourite sitcoms How I Met Your Mother.
Here’s a quick and digestable Mind Map I made to outline the value they each offered to the other.
Fiction is Friction
Despite of the value characters can offer to each other, the assisstance in growth is always met with resistance from whom they’re trying to help, either intentionally or unintentionally. The most potent and blatant clash of values in HIMYM is between the hopeless romantic Ted and the womanizer Barney. They’re polar opposites, yet they’re best friends. Why? Because they have a lot to teach each other.
Barney shows Ted how to have a good time, how to act instead of over thinking everything, and not be so stuck on finding “the one,” which ironically inhibits Ted from having any success. He’s got his head so stuck in the clouds that he needs Barney to pull him down to Earth.
Likewise, Ted teaches Barney the consequences of screwing around with too many women. He shows Barney that true happiness can only derive through monogamy as opposed to an endless string one night stands. Barney’s behaviour derives from a great place of hurt from his childhood and romantic history. Seeing his bestfriend Ted get hurt over and over again, but still have the hope that he could find his true love becomes, much to Barney’s detrement, an inspiration to him.
Ted and Barney undo each other’s illusions by pulling each other out of their extremes so that they can meet somewhere in the middle. But it’s not like they initially accept each other’s differences from the get go. It is usually met with messy and hilarious hijinx.
A Peephole Into Another Reality
Reading or watching a piece of fiction gives us the chance to eavesdrop on some of the most vulnerable exchanges between people. It cuts through the mundane day to day conversations about sports and the weather, and in turn, highlights the challenging and life changing conversations that most people tend to avoid.
We are drawn to stories because we get to sit back as objective and passive participants to watch how these characters maintain or diminish their relationships. Fiction helps illustrate how people from different walks of life can find common ground…or not. All fiction ends with either a resolution between people’s differences or an even wider divide between them.
What are your favourite ensembles of characters?
Do any of their relationships mirror some of your own?
What have you learned about relationships through your consumption of fiction?
How much more interesting can your fiction become if you focused more on character relationships and development instead of crafting a compelling plot?
I would argue that intense focus on character relationships and development CREATE compelling plots. Let me know wat you think!