“No man is an island, whole unto itself.” People are always part of a network of relationships, a community. For most it’s a web of familiar faces, with individual relationships growing or fading, much like the tides of the ocean. Characters can even engage relationships without interacting with the other person, through memory and imagination. Similarly, some characters may personify an animal, object, or force of nature. A character struggling to endure a storm may come to regard that storm as a rival, with a will and personality of its own.
In storytelling relationships can be used to accomplish three goals: to create tension, reveal information, and help explore ideas. Most relationships do all three.
Everything from a character’s clothes to what they say and do reveals information about the character, but it also says something about anyone with whom they have a relationship. Relationship can confirm what audiences already know, or prompt them to ask questions.
For example, the character walks up to a car repair shop and starts talking with one of the mechanics. The two are clearly old friends. By itself that doesn’t say much, but depending on what they talk about and how they interact, audiences may realize the two share a passion for cars, play sports on the weekends, or live in the same neighborhood.
In the Harry Potter series one of the recurring antagonists is Professor Snape. He is mean, spiteful, and repeatedly demonstrates nothing but contempt towards the protagonist. His only saving grace is the fact that Dumbledore, one of the more virtuous characters in the series, has repeatedly vouched for and defended Snape. Throughout the series this relationship is the only thing that keeps Snape from being cast as a straightforward villain.
Most of the time relationships reveal information through how characters interact, but they can also reveal information directly, through a character’s expertise. Lord of the Rings frequently relies on characters such as Gandalf, Elrond, and Aragorn to reveal information.
Stories rely on tension to keep readers engaged; wondering what’s going to happen next. Tension is created through conflict, the combination of a goal, obstacles, and an uncertain outcome. Not all conflicts are between characters, but all characters find themselves in conflict with each other at some point, though some conflicts are nothing more than minor disagreements, or casual differences of opinion.
Many stories use minor conflicts as the foundation for subplots. Subplots help to provide an ongoing source of tension that’s independent of the main conflict. This helps the story to maintain reader engagement by alternating between main and subplots.
Individually each subplot is small and simple, but they frequently blend together, creating a web of cause, effect, and complication, which help fill in lulls in the main conflict. For example, in the film Aladdin, the character achieves their primary goal midway through the film. To maintain tension, a new subplot is introduced, a conflict between Aladdin and the genie. This subplot has no connection to the main conflict; it exists separately, and as the main conflict dips down, this conflict rises, creating fresh tension.
An idea is when a story uses a conflict to pose a question, and uses characters to represent different answers. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the villain repeatedly propones the idea that a person’s ancestry and origin define who they are, while the protagonists defend the belief that each person is free to become whoever they wish, through their choices.
All stories contain underlying messages. Some, like Harry Potter, make a clear distinction between right and wrong, while other stories, such as Fight Club, are more ambiguous, encouraging audiences to debate and reach their own conclusion.