I’m continuing to work on my arbitrarily-ultra-secret cartoon idea, and this week I’ve been spending an enormous amount of time thinking about character and, more importantly, character relationships. And I’ve had a sort of epiphany that none of the books on writing I’ve read seem to mention (not that I’ve read a ton), but it’s pretty obvious once you realize it: character chemistry is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
So often books on writing or plotting talk about characterization as if characters are complete entities in and of themselves. That’s the natural way to think of them. But in a story, a character does not exist in a vacuum. A story, and our interest in it, is born of the interactions between one character and another.
The best way to understand this is to think about your favorite character being placed in a world in which everyone was just like him. Unless the character has multiple personality disorder, an interesting story is impossible because there’s no way to get any character contrast, no way for the character to be defined, and thus no way for us to get any meaning out of the character. A canvas painted one color holds no interest; it is a specific collection of colors that attracts our eyes.
Many books on writing talk about character archetypes. I still think those are valid, but I think they’re incomplete. For example, the “old wise mentor” character archetype is useless without a student to teach. It is not the “mentor” archetype that we relate to, but the mentor-student relationship we enjoy. Both characters are necessary because it’s a relationship, not just a character sitting there by himself.
So I paced around and tried to come up with the main basic relationship archetypes we see again and again in stories. Here’s what I came up with. Let me know if you can think of any I might’ve missed:
The Straight Man and The Fool
AKA: The Annoyed and The Annoyer, The Serious and the Unserious, “The Double Act”
Examples: Shrek and Donkey, Squidward and SpongeBob, Bert and Ernie
This is definitely one of the most popular relationship archetypes. One character says stupid things and acts annoying, and the other character gets angry. We, the audience, laugh not at the fool (or at least not only at the fool), but at the relationship. We laugh more when other characters react with serious looks. The humor is born of the relationship.
The Hero and The Client
AKA: The Rescuer and The Rescued
Examples: Mario and Princess Peach, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Shrek and Fiona, Dr Alan Grant and the grandchildren
Another extremely powerful and popular relationship. A character needs help, and another character agrees (often reluctantly at first) to help them. Pretty easy to understand.
There are many stories in which a hero is on a mission to save a city or a kingdom or an entire world, such as Frodo destroying the One Ring or Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. I would not consider these quests to be part of this relationship; it’s not concrete enough to be a relationship. Caring about such stories only works if, within those stories, there are other pre-established relationships we care about. We really don’t care about an entire world for its own sake, we care about the specific relationships within it. I think this is a very important point. Character relationships we care about have to be at stake for the peril of the world to matter.
The Mentor and The Student
Examples: Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker, Gandalf and Frodo, Shifu and Po, Doc and Marty
Another age-old powerful relationship. One character teaches, the other learns. We, the audience, get to learn with the student, but we also get to observe his progress along with the teacher.
The Envied and The Envious
AKA: The Used and The User
Examples: Mozart and Salieri, Frodo and Gollum, Captain Hammer and Dr Horrible
A simple and understandable way to create animosity between characters. Since we’ve all known the feeling of envy at one time or another, this relationship allows us to identify with the otherwise negative envying character. When he wants something specific that the other character has, we understand his motivation for doing evil things.
I would also lump into this category relationships in which one character is merely using the other character as a means to an end. There may or may not necessarily be any envy involved, but the character can’t achieve what he wants on his own, so he forms a relationship, perhaps faking friendship, to get what he wants.
The Noble and The Rogue
Examples: Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Christine and The Phantom, Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Wendy and Peter Pan
One character tries to play by the rules, while the other character’s moral compass is a bit harder to follow. I think we, the audience, tend to gravitate our fascination toward the rogue character, but they’re at their most interesting when they’re playing off or arguing with someone whose moral compass is more like ours. Note that the rogue character doesn’t necessarily have to be evil or have evil tendencies; his ways of doing things simply have to seem foreign to us.
The Guard and The Prisoner
AKA: The Ruler and The Ruled, The Boss and The Employee
Examples: Lisa Cuddy and Gregory House, Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, Vernon Dursley and Harry Potter, The Wicked Stepmother and Cinderella, Captain Stottlemeyer and Monk, Monk and Sharona or Natalie, Mr Krabbs and SpongeBob
This is basically an authority relationship; one character has the power to tell the other character what to do. We immediately relate to it because we all have to deal with authority of some form, and I doubt any of us really like it. It’s a relationship that naturally and constantly creates conflict (hopefully not as much in real life as in fiction).
There can be different degrees of this relationship, from the cruel wicked character keeping the other character trapped, to the friendly boss who works with an assistant. The point is that we clearly understand the direction of the authority.
Dysfunctional love / friendship
Examples: If you can’t think of any, you have no hope
This is probably the penultimate relationship; it makes all the other relationships interesting, and it can be found in some fashion in almost every story. Two characters somehow connect or fill a need for one another. They care about each other. While conflicts may force them apart, love or friendship is the magnet that keeps them coming back to each other.
I use this relationship to describe any relationship in which both characters care about each other. It could a romantic love, in which the characters will probably want to eventually get married, it could be family love, or it could just be the friendship of two buddies who get along.
In many stories, this relationship begins as one of the preceding relationships, such as a Hero and Client relationship leading to romantic love, or a Straight Man and Fool relationship leading to friendship.
For most of the story, perhaps even for the entire story, the love or friendship must be dysfunctional. We are not interested in love or friendship that is working fine. The relationship is only interesting if it is being tested by one of the other relationships or outside conflicts. Perhaps authority figures from the Boss and Employee relationship do not want the character to fall in love, perhaps there’s a love triangle and another character is envious, perhaps the characters in love have ideological differences due to a Noble and Rogue relationship. The point is that it’s never perfect unless we’re past the story’s climax.
They’re all mixed up
Of course, within a story, characters can take on multiple roles in multiple relationships.
For example, in the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc is often the Unserious-Mentor-Hero while the young Marty McFly is the Serious-Student-Client. Sometimes Doc becomes the Client while Marty becomes the Hero. Their relationship is held together by Dysfunctional Friendship, and there are multiple Dysfunctional Love relationships throughout the trilogy.
Role reversals are also fun. In the Shrek movies, Shrek is usually annoyed by Donkey (“You’re headed the right way for a smacked bottom”), but he sometimes becomes the annoyer himself as he makes his own jokes (“Well, sure it’s big enough, but look at the location!”) which are made funnier because Donkey doesn’t laugh, maintaining the Straight Man and Fool relationship. As long as the characters stay in character, relationship switches can keep things interesting.
Conflict itself is not a relationship / Having a crush on someone is not a relationship
In the movie Jurassic Park, what relationship does the T-rex have with Dr Alan Grant? Obviously none. OK, that’s an easy one, since the T-rex is not a human. How about the Joker in The Dark Knight? What relationship does he have with Bruce Wayne? Again, none. He causes conflict, sure, but he has no motivations other than to cause conflict. He might as well be an unconscious volcano. (You might claim it’s a Noble and Rogue relationship, but I’d argue it’s not, because, like I said, the Joker has no desires or motivations. Rogues do.)
You can find this with a lot of villain characters. What about The Emperor and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars? Obviously there’s some conflict there. But, again, I’d argue there’s no relationship. There’s just conflict created by the Emperor wanting Luke to turn to the dark side (maybe if they changed its name?). What about Sauron and Frodo in Lord of the Rings? Again, no relationship, just conflict.
My point is that just because a character acts as a conflict does not mean he necessarily has a relationship with the character (he may or may not). But it is through these outside conflicts that Love and Friendship relationships are threatened and tested. It is against these conflicts that Love and Friendship must remain standing (or not, if it’s a tragedy).
Similarly, if one character has a crush on another character, that is not a relationship. It is just an interest. Such an interest might play a part in the character’s already-existing relationships, and it might lead to another relationship, but it is not a relationship in and of itself, because it’s one sided. And we, as an audience, probably don’t care much about it until some actual interaction takes place.
How many main character relationships can we find in stories?
I think books have the space to become as complex as they want to, but in TV shows and movies, I think it is usually kept quite simple; probably at most three for a single TV show episode, and at most four for a movie, and even that might be pushing it (I have yet to seriously analyze any films for this). TV shows and movies can still have many small relationships that play out for a scene or two, but only a few will be important for the overall story arc. (For example, in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I would not consider the relationship between Aragon and Arwen to be of prime importance to the overall story; hence the reason some of their scenes were edited out for the theatrical versions. Nor would I consider the friendship between Gimli and Legolas to be too important.)
OK, hope that was an interesting post. You will now either begin to see these relationship archetypes all over the place, or completely forget everything I just told you.
Justin Tyme · June 24, 2012 at 7:13 PM
Thank you, Sean. This is a unique and informative article. I’ve search the web high and low for just this list of character interaction chemistry, and it is woefully void. You’ve hit the nail on the head with great examples. I’m also stunned that no one else has commented. This is a hit! I’m not sure if this comprises all the major archetypes or not, but I can’t think of any others at the moment. If I do, I’ll let you know. But I can think of at least a couple of “teams” that worked well in a long-running TV sci-fi series: Stargate SG1 and the old Star Trek.
Thanks again, JT.
S P Hannifin · June 24, 2012 at 11:29 PM
I shamefully admit I’ve yet to see Stargate or Star Trek, otherwise I might’ve had some examples from them… they’ve been on my to-watch list for ages. But for shows involving teams, I think the more the characters fit into these sort of relationship archetypes with each other, the more cohesive they’ll feel together, instead of just a bunch of random characters thrown together. Especially for a TV show, since it’s ultimately the character relationships that keep viewers coming back for more.
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