When people hear the word relationship, most think of a romantic and/or sexual relationship, but it’s important to recognize that this represents a small fraction of the relationships that influence every character. In the context of this post, a relationship is any time that one character applies opinions or expectations onto another, whether the other person knows it or not.
Relationships form a complex web of exchanges, messages, and ideas, which shape who a character is, giving them values to accept, question, or reject. The relationships a character has, and how they choose to engage them, can reveal a great deal about the character themselves.
The most significant relationships are two-sided and personal, founded on opinions and emotional or social connections, but the most common type of relationship in a character’s life are limited relationships, relationships which are not permitted to grow into personal relationships. These include professional relationships, one sided relationships, and indirect relationships.
When considering limited relationships, it’s important to recognize who is perceived as holding power, and who actually holds power. Limited relationships are often defined by who would be more difficult to replace if the relationship were to end.
Professional relationships are founded on mutually agreed upon exchanges. Roles are clearly defined, with formal obligations and entitlements. The most common form of business relationship is exchanging goods and/or services for some form of compensation. These relationships are often rooted in choice, but some are imposed on characters, by necessity (food, shelter, etc.), or by law.
In any story, it’s important to consider what professional relationships a character has by choice, out of necessity, what relationships have been forced upon them. To what extent does the character accept or endure these impositions, and where/how does the character rebel? Which relationships do they maintain as formal relationships, and which relationships are allowed to grow into personal relationships?
Professional relationships are a great way of establishing routines, creating an implied past that recognizes the story that came before “page 1” without becoming overly weighed down by it. Professional relationships can also serve as a source of obscure information. If no one among the main cast knows a vital piece of information, perhaps a professional relationship minor character could overhear and interject.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Stan Shunpike is primarily defined by his role on the Knight Bus, but he’s also a convenient source of information when the topic of Sirious Black comes up.
Lastly, professional relationships are often marked by the pressure to “act professional”, to conceal emotions and personal opinions, which can become a source of tension. Consider how frequently Harry Potter, as a student, was required to compose himself when interacting with his teachers, particularly Snape.
One Sided Relationships
A one sided relationship exists when one person influences others, but is not influenced by them. The most common form is a leader or “idol” and their fans/followers. Examples include politicians, athletes, actors, and musicians. They provide a unique personality, a presence, which influences their fans or followers. Granted, when a following is small, individuals may wield some influence over their “idol”, but as their numbers grow, their influence dwindles, until most simply provide generic support, punctuated by a few outspoken members who manage to break through, if only briefly.
One sided relationships are a good way of revealing and explaining a character’s views or opinions. An idol may come up during a conversation, and the character reacts to the idol in some fashion. For example, in an early scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid makes some derisive remarks about the current Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. This serves as the audience’s only information about the character of Fudge until book 2, and further cements Hagrid as a supporter of Albus Dumbledore, who declined the office himself.
Indirect relationships are relationships where time and/or distance prevent the fan or follower from ever interacting with their “idol”. This can include politicians and performers, but the most common form are historical and fictional figures, those that have already died before influencing the character.
Indirect relationships tend to be the most stable. Most of the information the character learns about the idol is carefully controlled to maintain the consistency of their brand or professional identity.
Indirect relationships often represent an icon or ideal, something the character dreams of becoming, or cites as an example of “all that is wrong with the world”. These idols represent very powerful symbols for the character. As a result, any new information that shakes the character’s “concept” of their icon can provoke intense emotional outbursts.
Consider James Potter, Harry’s late father. At first Harry idolizes him, but in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is forced to come to terms with the reality that his father was not always the kindest of people.
Personal relationships represent the focus of any character’s life, but there is a limit to how many personal relationships a character, or a story, can engage. Limited relationships help to bridge the gap, surprising audiences with fresh information and small conflicts, even as the main storyline may be dipping down into a lull.