“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 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. The presence of Snape, and the question of “Why Dumbledore trusts Snape” becomes a recurring social conflict among the heroes of the story, which prevents the narrative from devolving into a simple “good vs evil” narrative.
Relationships reveal information through how characters interact, but they also reveal information through a character’s abilities. Consider how much of Aragorn’s character in Fellowship of the Ring is initially established through his strength and knowledge of wilderness lore. It isn’t until much later that audiences learn the source of that strength, but he is quickly established as a powerful character.
Stories rely on tension to keep readers engaged. Tension is created through conflict and an uncertain outcome. Not all conflicts are between characters, but all characters conflict with each other at some point, though many conflicts are so minor that they’re easily overlooked.
Many stories use minor conflicts to fuel their subplots. Subplots help to provide an independent source of tension, particularly useful during the lulls where the main conflict has subsided. A good story has multiple threads, and as the tension in one thread declines, another one begins to rise. For example, in Fellowship of the Ring, the group departs Moria with a heavy burden. In the aftermath of their loss, Gimli becomes the focal point of new tension, as he conflicts with the local elves they encounter. It’s a minor conflict, but it gives audiences something to engage, while other characters continue to transition from one conflict to the next.
Individually each subplot is small and simple, but they frequently blend together, creating a web of cause, effect, and complication, which helps round out a story. 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.
Conflicts frequently represent an issue or dilemma. The problem poses the question, and each character expresses their own answer through the choices they make. For example, the Harry Potter series focuses on “what it means to be great”. Voldemort, and those like him, represent amoral and egotistical power, while Dumbledore and Harry propone humility and self-restraint. Through the conflict between the two sides, the story explores the temptations of power, the desire to seize power for the sake of “doing good”, and how easily those good intentions can lead a good character down a dark path.
To some extent all conflicts have an underlying ideology. Some, like Harry Potter, make a clear distinction between right and wrong, while others, like Fight Club, offer more ambiguous answers, encouraging audiences to debate and reach their own conclusion.