Yesterday, I told the story in which I developed my theory of the key ingredient in a great story: that of “relationships” between characters. But there are a few clarifying points that I’d like to make.
First, a definition. When I refer to “relationships” as being key, I don’t mean the word in the colloquial sense of a “romantic relationship”. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a friendship, or any other positive relationship, for that matter. When I talk about “relationships” between characters, I mean that there has been a level of personal interaction between characters which is the genesis of an emotional response between characters. In other words, stuff happened between two characters, and because of that stuff the two characters may have come to like each other, love each other, hate each other, bore each other, become jealous, and so on. The feelings needn’t be mutual, either. In fact, relationship dynamics can be so much more interesting when they aren’t perfectly congruous.
The second addendum is this: the relationship is not divorceable from the characters involved. In other words, having “characters” with “relationships” will not save a story if the “characters” are not interesting, engaging, or otherwise worthy of our rooting interest. For the past couple of years, I’ve been using The Redemption of Althalus as my touchstone on this point, because it’s the only fantasy novel I’ve ever put down unfinished – a dubious honor, I’m sure. The reason I couldn’t finish that book? While it had a relatively interesting premise, the entire cast of characters were card-board cut-outs of standard fantasy tropes with little or no variation from each other. (One review on Amazon I read described the book as having exactly 3 characters who have been cloned multiple times and given different names and dress: good guy, good girl, and bad guy. I’d concur, except I’d say there’s really only one character who is cloned, and who’s name, gender, and assigned allegiance are the only variables.) Althalus is my touchstone because the characters were so dull and unengaging. Though there were several relationships between the various characters, they had absolutely no depth. And however shallow the good guys, the bad guys were even thinner, such that throughout the book, we have virtually no concern whatever whether the good guys or the bad guys win, because there are no real consequences. For the “relationships” ingredient to work, therefore, these relationships need to be between fully realized and engageable characters.
That said, this element alone may not be sufficient to propel a story to greatness. But I still maintain that it is the one element that must be executed on well in order for a story to be great. Other elements will still be necessary, but the specifics of those elements are not, in my mind, as iron-clad as that of interesting relationships between interesting characters. To greater or lesser degrees, genre conventions may dictate a lot more about what needs to go on in a story: whether you need an exciting, never-before-been-seen new idea, or deeply intricate plots, or explosive dialog. Some of these you almost certainly will need. But you ignore characters and their relationships at your own peril.