Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Interpersonal Characterisation

Think of the last book you read or movie you watched that made you reach for the tissue box (if only metaphorically, perhaps). Can you remember the exact scene that required you to deal with some dust in your eye? Was it a dramatic action scene, or was it a reaction scene?

I’ll use the movie The Champ as an example. A character dies in a dramatic action scene, but it is not the death scene that has the audience weeping. The actual lump-in-the-throat moment occurs several minutes after the death scene when a young child reacts to his parent's death. If the movie had ended with the death of a main character it would only be an average film; it is the relationship between father and son that gives it heart, and the raw grief of a child that creates a tear-jerker.

Interpersonal relationships between your characters allow you to suggest to your readers how to feel about them. Readers feel empathy more easily for characters who are loved by other characters. And as for the antagonist has an excellent article that shows how even a character who is in the “right” can be derided as the bad guy simply for having the opposite perspective to the protagonist (along with villainous acting and make-up, of course).

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is told countless stories about his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, before he ever meets him face to face. The other characters have visceral responses to even the mention of Voldemort’s name. And, as a clever counterpoint, Harry’s own name is met with reactions ranging from interest to awe, eliciting curiosity from the reader at vital points in the book's beginning.

Readers can understand on an intellectual level that your protagonist is extraordinarily brave because you told them, but they won't own the emotion that a brave person can provoke until you show them that response through another character.

If you have a character who seems to be lacking depth, try digging more into how s/he makes another character feel. Your characters must react to each other before your reader can follow their lead.

Elle Carter Neal is the author of the picture book I Own All the Blue and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or


  1. The emotional connection between the reader and the characters makes or breaks the story in my opinion. Case in point: if I really want to grab for the tissues, I'll read something by Nicholas Sparks. He does it to me every time.

    Seriously, Elle, this is a great post. A story must be more than the relation of facts, the history of a family, or the expressions of an agenda — it must be the relationship that grows between characters and readers. That's what gives it emotion. That's what gives it heart.

  2. Great post and photo, Elle. I'll have to think back to what made me cry a half dozen times in the past week reading manuscripts. Something I could relate to in my life, I'm guessing, or something so universal, any normal person would be touched. Good thing to think about!

  3. I love the focus of this post, with its one clear point that all who read it will now keep in the back of their minds. It's a show-don't-tell thing: telling us a character is much beloved is just not as potent as showing that love through the character's specific relationships. The more specific that love is, the more universal it will feel to the reader. Super!

  4. As I was clicking away from this site (had to go tweet this!) I realized that this topic could be expanded to any relationships, not just interpersonal. The relationship between Tom Hanks and the volleyball Wilson in "Cast Away" comes to mind.

  5. Thanks for the comments, ladies.

    Kathryn, that's a good point about this applying to any relationship, although the characterisation would then be mostly one-way. How a character relates to a pet, and is loved by a pet, is also quite a common technique for establishing emotional connection. But, as in Cast Away, inanimate items can also be effective - characters could talk to their cars or plants, as other examples.

  6. So true. We are emotionally involved with what's going on inside the character. Showing the character dealing with the emotions, fighting them, then succumbing creates so much more of a connection than just telling us. Susan Wiggs gets me every time. I had to stop taking her books to read at the gym.

  7. Kathryn's right about show-don't-tell. That's what gives emotional scenes their impact. To say a child is crying is a fact. To show huge tears tumbling across chapped cheeks from wide, blue eyes as a toddler watches his mother leave for the last time touches the heart. I repeat, Elle, this is a great post.

  8. An emotional connection between readers and the characters is what makes a story the most interesting to me.


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