Many young adult books would have you believing romance is the most important relationship your character will encounter. It is not. Your character has been shaped by many other types of relationships well before they even thought about romance.
Almost all fiction books are character-driven, and will thus have at least one plotline depicting character relationships. Consider the relationship between every character in your story and how that affects the characters and the plot. Also consider the relationships your characters hold dear but are not focused on in your novel. Every relationship will affect your character, some more than others.
Examples of relationships:
Name an orphan in literature. How many names came to your mind? Now name a teenage character who lives with and is loved by both their biological parents. This one probably required a little more thought. So many novels, especially in the young adult genre, don’t give enough attention to parents. Adults seem like an obstacle, so they are portrayed as ignorant, evil, or nonexistent. The easiest way to break this trope is to give adults a role in your story. This doesn’t have to demote your younger characters’ voices. Having parent figures to look up to can shape your character as much as not having role models. Of course, the parent figure doesn’t have to be your character’s biological parent. Your character can look up to an adopted parent, a step-parent, a teacher, a coach, or any other adult in their life. Think about what this parent figure has taught the character (values, religion, etc.) and why your character respects them. How well do the parent and child understand each other?
This one may sometimes blend into the parent-child relationship, but many times a mentor-mentee relationship will remain just that. The mentee likely respects the mentor’s expertise, and, in turn, the mentor cares for the mentee and wants to see them succeed. However, if either member of the relationship doesn’t feel this way about the other, it can be the source of conflict. For instance, consider the initial relationship between Katniss and Haymitch in The Hunger Games: Katniss did not respect Haymitch, and this led to distrust between them. Eventually, they outgrew this distrust and found a mutual respect for each other. One common trope in young adult novels, especially fantasy, is a mentor who allows the mentee to “discover things on their own,” which usually puts the mentee in terrible danger. It is unlikely a caring mentor will allow their mentee to go on a dangerous quest without truly being prepared. Thus, if you don’t want your character to know something, their mentor shouldn’t either (unless you give a better reason why).
This relationship changes the most from genre to genre. In novels set in the modern world, older teenagers will likely explore their first jobs. The dynamic between employer and employee may change depending on the setting of your novel. Be sure to check the age restrictions on working in the country or region your novel is set in. In fantasy or historical fiction novels, younger characters may also be employed, and the character may believe this is the job they will be in for the rest of their life. Consider how the employer and job affects the employee and the way they view the workplace. Does your character know what career path they want to follow? If not, does their current employer influence their decision?
Again, this one doesn’t have to be biological. Step-siblings, adopted siblings, or really close friends who consider themselves siblings (think found family) all have similar dynamics. Siblings do not have to have similar interests or appearances, but they know each other well. Inside jokes and nicknames can help give insight into the siblings’ relationship and their background. One of the biggest factors that will impact the way siblings act around each other is age. Siblings who are closer in age will be more likely to have common friend circles and go to the same school. For siblings with large age gaps, the younger one probably looks up to the older one and the older one is probably protective of the younger one.
This is a beautiful relationship. Your plot can explore a new friendship or test an old one. Friends should respect and care for each other and know each other well. They will, like siblings, have inside jokes and nicknames. Unlike siblings, friends should have some common interests, because they chose to be each other’s friends. Think about what brought them together and how that affects them.
Not every relationship has to be incredibly fleshed out and go through an elaborate character arc. Your character will have many acquaintances and make many more throughout the novel. This acquaintanceship can grow into friendship, love, or enmity, but it doesn’t have to. Consider classmates who work together occasionally for projects but don’t really know each other well. Acquaintances can be colleagues in the workplace whose relationship doesn’t extend beyond the office. They can also be neighbors who interact for small talk but not much more. Acquaintances affect your character the least, but they can be used for plot twists or suspense.
I’m using this term really broadly for any two characters who have negative opinions of each other. Any of the relationships above could go wrong and the characters could end up as enemies. It’s important to explain any enmity between characters. Where and when did it begin? How deep does it run? There are many reasons a character could dislike another. Also, your character may not know they don’t like another. Whatever the case, make sure there is a motive behind negative emotions.
Yes, we’re circling back to the most common relationship: when two characters fall in love with each other. Be sure to avoid common pitfalls in romance, such as love at first sight, which can be cheesy and make it seem like looks are more important than personality. Develop both characters involved in the relationship and make sure they respect and trust each other. You should also try to add representation in your characters’ romantic relationships. This can include LBGTQ+ relationships, couples of different races or ethnicities, and much more!
Impact on Character
Any of these relationships could have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on your character. It is not necessary that both members of a relationship treat the relationship the same way. A mentor could think of their mentee as a child even if the mentee only sees the mentor as a teacher. Parents and siblings could have negative impacts on your character. Your character may be stuck in a toxic friendship or romantic relationship. And, yes, enmity can have a positive effect on your character. It can result in redemption arcs and amends made, or it could just help your character better understand themselves and their strengths.
Make sure you flesh out the effects of these relationships on your characters. Think about your favorite character from a book, TV show, or movie. If any relationship arcs dominated the plot, think about how those plotlines changed the character. What made you root for friends to make amends or acquaintances to get to know each other better? Why did you ship two characters but not the other two? Also consider any relationships that were alluded to but not focused on in the story. Did the character have a sibling who wasn’t a main character? How did that sibling change the character? Additionally, the dynamic between two characters may change over the course of the novel.
Also feel free to use examples around you to base your characters’ relationships off of. Reality cannot be copyrighted, so it is the best resource at your disposal. Think about yourself. What relationships make you who you are? Consider the relationship you have with your family and friends. Look through your contacts and think about the impact each person in your life made (or didn’t make) on you. The easiest way to write a realistic relationship is to base it off of a real one.
My favorite relationship to write about is siblings. All my WIPs and books emphasize relationships between siblings and I love exploring different dynamics in this relationship.
What is your favorite relationship to write about? Let me know in the comments!