Creating Chemistry Between Characters

I had a very productive weekend fiction-writing wise! I’ve made a good start on my gladiators vs aliens novel and I really like what I’ve written so far. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so buoyed up by creating something new. Usually I allow myself to get bogged down in detail and planning and I forget to just “go with it”. Friday and Saturday I worked on introducing our protagonists – introducing their lives and developing their characters as individuals.

On Saturday evening and yesterday I did what I felt was just as important – introducing the protagonists to each other. It’s all very well and good creating good characters but these do not exist in bubbles – we must also think about how they work with or against each other. When your novel primarily features a group of people, never underestimate the necessity to get them together as soon as possible and develop that chemistry between them. Here is a short (and rough) section from Chapter 2 – the men meeting for the first time.

The men kept to themselves, a respectful distance apart but close enough to size each other up. The Jew known as Joseph muttered with his companion and the two of them kept looking at a rough looking man with a black eye. He was quite possibly the youngest man there but he had been through the wars. His body language was openly hostile and the glances he kept getting did nothing to warm him to the others.

The remaining two men eyed each other with interest. One, an older Greek man, respectfully nodded several times at the young skinny man but his interest was firmly concentrated on the rugged-yet-handsome man and his Jewish companion. Finally, the stand-off ended when the Greek moved over to the pair.

‘Hello gentlemen. I’m Methodius.’

The rugged-yet-handsome man saluted. ‘Greetings Methodius. I am Tiberius Tatius Saturninus and this is my chief trainer, Joseph Ben Solomon.’

‘Trainer? What do you do?’

‘I own a private gladiator training school. And you?’

‘You do not know me so you cannot owe me money. Your school must be doing rather well! Coincidentally, I am a retired gladiator but I made enough money to establish my own bank so now I am a moneylender.’

‘Another retired gladiator? That makes three of us,’ said the Jew.

‘And those two, do you suppose they made their fortune in the arena?’ Methodius gestured to the other two men in turn.

Valens was already making his away over to the group. ‘I heard somebody say gladiator?’ He offered a smile that would charm even the hardest legionary. ‘I’m a retired gladiator. Are you?’

‘That’s four!’ proclaimed Saturninus. ‘And you my friend?’ He looked to the man with the black eye.

Nero glared at each in turn and nodded.

‘You’re not very talkative, friend?’

‘No. I don’t do small talk. All I am interested in is seeing what the Emperor wants, thanking him for his hospitality and then refusing whatever he is offering. So if you don’t mind, I’m not interested in making friends with any of you.’

Saturninus and Methodius exchanged glances.

‘You shan’t be missed,’ said Joseph.

‘I’m surprised you’re even here, Jew.’

‘Why I am here I have yet to discover, friend.’ Joseph turned to face the man. ‘If you imply something else, then let’s hear it.’

‘You of all people? A Jew? I’m surprised you’re even here, eating from his table – Vespasian fought against your uprising and his son commanded the destruction of your temple.’

Joseph flinched. ‘That they did and I fought against Rome but I’m grateful for the new opportunities my survival gave me.’

Nero grinned. ‘Very diplomatic of you, Jew.’

‘We are all equal here, boy. You would do well to show the man some respect. The Emperor has called us here as equals.’

‘And who are you?’ Nero finally joined the group.

‘Methodius.’

‘No, in the arena. Who are you?’

Methodius paused momentarily. ‘They called me “Plato”.’

The only one who seemed impressed was Valens. ‘Oh… you’re him.’

Methodius turned to Valens. ‘Do I know you?’

Valens saluted. ‘Yes sir! We fought together in the arena. Some time ago now but it was my first fight, one of your last, we were the conquering legion attacking the forces of Marc Antony.’

Methodius smiled. ‘Yes, I remember you! The patrician women loved you. I often wondered what happened to you.’

‘The patrician women still love me!’ he winked.

‘Wonderful, now we’re comparing penises!’ Nero exclaimed.

Methodius rolled his eyes.

‘I could tire of you very easily, friend. But that is just as well seeing as you’re not staying,’ growled Joseph. ‘How would you like another black eye to match the one you already have? Will you at least give us the pleasure of your name before I beat the shit out of you?’

‘Nero. In the arena – “The Sword of Nero”.’

‘Joseph, calm yourself,’ Saturninus. ‘Nero… why am I not surprised you are known by that name? If you have nothing productive to say then it is best you say nothing.’

‘And you are?’

Saturninus went to give his full cognomen but realised quickly what he meant. ‘I was known as “Ferrum Romana”.’

‘I was “Noxii” – things didn’t go according to plan, obviously,’ said Joseph.

‘And I was “vulpes”. Or some of the ladies knew me as “The All Night Fox” – at least – the wives of my sponsors knew me that way,’ proclaimed Valens.

Saturninus looked disgusted and Nero shook his head at his proud outburst. ‘So we have a Jew, a Greek moneylender, a washed up gladiator, a man who thinks with his penis and this is the best Emperor Vespasian can do?’

Forgive the coarseness of the text, it hasn’t even had a rough edit so I’m sure there are typos and grammatical errors all over the place. The reason I have posted it is to show the chemistry between the characters. In Chapter 1, we get a clear assessment of who they are as individuals so by this point you will be familiar with them as people. This chapter was important to watch them bounce off each other. Here I have established:

  • Nero doesn’t like people
  • Valens is the charming “lovable rogue” who wants people to like him
  • Friction between Joseph and Nero. Nero might at face value come across as anti-Semite but I doubt this will be the case in the long-term – I think he wants a kindred spirit to vent his bitterness with
  • Rapport between Methodius and Saturninus who will be the “level heads” of the group
  • Joseph has a temper and doesn’t know the meaning of “water off a duck’s back”.
Boromir coveted the ring and lost his life because of his obsession.
tvtropes.org

These men are to go on a long mission together so it was important to put them together as soon as possible and show what chemistry exists between them. Tolkein uses this to great effect in Lord of the Rings when the insidious nature of Boromir becomes apparent quickly. Frodo’s gut reaction is one of mistrust and this is something that proves to be a wise judgement in the end. Friction drives the plot – antagonism between two primary characters keeps the reader interested.

Of course, it is also just as important to develop potentially strong relationships. Using Tolkein as an example again, it is the relationship that exists between Frodo and Sam, and between Merry and Pippin. I also see a potential father-son relationship too between Valens and Methodius – along the lines of that which exists between Frodo and Gandalf (more so in the film). I’m having fun with this and looking forward to sending them on their journey. Nero will go with them but I’ve yet to decide what will persuade him that it’s a good idea.

What do you do or what have you done to develop these relationships between your characters?

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3 thoughts on “Creating Chemistry Between Characters

  1. That was fun! I’d be careful how you refer to each, I was getting a little confused. Maybe give the reader some space between the dialogue to sort them out? I know you did that at first, describing them, but do so later as well. Maybe include some description of where they are at? But this was fun. And a nice idea to have them all meet before the emperor and suss each other out (giving the reader an opportunity to do so as well). Good job!

    This reminds me of a dinner table talk exercise we did on the SFFWorld.com forum. We just pitted our own characters against each other so it was kind of crazy, but I quite enjoyed it – and found out something about my own character. I guess I should do the same for all my characters. Have them unexpectedly meet each other and see what happens. Even if it doesn’t end up in the book, it would help me nail down their personalities.

    1. Thanks! I felt the distinctions were pretty clear in chapter 1 so the reader will be familiar with the character. I know you’re right about maintaining those distinctions and fleshing the scene out. I will when it comes to the “creating something vaguely passable” draft 🙂

      I’ll email you chapter 1 later today so you can take a look!

  2. Pingback: Creating Chemistry Between Characters Part 2 | Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink

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