One of the most delightful parts of writing–and reading, and watching a well-done movie or TV series–is character dynamics. Playing characters off of one another, testing them against each other, seeing how their differences clash or compliment (or how their similarities clash or compliment) is just fun. It’s probably the same thing that makes a good party entertaining for people who enjoy parties (Personal Fact: I enjoy parties until I get home and think about all the ways I might have looked stupid). An ensemble of characters is great in its own right, but for now, I’m going to talk about dynamic duos.
Let’s face it, the original Star Trek would not have been nearly as good without Spock and Bones perpetually digging at each other, or without their obvious friendship in spite of that. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing wouldn’t have been the least bit fun without Beatrice and Benedick aggravating the hell out of each other and falling in love (either outcome of their interaction, by itself, would have been pretty vanilla, but both made it both spicy and hysterically funny). Even better is Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship simultaneously makes each character redeemable and monstrous.
The pitfall for a writer, particularly with duos and particularly particularly with opposite-sex or romantic duos, comes when one character is too strong for the other. One way to go wrong with this is to tone down a great character to prop up another. The first example that comes to mind, for me, is the Golden Compass series. We had a strong female lead in the first book, and in the second book she is completely different in her behavior and responses to things. She goes from being courageous and active in the first book to being passive, submissive, and unsure of herself once a male character becomes the lead in the second. To me, this does not come across as, “Oh, this guy must be really something, if a strong girl like her looks to him for answers.” It comes across as, “Well, someone doesn’t know how to balance two strong characters.” This irritated me to no end. And it can certainly go both ways, when it comes to gender. Some writers of strong female characters think that toning down men boosts their women.
As someone who is in the process of writing a novel with a strong female character with a husband, I have to say that my approach is not to tone either wife (Erica) or husband (Dom) down to up the other’s game. Like ANY good dynamic duo, the key for me is to show the ways, both quirky and vital, that each plays off the other. It’s par for the course in writing to match the antagonist’s strength to the protagonist’s. Why should it be any different for a pair of protagonists? If it takes a strong person to fight a strong person, why wouldn’t it follow that it takes a strong person to love a strong person–whether that love is romantic, platonic, or love-hate? The fun part is digging around in the realms of whose strengths compliment whose–who’s too focused on this to pick up on that, who picks up the pieces when the other goes too far–and how each of them sees their own strengths and weaknesses compared to the other? This is far from applying only to romantic couples, or even to duos. Any system of human interaction depends on members contributing something or other, and good storytelling brings together individual contributions to the whole of a satisfying story. Even the bad guys, because they did their part to make the story good, too. We’re social animals, when it comes down to it. Write like a social animal.
Happy Sunday! Now I’ll have another glass of amontillado in honor of you, dear readers. Next week, I think I’ll write about what I’ve been reading lately!