2

When starting a series there is initially a lot of fertile ground for storytelling because the characters don't know each other very well and are still establishing an equilibrium. As a result, there is a lot of potential drama due to clashing personalities and the growing pains of the characters learning to understand each other. A very common character arc is having two or more characters initially starting off on a bad foot and learning to trust each other over the course of the story. For the audience, there is a vicarious thrill of the unknown in seeing how these two or more strangers bounce off each other and develop a relationship. This is the primary draw of virtually every buddy cop movie ever made, though it appears to a lesser degree in other works. Quite frequently the narrative payoff in the first book in a series is seeing these characters actually achieve some level of working relationship.

However, my question is what do you do for character development and drama in a series once the characters have settled into a personal dynamic and are no longer unfamiliar to one another? The relationship no longer has any conflict because they are familiar with each other's personality and quirks. It is possible to throw new characters into the mix to challenge them, but these relationships are often not as satisfying as the first entry in a series as the developing relationships are between a secondary and a primary character rather than between the primary characters. Other works have tried to keep the relationship between the lead characters unstable and ever-changing to maintain that feeling of the unknown. However, part of a friendship or romance is being able to trust one another, and if the relationship between two characters is constantly unpredictable and the two do not understand or cannot rely on one another it gives the impression the character never had a healthy relationship in the first place.

A good example of this is with the upcoming sequel to the recent Venom movie. Much of the drama for the original Venom movie came from the fear of the unknown, the symbiote was an unknown to Eddie and he didn't know if he could trust it. But in the trailer for the new movie the two are introduces as understanding one another and being familiar with one another's quirks. The movie seems to be trying to get around this by chucking Carnage at the protagonists and seeing what happens, rather than expanding Eddie and the symbiote's relationship.

Similarly, the Men In Black movies were based around the buddy-cop principle, albeit with the "cops" being alien police. However, by the end of the first movie J was no longer an inexperienced MIB agent and had established a rapport with K. This meant that the source of drama had evaporated and the sequels were unable to follow up on the success that the first was. They either tried to reverse the roles (as in the first half of Men in Black II) or do away with it (as in the second half of that movie), and got massively criticized for it as the "spark" of the original movie being gone.

My question is how do you continue to develop characters' relationships with one another in later entries of a series once they have settled into an established dynamic and there isn't a ready source of conflict and drama from the characters being unfamiliar with each other and learning to deal with each others quirks?

1
  • 1
    Is your question really "How to make character differences a never ending source of drama?"
    – Alexander
    Jun 24 at 0:59
3

One of the best film series that shows this at a platonic level is the Toy Story franchise. A consistent theme across all films is that the toys have a need for affection from their kids and that a rejection of affection can be devastating. The first film shows this directly as Woody is replaced as "Andy's Favorite Toy" for the newer Buzz Lightyear, an action figure to his doll, with more features than his pull string voice box. This isn't just Woody's insecurities as all the toys voice concern as to who will be replaced with the new toys brought to Andy's birthday (Rex hopes for no dinosaurs, or at the least, no carnivores, as he knows he can't compete with another meat eater. Mr. Potatohead is the only toy who would like a competing toy... because the only one that will meet that definition is the Mrs.). However, everyone is shocked and then wowed by the arrival of a toy so cool, it takes Woody's top spot while leaving everyone else's role in the pecking order intact. Woody also resents that Buzz is convinced he's a real Buzz Lightyear and doesn't accept his status as a Toy. The conflict is resolved when Buzz finally learns the truth and Woody realizes that Buzz has lost the will to live because he's just a "child's play thing." Woody explains that both Buzz and himself are more than that: They are Andy's Toys and for Woody, who has always known, accepted, and even embraced being "Andy's Toy" as the only thing he knows, Buzz came in and took all Woody has worked to achieve, did it better, and thoughtlessly disrespected it in his depression. And through all of that, Woody still is trying to show compassion for Buzz because Buzz is Andy's Toy... and that is important to Woody.

The next two films would see both in a respectful relationship, sharing a co-leadership status among the toys. In Toy Story 2, the situation is reversed where Woody is shown that, like Buzz, he has a huge following around the world and could be loved by children for the rest of time... but he has to leave Andy. Here the dynamic change as Woody sees himself as something larger than life and it's this time the more humbled Buzz who has to help Woody realize that Andy still needs him and that if Woody does leave, everything he did for Andy and Buzz in the first film are betrayed. In addition, Woody meets the first of many "rejected toys" that will be encountered who's owners outgrew them (Jessie) or never had owners to begin with (Stinky Pete, who was mint in the box). Jessie was in a funk because of her owner growing up and Pete manipulates Woody to go live at the toy Museum (where he can get the affection of children that he never knew through the only way he has ever seen it... as a thing to be looked at but never played with).

In the final film, Andy's Toys finally face the trauma Jessie warned would come: Andy is grown up and is leaving them. Not only that, but his actions cause his toys to accidentally get donated to a day care center. Woody and the rest feel betrayed, but due to some miscommunications, Woody is allowed to experience the ideal second life of a toy while the rest are given the bottom of the barrel treatment in the pecking order of toys at the day car. And while Woody has lost his faith in Andy, it's Buzz and the crew who have to convince them that Andy wants them back while Woody tries to convince them that they need to move on and Andy is truly grown... and that no matter what happens to them next, they will need to face it together.

Throughout the series, Buzz and Woody go from rivals to friends and co-equals. But this doesn't mean they aren't identical in their point of view or experience or reactions to the changing world around them. But rather they both know each other well enough to tell the other when they have lost the plot and need to get back on remembering what they agree on. All three films pit Woody and Buzz against each other in unique situations, and in all three, they are able to bring each other back to reality so that they can go back to doing what they do best... being the best toy for a child they can be.

1
  • 'final film'? Harsh...
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 25 at 7:52
1

Sure - Marriage Has No Conflict!

If you think that established relationships are not fraught with conflict, confusion, infidelity, radical life changes and the like, then you haven't watched a TV show that lasted more than one season.

Marriage is one really good example. It's the gold standard of what the "ideal" romantic relationship is. But divorce is a real thing, and before divorce was common, there was a lot of abuse and infidelity that got tolerated because everyone was expected to just make things work regardless of the consequences.

So what examples of relationships do you have to model stories on? Almost everyone has at least seen their parents interact. I don't just mean happy "perfect" marriages, but people who live together, have kids and then split up/get back together, with screwed up families, drug issues, abuse (even in loving relationships), mental health problems - the list goes on and on and ON.

Some people want to have perfect lives for their heroes/heroines in stories. That's okay (sorta), if you have enough external conflict. It makes for a long series of cookie-cutter books where the plot never varies. But in reality, most people fight with those who they have long-term relationships the most. Relationships are not static things, but instead ever evolving messes. My wife is not the same person she was a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, or ten years ago. She's certainly not the same person I married. That means that people grow together, and often the growth is in the form of conflict.

unchanging trust is an illusion. Relationships require constant effort. True love doesn't have two people endlessly basking in the glow of the other's love, but instead constantly struggling to keep what they have and doubting everything. The finest couple I know still have some conflict (mostly as a result of their kids) but still manage to come back together after their trials and let the other know there is still love in the relationship.

Add to this the presence of new characters. So X loves Y forever, but then Y falls in love with Z as well (hell, it's fiction; I had a character appear to die, and their spouse fell in love with someone else while the person was absent). Now X loves Y, Y loves X and Z, Z loves Y, and maybe X and Z had some kind of relationship before all this. This is just ONE plot element in a story, with one additional character, and the whole "boring" established relationship is thrown into chaos.

Further, there is history. The characters had things and relationships before the protagonists met, and these old relations and loyalties complicate things endlessly.

If you have written a book where you have successfully resolved every possible conflict between the characters by the end, don't write a sequel. But if your characters still have unresolved issues, then you have another book to write. That means you DO have more books to write, because people will always be changing and finding new conflicts.

0

So your disparate characters have evolved into a well oiled machine with unflinching trust, intuitive coordination and a shared, in-depth understanding of each member's abilities, weaknesses and boundaries. What an amazing and rarely utilized starting point for your next adventure!

Lots of way to move forward from here...

  • Turn their strength into a weakness by putting one of the characters in extreme jeopardy and watch all the others, fettered by their fear for their beloved teammate, struggle, possibly unsuccessfully, to save them.

  • Let them grow in the rich soil of their incredible relationships. Each of your characters brought personal failings and false beliefs with them when they joined the story. Now, with the support of their loving friends, each of them gets to mature out of these initial weaknesses, becoming spectacular balanced and mentally healthy versions of their younger selves. As each of them grows, new dynamics and opportunities will develop within their relationships. Good examples of this growth include the X-Men's Fastball-Special and the omnidirectional concussion attack which the Avengers can pull off by striking Captain America's Shield with Thor's Hammer.

  • Use their unfailing trust as an inside secret which the readers and your protagonists know but which hapless enemies aren't prepared for. An enemy with an extreme advantage can be overcome by characters who absolutely know they can depend on their friends and are simultaneously willing to sacrifice all for those friends.

A strong team is not the end of the character development road. It is just the end of the part of the journey which must be travelled alone.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.