Character Relationship Maps

Try as you might, some of you can’t help but read my blog. Perhaps it’s like a horrible highway accident; you just can’t avert your eyes. You regular readers know, then, that my mind favors images, graphs, and pictorial displays, and that’s what I’ve got going on today.

It isn’t that I disdain text; I am a writer, after all. It’s just that a picture is worth a thousand words, so when I need information in a condensed form, it’s hard to beat a graphical chart.

When a writer sets out to craft a story, it can be difficult to keep all the characters in mind. One technique for doing so is to use a Character Relationship Map (CRM). Like a mind map and Root Cause Analysis motivation chart, this map is something for your use alone. No reader will see it, so you can make up your own format.

Star Wars Character Relationship MapThe one I’m showing here, for the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope (Episode IV), is for illustrative purposes only and is not complete or necessarily accurate. My only intent is to show one possible example for a case familiar to most readers. To see many other sample Character Relationship Maps, do an Internet search for that term and click on images.

The CRM depicts, on a single page, all the relationships between all your story’s characters, or at least the major ones. Having this map before you as you write the story will help you keep these relationships in mind. Note that your story must contain written evidence of each relationship. If not, the reader will not know the relationship exists.

Another advantage of a Character Relationship Map is to ensure you create and understand the relationships yourself. Each major character should have some arrows going out and some going in. Each major character should have arrows connecting to all other major characters.

You might think a CRM would be useful only for novels, or other stories with plenty of characters. However, such maps can be helpful even for short stories with as few as two characters. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, you could connect two characters with four relationships using four lines. Use one line to depict how Character A feels about Character B internally, another line to show how A behaves toward B externally, and two more lines to represent the internal feelings and external behavior of B toward A.

Relationships can be complex. A good author shows some amount of friction, or at least tension, between even the friendliest or most loving characters. Why? Conflict is central to fiction. No two characters are alike, so they will think differently and there will be some level of uncertainty, some speck of doubt or occasional distaste even between the closest and most devoted characters.

To make your CRM more beneficial to you, consider using colors and line thicknesses or shapes to represent other aspects of characters and relationships. For example, you could use box colors to represent character gender, where they stand on the good-evil spectrum, or some other attribute. You could use line thickness to indicate the intensity of the relationship. You could use line shape to indicate the type of relationship, perhaps curved lines for friendship and jagged lines for enmity.

Characters, and their relationships, change through the story. You could show that by means of two maps, one showing the before state, and the other the after state. Or you could find some method of picturing the change on a single map.

Have you used a Character Relationship Map? If so, did you find it helpful? Leave a comment for a rather colorful character known as—

Poseidon’s Scribe

January 10, 2016Permalink

Body Dialogue

Some say our bodies speak more clearly and honestly than our mouths do. I don’t know about that, but I think it will help your fiction if you show your characters using appropriate body language from time to time.

Body DialogueWhy? For one thing, body language helps break up long strings of dialogue quotes to keep the text more readable and interesting. Body language allows you to show internal conflict within a non-Point-of-View character by contrasting that character’s words with some clashing body language. Also, body language can emphasize the emotions of a character by going beyond mere spoken words.

Body language, or kinesics, includes such things as facial expressions, body posture, gestures, and tone of voice. Subdivisions of kinesics include Oculesics (body language of the eyes), Haptics (body language through touching), and Proxemics (body language using distance).

Author Amanda Patterson, founder of Writers Write, has provided a convenient online table that provides the typical body language expressions for many emotions.

There are a few ways you could use this resource:

  • As-is. Just find your character’s current emotion, and have the character display some or all of the body language manifestations. This may contrast a bit with what the character is saying, and that shows either internal conflict or deception.
  • Characteristic body language. For one of your main characters, establish a pattern where that character displays a particular body language much of the time, thus establishing a character trait and linking it to a predominate personality trait. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo often crossed his arms, denoting aloofness, distance, and defensiveness.
  • Given that the table provides typical body language, consider showing one or more of your main characters exhibiting slight variations on those common traits. Those variations may say something about your characters’ personalities.

It’s not clear if body language is common across all countries, all cultures, or all time periods, so be careful and do some research before assuming a character would exhibit the body language you do.

Lastly, don’t overdo it. Just like long strings of dialogue get boring, so does too-frequent use of body language.

Jumping up and down while pumping my fists in the air, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 29, 2015Permalink

Make Your Readers Cry

How can you cause your readers to cry?  No, I don’t mean crying about having bought your book.  That’s easy.  I want to explore how you should write so as to cause readers to experience a powerful emotional reaction, one you actually intend to cause.  It need not be sadness, but any powerful reaction.

I can’t find the precise quote, but Isaac Asimov once said the aim of writing good fiction is to maximize the emotional response of the reader.  That makes it sound so mathematical; simply take the multi-dimensional equation for reader emotional response, select the right combination of character, setting, and plot variables that result in a local maximum in the solution surface.


Except there is no equation, and none of those story elements are numbers.  In fairness to Dr. Asimov, I’m pretty sure he knew that too.

But what if we looked at this another way?  Maybe there’s some trick or shortcut that always works, some valve in the human psyche you can turn with just the right words, and cause tears to flow.

800px-Adele_2009Consider the singer and composer Adele, and her song, “Someone Like You.”  That song has a reputation for causing listeners to cry.  What is it about that song?

Over two decades ago, Dr. John Sloboda, a British psychologist, studied the phenomenon of music making people cry and concluded most of the sob-inducing passages (including, it now turns out, “Someone Like You”) contained a common element.

That common element is known to music scholars as an appoggiatura.  It basically involves delaying the resolution of a melody through use of an interfering note that creates a brief emotional tension prior to completing the melodic phrase with its logical conclusion.  There’s more to the definition, but I wanted to convey that this is a single, simple musical technique.

Really?  That’s all there is to it?  Composers have a simple trick by which they can make us cry, and there’s nothing we can do about it?  Of course it’s not that simple.  Appoggiaturas may be a part of it, but there’s also something about how the rest of the melody flows, the singer’s voice, and the powerful meaning of the words.  I believe it’s the combination of all those things that brings magic to “Someone Like You.”

Getting back to writing…is there, then, some formula for writing fiction that makes readers cry?  For us authors, where is our appoggiatura?  Here are some things that might work, but this can’t be an exhaustive list:

  • A character the reader cares deeply about.  (How to achieve that is a blog subject in itself.)
  • A “bad” event happens to that character.  Something like death, serious injury, divorce, leaving for a long time, etc.
  • A skillful management of reader tension, through use of words that jar a bit, and delay the resolution of emotion.  This relates to the appoggiatura in music.
  • Another character to experience the emotion intended.  I think this can be optional, since it’s the reader’s emotion we’re after, but it helps for the reader to experience the sadness along with a character.

I don’t know of any scientific studies of books that make people cry, analogous to Dr. Sloboda’s studies of music, but I suspect the above elements might be common features in anyone’s list of tear-prompting literature.

Please leave a comment on all this, if you can pull yourself together.  With a box of tissues by my side, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

October 13, 2013Permalink

Describing Your Characters’ Feelings

How are your characters feeling?  It’s important for your readers to know.  I’ve written an earlier post about conveying a character’s thoughts, and another one about facial expressions, but it’s time to tackle emotions.

For this blog post I’m going to regard ‘feelings,’ ’emotions,’ and ‘moods’ as being synonymous, even though neuroscientists draw distinctions between these terms.

Emotions are part of the human experience, and seem to result from how we’re hard-wired, what our individual background has been, and a recent external or internal stimulus.  Since we all have emotions in the real world, the characters in your fiction must have them too, to make them convincing.

Whether there are six basic emotions, as depicted by Dr. Paul Ekman…


…or eight as pictured by Dr. Robert Plutchik…

591px-Plutchik-wheel.svg…writers just need to know there are many emotions, and characters can feel them in combinations and in various intensities.

As a writer, it’s your job to convey these emotions to the reader with clarity and accuracy.  There shouldn’t be a doubt in the reader’s mind about what a character is feeling.

How do you do that?  Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure the emotion is appropriate.  Remember, it’s based on a character’s background, but is also a response to a recent stimulus.
  • Show the emotion through the character’s actions:  speech (not only what is said, but word choice and tone of voice), facial expressions, hand motions, or body posture.
  • Show the emotion by describing the character’s thoughts or mental state.
  • Use metaphors and similes, but shun clichés.
  • In certain situations (fast action scenes, very short fiction, or if applicable to a minor character or sub-plot), just tell the character’s emotion.  This is not as effective as other methods and indicates amateurish writing  if used too often.

If you get stuck trying to portray a character’s emotion in words, one technique that might help is to recall a time when you had that feeling yourself.  See if you can draw on that memory and maybe even recreate the emotional state within yourself.  If you can conjure up within yourself the same emotion your character is feeling, you stand a good chance of finding words to describe it.

There are some helpful websites that list adjectives useful in describing emotions, notably this one and this one.  But I caution against an over-reliance on such adjectives.  It’s more effective to show emotions through a character’s actions or by describing what’s going on inside the character’s mind.

How did this blog post make you feel?  Are you now confident you can convey a character’s feelings in a more precise way?  I welcome comments from you on this topic; in fact few things in life bring greater joy and serenity to—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe