How to Discover Character Relationships | Mapping Want and Need

How to Discover Character Relationships

Written by on | Acting Tips

Scenario: you’ve just been handed a brand new scene—a two-hander set in an empty room. One character wants to borrow some money, the other wishes the last loan they gave to be paid back in full. Simple enough, right? Goals are clear, the conflict is direct. But … there are little things about this scene that don’t quite add up. Both characters wear matching wedding rings, and yet speak coldly to one another. One character is dressed in an expensive suit, the other a fast food uniform. One seems frustrated with their scene partner, who seems to pity them in return… How can we begin to unpack these mysteries? How can we use these details to create a deeper, more engaging rendition of the scene? We look at character relationships.

Character relationship speaks to the dynamic between two characters in a given scene. It is determined by social and cultural factors, the shared history of the characters in question, as well as their attitude towards one another. You may discover character relationships by examining the text for meaning about backstory and shared history, and by analysing the language and actions of characters to gain insight as to their connection.

In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of building nuanced and comprehensive character relationships when you act, and explore how this can improve and ground your performance. We’ll then draw up a character relationship map and apply this to an example script as a case study. Lets jump in!

Why Character Relationships Are Important

Conflict is the foundation of all drama. Without characters arguing, disagreeing, clashing, sparring, fighting, there is no friction to a story. In fact: there’s no story at all. No good plot unfolds from a person having everything they want. Therefore, more you can understand the character relationship dynamic, the more interesting and exciting the conflict is. It allows you to bring greater tension to the scene, especially when characters enjoy complex (sometimes contradictory) connections.

Take the example of our opening paragraph. There’s drama to be had in characters quarrelling over money. But the fact that these two people are married adds another layer of complication. The idea that one person appears more successful in their career raises questions as to their hierarchy (see Status, below). And the attitude they have towards one another muddies things further: frustration, pity.

Don’t you want to know what it all means? How you might tackle these complexities as an actor? If you find your interest piqued from the description alone, imagine how an audience will feel when they see all this marital messiness come together.

Important Factors in Character Relationships

Identity

Before you can understand the relationship your character might have with somebody else, you need to know everything them, inside and out. Engage with script analysis and search the text for anything you can use to uncover who they are. What can you determine about their personality, backstory, the way they might pursue their objective? Does subtext hint at things your character might be repressing or lying about—even to themselves?

Direct Relationship

In this context, direct relationship refers to the connection your character shares with somebody else. Are they a friend? Enemy? Lover? Rival? Do they work together, share a long history of friendship, or did they meet earlier that day? Try to be as direct as possible when determining this factor: this is not a matter for interpretation, but something you will discover in the text that can anchor the rest of your characterisation.

Attitude

We’ll talk about this in greater detail below, but attitude is the way your character feels about another person in the story. It may relate to the direct relationship, or it may subvert it. A couple may be married, but that’s no guarantee they actually feel love towards one another. If you can, aim for diversity in attitude towards different characters; very few people feel the exact same way about more than one person.

Status

Status refers to the power dynamic between characters: where they sit in the hierarchy of the story and what they do to gain ground/defend their position. It is determined by a number of factors including social standing, circumstances of the plot and the relationship shared between characters. Most characters of ‘low’ status are aiming to raise their status. Higher status characters seek to maintain it, sometimes at the expense of those trying to take more power for themselves.

Wants and Needs

All good characters and stories are driven by objectives: the thing/s your character wants from your scene partner. When plotting the relationship between characters, always ask yourself what your character wants and needs in a given interaction. They can be markedly different things in a scene, and add an interesting layer of complexity. A character might want to be independent from their scene partner, but ultimately need their help.

Creating a Character Relationship Map

One of the best ways to determine character relationships is to map them out on a page. You could do this on a blank section of your script, on the title page, in a notebook devoted to your character. But it’s good to have close by for quick reference, or in case you want to update the map as you make fresh discoveries analysing the script.

This particular mapping process is a favourite of veteran Australian stage and screen actor Anna Lee—also a celebrated acting coach right here at StageMilk Scene Club. She was kind enough to talk us through her method step by step, which we’ve recorded below.

Step #1: Select your Characters

Write out your character names and circle them. If you are mapping a single relationship between your character and another, the circles should be of equal size and far enough away that you can write in between them.

If you’re planning on doing a map for all characters in the script, leave yourself more room to work with. Lee also suggests characters with more significance to your own should have larger circles around them for quick visual reference.

 

Step #2: Determine their Relationship

Draw a line between the characters, on which you will write the nature of their relationship. This relationship dynamic is non-negotiable: if Character A is secretly the father of Character B, they are still parent/child—even if Character B has no idea.

Sometimes, characters have multiple determiners in their relationship: they might be friends and workplace rivals, newlyweds and strangers. If this is the case, you can write a list beneath the line in order of significance. And don’t be afraid to use a “/” to illustrate the dynamic with more detail: “shopkeeper/customer” (this goes a long way in examining status.)

 

Step #3: Discover their Attitudes

Finally, add two more lines: arrows pointing from one character to the other. These are your ‘attitude lines’, and on this line you’ll write/list the attitude of one character towards another.

Attitudes will help distinguish your character within the relationship dynamic. Sure, they might be married, but does one character annoy the other? Does one character hate the other? Is one character confused by them, or fatigued? Attitude lines will eventually help you plot your actions—the ‘tactics’ your character plays to get what they want in the scene. If a character’s attitude is colder towards the other person, their choice of actions will reflect this.

Case Study: “The Fan”

Let’s put the character relationship map into practice. As an example, we are going to use a StageMilk original script “The Fan”: available where all good copyright-free scripts are found, on our Practice Scripts for Actors page.

In this short script, an annoying character known only as “The Fan” confronts record store owner Jesse, convinced he is a former rock-star with the same name. The script leaves Jesse’s true identity up to the actor portraying him. Before we continue, have a read of the script HERE to catch yourself up.

Based on our reading of the script, this is the character relationship map we came up with:

Their relationship is centred around their status as strangers: this is their first interaction. However, we decided to make Jesse the actual rock-star for the sake of this reading, adding the idol/fan dynamic. Finally, the shopkeeper/customer angle is there, but less important. It’s jumped down into third place.

Jesse’s attitude towards the fan is a fairly firm dislike. There’s also confusion as to the character of the fan, with Jesse playing catch-up with much of his dialogue. Finally, we added “intimidated” with a question mark, as this is our surface reading of how the character might plot their actions. However, this may change depending on how the scene is realised by the other actor and the director.

And then there’s the fan. First and foremost, he’s adoring of Jesse. He also seems impressed, which stops the character from becoming too obnoxious. Finally, we added the possibility of frustration to the dynamic: this interaction hasn’t gone the way he’d hoped. As with “intimidated”, this will factor into how he chooses to plot his way to his goal in the scene (and so it does.)

How’d we do?

Changing The Map

One last thing: the relationship between characters can change drastically throughout a story. In fact, it has to if the plot has any worth at all. In response to this, you may wish to draw multiple maps for your character relationships—to plot how the relationship might change from scene to scene.

If this sounds like overkill, at least consider drawing a new map when a seismic event occurs between your characters. If a married couple suddenly divorce, this will change everything about their relationship and attitudes. What do you learn about your character when they respond to external stimuli? Which relationships are solid, and which can fall apart within the space of a page or two?

Conclusion

So there you have it: a character relationship map in action! Try this with your next project and see what kind of insights it grants you. Is your understanding of character more grounded? Have you given yourself some more interesting things to work with when it comes to navigating the scene?

Just remember: all drama is centred on the conflict between characters—what they want from each other, and what they’re willing to do to achieve it. So it stands to reason that the more complexity you can find in the relationship between characters, the more exciting and engaging your work will be.

Good luck, and happy mapping!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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