Some relationships sizzle right off the page. Some strain belief and feel like duds.
What separates the Darcy/Bennets of the literary world from all the countless unmemorable pairings?
Here are some ways to build a sense of intimacy between your characters when you’re writing a novel.
One of the most primal human needs is the desire to be seen and appreciated for who we are. Thus, naturally, one key way to build intimacy is to show two characters who recognize what the other is really feeling, even the ugliness, and don’t run for the hills in response.
John Green uses this technique in The Fault in Our Stars. As Hazel and Augustus start building their relationship, Augustus often validates Hazel’s seriousness or defensiveness, and also has a unique vantage point as someone who understands through experience what she’s going through:
He held up the book, which was called The Price of Dawn. I laughed and took it. Our hands kind of got muddled together in the book handoff, and then he was holding my hand. “Cold,” he said, pressing a finger to my pale wrist.
“Not cold so much as underoxygenated,” I said.
“I love it when you talk medical to me,” he said. He stood, and pulled me up with him, and did not leet go of my hand until we reached the stairs.
If you want to build intimacy: show one character putting themself out there or being their true self and the other character “getting it.” It’s even better if you draw this out a bit to raise the pressure on the character taking the first step.
One key variation of the validation trope is showing two characters mirroring each other’s quirks. They’re not merely validating each other, they’re choosing to act like each other.
I looked at her. “You’re one funny enchilada,” I said.
She nodded real quiet.
“Doesn’t your hand get all cramped up?” I asked. “Don’t you end up like, hook-hand?” I made hook-hand. She hook-hand. We pawed each other with hook hand.
She shook her head and smiled.
Nothing shows two characters who are on the same wavelength as when they are reflecting back each other’s weirdness.
Some of the most memorable relationships in literature involve two characters making each other feel an onslaught of emotion. And it’s not some orderly progression of feelings, it’s the type of rush that can’t be contained and is released in unexpected ways.
It might not even start wholly with affection, as with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But when you show two characters making each other feel something, even anger or antagonism, it won’t be long before we feel the depth of the connection.
Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said:
“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
“I shall not say you are mistaken,” he replied, “because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which are not in fact your own.”
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself, and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, “Your cousin will give you a very pretty notion of me, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character… Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire–and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too–for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear.”
“I am not afraid of you,” said he, smilingly.
There has to be something about that connection if your characters feel something so deeply about each other. This is also why many great hero/villain relationships can make us uncertain whether the antagonists are going to kill each other or start making out.
Taking a risk
Marie Lu’s Legend gets off to a very memorable start as outlaw Day and his friend Tess take a serious risk to check on Day’s family.
This exchange is impressive because it does two things at once: It establishes how much Day cares about his family (because he’s taking such a risk to see them) and shows how much Tess cares about Day (because she’s in turn taking a risk for him).
Tess moves closer. “We should leave the city for a couple weeks, yeah?” She tries to keep her voice calm, but the fear is there. “Soon the plague will have blown through, and you can come back to visit. We have more than enough money for two train tickets.”
I shake my head. “One night a week, remember? Just let me check up on them one night a week.”
“Yeah. You’ve been coming here every night this week.”
“I just want to make sure they’re okay.”
“What if you get sick?”
“I’ll take my chances. And you don’t have to come with me. You could’ve waited for me back in Alta.”
Tess shrugs. “Somebody has to keep an eye on you.”
We really see what relationships are made of when they’re tested and characters put something serious on the line.
Weaving a future together
In a sense, a relationship is a shared story about the future. Two people put their faith in each other and begin to imagine their future intertwined with their partner’s.
As a result, few things are quite as effective as building a sense of intimacy as two characters who are beginning to weave a story about what their future will look like.
Many of the greats also use this technique to tragic effect by showing two characters imagining a future that can’t exist. Hemingway famously does this at the end of The Sun Also Rises:
“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed, pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Perhaps most importantly, nothing brings characters closer together than overcoming a shared obstacle.
Ishmael and Queequeg kick off a beautiful friendship by trusting each other enough to share a bed despite being strangers at the start of Moby-Dick, and Starr/Chris and Shirin/Ocean have to overcome the differences created by their contrasting backgrounds in The Hate U Give and A Very Large Expanse of Sea.
Check out how the great Tahereh Mafi combines nearly all of the elements in this post (making a character wait for validation, mirroring in the form of relentless apologies, volatility, weaving a future together, risk taking, overcoming obstacles) into one amazing IM conversation in A Very Large Expanse of Sea that escalates their relationship:
jujehpolo: I mean, is this going to be a problem? My headpiece thing?
jujepolo: Is my whole situation just too weird for you?
Ocean didn’t response for at least twenty seconds, which, in the moment, felt like an actual lifetime. I felt bad. Maybe I’d been too blunt. Maybe I was being mean. But he was trying so hard to be, I don’t know? Way too nice to me. It felt unnatural. And I just, I don’t know, it was making me mad…
I drummed my fingers against the keyboard, wondering what to say. How to walk this back. We still had to be lab partners, after all.
Or maybe we didn’t. Maybe he’d just ask the teacher for a new partner. It had happened before. Once, when I’d been paired at random with another student, she’d just revolted. She flat out refused to be my partner in front of the entire class and then demanded to work with her friend. My teacher, flimsy pancake that she was, panicked and said okay. I ended up working alone. It was humiliating.
Maybe this time I’d brought the humiliation upon myself. Maybe Ocean would revolt, too. My stomach sank.
riversandoceans04: I don’t think you’re weird.
I blinked at the computer screen.
riversandoceans04: I’m sorry
Ocean appeared to be a chronic apologizer.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
jujehpolo: I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. You were just trying to be nice.
jujehpolo: I get it
jujehpolo: It’s fine
Another five seconds dragged on.
Whether it’s achieving a level of grudging respect, mutual admiration, or a sense of relief that they can finally be together, nothing quite builds a sense of intimacy like overcoming a big obstacle together.
Do you have any tricks of the trade for building a sense of intimacy between two characters? Anything I missed? Take to the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Italie et Allemagne by Johann Friedrich Overbeck