Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.
The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.
Description: Acquaintances are the people that your character knows, but just a little: the friend of a friend, the barista at the coffee shop, the guy who always sits across the aisle on the bus. These relationships are typically pretty surface ones, but even an acquaintance can be used to teach a lesson, be a cautionary tale, act as a contrast, inject humor, or provide necessary conflict.
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.
A relationship typified by surface politeness (the two people acknowledging one another, always saying “hello,” etc .)
Asking small-talk-type questions about the acquaintance’s life
Looking for common ground
Including the acquaintance whenever they’re around
Making an attempt to recall important details from past exchanges (their name, their interests, a difficult time they were going through, etc.)
Seeing a need in the other person’s life and offering to help
Empathizing deeply with the acquaintance’s circumstance even though the character doesn’t know the person particularly well
Picking up on the other person’s cues (recognizing when they’re uncomfortable or want to exit the conversation, etc.)
Avoiding eye contact so the character doesn’t have to chat
Forgetting the person’s name or past conversations—not making an effort
Only being polite to the other person when it benefits the character
Making judgments or forming opinions about the acquaintance based on superficial or incomplete information
Ignoring the acquaintance; acting as if the character doesn’t know them
Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
One person wanting a deeper relationship than the other
One person wanting something specific from the other person, such as information or access to a mutual friend
One person wanting to chat while the other just wants to be left in peace
The character wanting to kill time while the acquaintance wants to get to know the character
One person wanting to exit the conversation while the other keeps talking
One acquaintance wanting to meet a deep need while the other person doesn’t want to accept help from him/her
The acquaintance wanting to proselytize or selling something while the character just wants to be left alone
Clashing Personality Trait Combinations: Abrasive and Oversensitive, Cynical and Optimistic, Mischievous and Humorless, Gossipy and Private, Irrational and Sensible
Negative Outcomes of Friction
Losing out on a relationship that could have deepened into a meaningful one
Losing a possible ally
Awkwardness in social situations where the character and acquaintance will both be
The character saying something they wouldn’t say to a close friend, and regretting it
Turning down an offer of help and having to suffer along in isolation
The friction causing tension in relationships with mutual friends
Fictional Scenarios That Could Turn These Characters into Allies
A personal tragedy that the character doesn’t want to share with good friends, but they feel comfortable talking about it with someone they’re not close to
A mutual friend getting into trouble and needing their help
A situation in which the character can use a skill or strength to help the acquaintance out
An acquaintance stepping into a dangerous situation for the character—i.e., pretending to be an old friend to get the character away from a controlling or abusive date
Ways This Relationship May Lead to Positive Growth
The character treating the acquaintance differently than they treat close friends and recognizing a flaw that needs to be addressed
The character realizing the tendency to open up with strangers but not with friends, and seeing a need to change this pattern
The character learning that stepping out of their comfort zone can be a good thing
Themes and Symbols That Can Be Explored through This Relationship
A Fall from Grace, Alienation, Beginnings, Health, Hope, Illness, Perseverance, Pride, Religion, Stagnation, Suffering, Superstitions: Bad Luck, Superstitions: Good Luck
Other Relationship Thesaurus entries can be found here.
Need More Descriptive Help?
While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.