As a romance author, I’ve learned how to portray deep romantic relationships between my characters, focusing on techniques to make the relationship believable, healthy, and something readers will root for. Believe it or not, some of those same techniques can also help us portray strong friendships in our stories.
Let’s dig in… How can we show our readers a relationship—a friendship or more—that’s relatable and makes them believe the characters are close?
Introducing: Identities vs. Essences
For years, I’ve been a big fan of Michael Hauge’s approach to characters, and regular readers here will recognize the concepts he explores within Angela and Becca’s advice, such as Backstory Wounds and Fears. In that video linked above, Michael Hauge gives a quick overview of:
- How those wounds and fear elements create our character’s Identity, the persona/mask they’ve created to protect themselves from being terrified.
- How courageously overcoming those emotional obstacles allows our character to reach their potential, their Essence.
(If you’re unfamiliar with these Identity and Essence concepts or you’d rather read than watch a video, check out my post on showing our character’s internal journey for a full explanation.)
Basically, when our characters emotionally retreat, they’re fearfully hiding behind their protective Identity. However, that emotional armor usually prevents them from meeting their needs, internal goals, and/or longings.
On the other hand, when our characters take an emotional risk despite those wounds or fears, they’re stepping into their Essence. That step can also bring them closer to reaching those needs, goals, or longings.
Character Essences: The Key to Strong Relationships
Showing our character taking risks (especially those that require our character to be emotionally vulnerable) gives readers a glimpse into who they have potential to become, their true self. A character who’s willing to be vulnerable and risk-taking not only seems more heroic, but also more relatable. Readers may better understand what prompts their motivations, decisions, and actions—and thus feel a stronger connection to them.
Not surprisingly, just as readers can feel closer to characters who have shown their Essence, the same applies to relationships between characters. An Essence-to-Essence connection can be key to portraying a strong relationship.
Character Essences: Connecting in Romantic Relationships
In romance stories, if we want readers to trust and believe in the relationship, we need to show what the characters see in each other (beyond just the physical aspect of attraction). What makes them a good match?
To portray a deeper romantic relationship, we need readers to see the characters connecting on an Essence-to-Essence level:
- How do they fill in each other’s weaknesses?
- How do they build up each other’s strengths?
- How are they a better person with the other around?
In addition, in many romances, the love interest will recognize the other’s potential before the character does. In other words, the characters see through each other’s masks before they’ve even grown enough to risk taking them off.
For example, a hero who believes themselves unworthy of love might push others away in a gruff way. Their love interest can comment on their prickliness, teasing them about thinking themselves unlovable, which challenges the hero to rethink their Identity. If this observation comes before any deep sharing of fears between the characters, readers will believe the love interest is able to see the real potential of the hero, creating a sense of an Essence-to-Essence connection.
Most importantly, to portray a deep, healthy, believable relationship, that Essence-to-Essence connection should show the characters accepting and loving the other for who they really are.
Character Essences: Connecting in Friendships
A similar idea applies to friendships, “bromances,” and other close relationships between characters. If we want readers to believe that characters are close, we need to show an Essence-to-Essence connection between them, where readers see them being “real” or genuine with each other in some way. And most importantly, the characters must be shown to accept and care about each other for who they really are.
For example, to create a sense of a close relationship when one character is vulnerable with another, sharing fears or revealing wounds, etc., we can show the other character responding:
- in a supportive way,
- in a confrontational way, but make it clear the confrontation is done out of love, or
- in a non-supportive way, but make it clear the other character still sees and cares about the vulnerable character’s true self, and so on…
All those options (and others we may think of) show that the characters know each other on a deep level. Even if there’s conflict between them, readers can understand that the debate comes from the other character wanting what’s best for the vulnerable character, or especially in male friendships, that the characters’ ability to give each other grief and still be friends shows how close they are.
On the other hand, to create a sense of a close relationship when one character emotionally retreats from the other, such as being fake or putting on their “mask,” we can show the other character:
- calling them out on their b.s., or
- being supportive and understanding about why they might need to retreat for a bit, or
- relieving the character’s discomfort (such as by changing the subject), and so on…
Those options (or others we may think of) show a level of insight between the characters that can only come from a history of genuine interactions. So just like with the “unlovable” hero example in the romance section above, even though the character isn’t revealing their Essence in the moment, the other character still sees the real person.
Likewise, we can portray their connection with many of the same tools used in romance relationships. For example, romance readers love banter. In friendships, that banter may come across more like giving each other grief or teasing. They may share inside jokes, personal knowledge, common interests, protectiveness, rituals, or other things that show a history between them.
Final Thoughts about Portraying Relationships
An Essence-to-Essence connection doesn’t mean that the characters are always, 100% being genuine with each other. As with real-world relationships, the two-way street of a character relationship doesn’t need to be equal all the time.
Sometimes one character will be more reticent than the other, etc., or their behavior may be more teasing than supportive, and that’s okay. The point is to portray the relationship in a way that demonstrates that the characters can see each other’s real selves, even when the surface isn’t clear, and that they care about and accept those inner selves for who they really are. *smile*
Want an example of a bromance from the Disney+ show Loki season 2? Visit my companion post!
Were you familiar with Michael Hauge’s Identity vs. Essence concepts? Had you thought about the similarities in how we might portray relationships, from friends to romantic? Do you have any questions about Identity, Essence, or how we can use this technique to make readers believe in close relationships?
Jami Gold put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Jami below.