Being a Better Writer: Chemistry

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, which means it’s time for Being a Better Writer! But first, some quick news. Really quick. Then today’s topic.

Prior Alpha readers, look for an Alpha invite in your e-mail box today! For something short; the Halo novel pitch! That’s right, I’ll be sending out Alpha read e-mails for that today. Just for three chapters, since it’s a pitch.

Meanwhile, the Hunter/Hunted Alpha is about two-thirds of the way done. Then Beta! The next project for me? Getting Jungle into Alpha, and then writing Axtara: Banking and Finance, followed by Fireteam Freelance.

That’s the news. So, chemistry …

It was my worst topic in school. No joke. It took … I want to say the fifth time someone explained the periodic table to me for me to get it. Chemistry in the science portions of my education was always a struggle.

Thankfully, when we start talking about chemistry in a book setting, it often takes on a different meaning. Unless you’re writing a chemistry book. Or a character that’s a chemist.

See in stories something you’ll hear a lot, discussed everywhere from movies reviews to games, is chemistry between the characters. If you’ve ever read a review, or talked about a film you enjoyed (or didn’t) you’ve probably heard someone comment on the characters, saying something like “Oh yeah, those two really did have chemistry.” Or maybe, if it wasn’t good something like “those two had no chemistry.”

Sure, you’ve heard it. But what does it mean?

That question was what prompted today’s post, actually. Browsing a forum I frequent, I came across a post from a young writer confused as to what people kept telling them on their feedback. They kept hearing that their characters didn’t have any chemistry, and they were perplexed. English not being their first language, they didn’t know what “having chemistry” meant. They just knew they apparently didn’t have it, and in desperation, they were trying to find out.

Well, maybe today’s post will help them. And anyone else who’s wondered about the term.

So, let us start with the most basic, and I believe, easiest starting point. What is chemistry, and why is it called that?

The two are tightly interwoven. So much so that I almost couldn’t decide which was more vital to start with. But I settled on “what” first, then the “why.” So, what is chemistry?

It’s a short truncated form of the term “chemistry between characters.” No, not science chemistry with formulas and ions and bubbling flasks. But similar, in a way. No, chemistry between characters is all about how characters interact.

With that, we reach that second part of things: Why it’s called chemistry. When you were a child, did you ever make a baking soda volcano? If not, it’s pretty simple. You need a container of some kind, preferably with a narrow neck and aperture, like a soda bottle. You need some baking soda. And you need vinegar.

To make the volcano, first you put a quantity of baking soda in the bottle. Then, when you’re ready for the reaction, you pour in some vinegar and back away quickly. Why? Because the vinegar reacts with the baking soda, creating a swiftly expanding mass of foam that shoots out the top of your bottle.

You can do something similar with some mentos and some coke. And a lot of other materials, actually.

Why? Because these materials are chemically reactive. Put them together in the same space, and something is going to happen. You may get foam. Heat or light (or both very fast, which we sometimes call an explosion). New colors. New materials. An almost stable liquid that changes color every few seconds based on the ambient temperature of the room.

Are you seeing why we call it “chemistry between characters” yet? In science, and that blasted periodic table, you learn that there are tons of different elements that all react in different ways (or don’t) with other chemicals. And then something happens.

What people say when they say that two characters had “good chemistry” is that when two characters interacted, they interacted well and in a way that allowed them both to develop and exist in some way for the audience. And for one another.

To step away from the analogy and saying for a moment, it means that when two characters interact, they are interesting. Each one brings their own self to the interaction, and the two engage to create something new.

This is why the term is thrown around a lot in film: The interaction can be very visual. Ever seen a movie where two characters just click when they’re on screen? Their interactions, their banter, their discussions? Two actors who know how to give characters that flair of life can be discussing something fairly boring and still make it interesting.

Bad chemistry, as an alternative, can ruin films or scenes. If you’ve ever watched something like Mystery Science Theater 3000, then you’ve likely seen characters who, when sharing a scene, feel flat and lifeless together, like they’re just reading their lines off of a cue-card. Or maybe you’ve even seen good actors who just don’t “click,” the scenes between them coming off  flat somehow.

That’s bad chemistry. And though the medium of choice for this site is writing, the same still applies: You want characters that act and react with one another.

No, more. You need to let your characters act and react with one another. This doesn’t have to be some grand, sweeping explosive level interaction … but it does need to be some kind of interaction.

Think of stories and books that you’ve liked. Now think of two characters. How do they interact when put together? Are they tense? Do they snipe at one another? Does one roll their eyes and not take the other seriously? Are they attracted to one another while one thinks the other hates them and the other is trying to hide it? What?

Another way of saying “let your characters have chemistry” is to say “let them have a spark.” If you’ve put them in a room, are they just there to present information that moves the plot forward like robots? State A, conclude B, and move on? Or are they going to be themselves as they do so?

It’s important to note that even though writing is a written medium, this is not confined to dialogue. You can let chemistry between characters be in their expressions and emotion. Their body language. The way they sit or stand.

Stepping back for a moment, I think that where people go wrong with writing that leads to people telling them their characters have no chemistry tends to be in one of two places. First, they’re so concerned with the story that the characters are in service to it, rather than the other way around. The characters end up being a vehicle to move the plot forward, rather than players in the story itself.

Second, they may have built characters who can’t have chemistry because they’re all the same. Just as you won’t get a baking soda volcano if you fill the bottle with baking soda and more baking soda, you can’t have character chemistry if your characters are all, in effect, the same person wearing different clothes, hats, or bodies.

Now, while this sounds simple and straightforward enough, the truth is that there’s a lot of depth in both those issues. Building complex characters that are different from one another and can move the plot forward on their own both are matters of lots of practice to get correct. And I do mean lots. They’re also topics I’ve written easily dozens of posts on as a result. Check the Being a Better Writer tags of “plots” and “character” and you can start to see the depths these topics can go to.

But at this very moment, we don’t need to dive down that rabbit hole. You can do that on your own. For the purpose of today’s topic, I want to stick close to the matter at hand: chemistry between characters.

So if we’ve gotten this far, a quick recap before we move on. Chemistry between characters is how characters react and interact with one another. Much like various real-life elements react with one another, your characters should “spark” with one another in various ways.

So, how can the young writer set about acquiring this spark in their own writing? Well … practice.

Yeah, it’s the old standby. Practice. But getting chemistry right is actually fairly tricky, yet another reason it has the moniker it’s been given. Much like in a real chemistry, getting the reaction you want, the “good” reaction, is an exercise in having exactly the right amounts of the element in the equation.

So it is with character chemistry. And … you’re probably not going to get it right the first time. Or the second. Or the third. And that’s okay.

The thing is, with each time you write, you’ll get better at it. It will slowly become second nature to ask “Okay, what would this character do when in a room with this character? How are they going to change what they would say? Would they?”

It may also mean focusing a little less on the plot you’ve constructed to pull the characters along and on letting them be agents inside that plot. Again, chemistry in action is reactive material. You can’t have chemistry if your characters are inert.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you’ll get it the first go around. Or the second, Or the third. But with practice comes familiarity, and by and by a lot of very conscious work will become innate and subconscious.

Believe me, looking back at my early stuff, written long before I published … it’s painful sometimes. But each mistake, each time I wrote something that didn’t gel, was too reactive or not reactive enough, I learned. Each mistake became a lesson in improving the next time. And eventually … I published.

So, if you want to write characters that have good chemistry, practice at it. Sit down and examine, say … two characters. Three if you’re looking for a challenge. Look at what makes them different. What are their backgrounds? Their challenges? Their quirks? Then ask yourself questions. Questions like “How would they work together to make a puzzle? What would they talk about? Or would they talk?”

Focus on these interactions. On the characters. And let them … be themselves.

It might not work at first. Start small. Write a scene. Write another. Let the characters come to life through your words.

Practice, practice, practice. Eventually, letting characters be themselves and “react” with other characters will be second nature.

Now, one last thing before we end. When I say “react,” I don’t mean in a negative way. Good chemistry doesn’t mean that your characters go from zero-to-100 around one another by default. Nor does it mean that every interaction needs to be full of a lot of drama.

Good chemistry is the characters being themselves and interacting in a way that the audience understands because they understand the characters. Because the characters are real. Easier said than done, I know.

But this last thing: Keep the reaction real to the characters. And make sure your audience is learning about why that’s real to the characters. Or asking the right questions if it isn’t.

Confusing? Well, yeah. That’s writing guys. It’s tough. There’s a lot to juggle.

For now? If you want good chemistry, then get out there and practice. Write scenes. Keep in mind what you need your characters to be, how they need to act and react.

Practice, practice, practice, and you’ll see improvement. Refine, and go again.

Good luck. Now get writing.


And if you’ve enjoyed this post or any of the other Being a Better Writer articles on Unusual Things, consider buying a book or donating through Patreon! Your support helps keep the articles coming and the site ad-free!

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