John Green’s Looking for Alaska is a (deservedly) much-loved and much-awarded young adult novel, which, if you haven’t read it, pertinent to yesterday’s discussion let me give you the “OMG you haven’t read Looking for Alaska?!” treatment.
For those who have Looking for Alaska on their “gap” book list, the basic plot is this: a boy, quickly nicknamed Pudge by his roommate “The Colonel,” is attending a boarding school and develops a very strong crush on a girl named Alaska (not a nickname), who is beautiful but flighty/uneven/intense. She has a boyfriend but she seems somewhat intrigued by Pudge, and their relationship forms the backbone of the book as they embark upon pranks and general attempts to survive high school.
In addition to unteachable writing techniques like a perfect pitch ear for dialogue and what must be a painfully photographic memory of what it was like to be in high school, the way Green crafts the relationship between Pudge and Alaska is an incredible illustration of how to develop an interesting relationship between two characters.
Every single interaction between Pudge and Alaska advances their relationship in a series of incremental steps that swing between positive and negative emotion, with each interaction more intense than the last. One encounter will leave Pudge feeling like Alaska is the greatest girl in the world, the next minute he feels like she’s ignoring him or she’s mean to him, and each time he experiences a swing between positive and negative he feels it that much more acutely than the last time.
If you were to map out their interactions over the course of the book, it would look something like this (the question mark is there to avoid a spoiler of whether it ends on an up or down note):
Part of these swings are due to Alaska’s wild personality, but this is an almost textbook way to develop an intense relationship on the page. The variance between up and down moments creates suspense as the reader wonders which way it’s going to end up going, and since we feel each up and down more acutely than the last, the reader becomes increasingly invested in the relationship. Each time the line swings up to a positive experience it feels earned because Pudge had to suffer through the last negative one.
Too often when aspiring writers try to craft jousting or intense relationships between characters, the relationships will feel one-note because the characters have roughly the same level of interactions over the course of the book with, say, a positive spike at the end if the they get together. They may well be interesting characters, but when every interaction between them ends in the same mixed place, there isn’t the same feeling of investment and suspense. If the relationship doesn’t grow in intensity or change dynamics, the reader will very quickly decide they know what they need to know about the relationship and won’t be that interested in where it ends up.
On the other hand, when the relationship-o-meter swings between positive and negative poles it feels more true to life. Add increasing intensity and the reader won’t be able to turn the page fast enough to see what happens.
What I find interesting about this dynamic is that it’s not generally how real life works. Our opinions about people do not tend to swing wildly back and forth based on every interaction we have with them. For the most part our interactions with the people we care about don’t tend to end on a definitively positive or definitively negative moments annnnnnd scene. Even when we fight things tend to feel somewhat mixed and muddled.
And yet, on the page (or screen) it works beautifully. The quick swings between up and down in Looking for Alaska evoke the confusion and intensity of first love. We feel connected to the relationship because the characters had to earn it. We learn more about the characters by seeing how they deal with different levels of feelings.
Whenever two characters feel intensely about each other, this formula helps bring the relationship to life.