Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, April 8, 2010

John Green and Dynamic Character Relationships

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.






71 comments:

John Jack said...

The Very Scientific Graph looks to me like an antagonism (purposes and complications of change) slope of a plot tetrahedron rising toward a climax; increasing efforts, increasing opposition of forces, increasing doubt of outcome.

JohnO said...

Relationship-o-meters? Scientific graphs? Nathan, I went into writing fiction because I was told there would be no science.

Kirsten said...

This is so true -- the intensity of a crush (or falling in love) makes emotions so much more vibrant and almost larger-than-life. The roller-coaster up and downs of each interaction are half the fun/intrigue of falling in love :)

LOOKING FOR ALASKA is one of my gap books, but now it's on my summer list!

Susan Quinn said...

First, I adore you MORE because you have used graphs today. Stop making me like you so much! I hate you for that!

Er, ok, easing out of the teen voice now...

Seriously, this is fascinating. I have just such a see-saw relationship in my WIP, and my betas are whipping rapidly back and forth: "I love him! I hate him!"

To which I think: Exactly.

I hadn't thought about the increasing amplitude, er, intensity part, but I'm going to have to see how that might figure in.

As always, an extremely thoughtful and helpful post! Thanks!

kathrynjankowski said...

“What I find interesting about this dynamic is that it's not generally how real life works “

Therein lies the challenge. We have to enhance real-life dynamics for the sake of the story while maintaining authenticity and avoiding melodramatic clichés. Piece of cake, right?
;-)

Olleymae said...

Yep, one of my gap books, because I heard that I might not like the ending--this post makes me want to try it anyways, but if I end up in tears it's your fault.

Love the Very Scientific Graph. and I agree with kathrynjankowski ...that's definitely the hard part of writing.

Anonymous said...

VERY helpful! Thanks a million.

Lisa Schroeder said...

You made me want to read the book again. And I really should - I read it when it first came out, so that's been awhile.

I'll have to add it to my pile - I'm reading THE SECRET YEAR right now. :)

J. T. Shea said...

She loves him. She loves him not. She loves him. She loves him not. A bit like a daisy. Or an oscilloscope. Or tennis. Or PONG, which came out before Nathan was born. Actually my life IS a bit like that at times.
And John Jack, less with the plot tetrahedron please! I'm still getting used to the 2D graph.

ryan field said...

Another excellent post.

D. G. Hudson said...

This post reads like a book structure analysis for aspiring writers. I like the point you made regarding real life and fiction life relationships. You're very perceptive about that.

Dynamic characters take a lot of creative investment, but you come to care about them if you do a good job. (in a fictional way, of course)

buildingalife said...

This is a really great post.

What's weird is that I just finished reading Looking for Alaska. Literally. I closed the back cover, signed onto google reader and this was the first post I saw. Creepy.

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett said...

I needed this post. Thank you.

Book Maven said...

And it's all filtered through the fact that the story is told in flashback. Pudge knows how their relationship ends but the reader doesn't.

At least that's how I remember it. I think John Green is terrific.

Gretchen said...

THANK YOU for blogging about Looking for Alaska! And for considering it a "gap book" for anyone who hasn't read it. I love John Green. Might I also recommend Paper Towns for anyone out there who hasn't read that one. I actually liked it better than Alaska.

I love the insights about the development of these characters' relationship. Very intriguing, not to mention helpful. Thanks, Nathan!

Julieanne Reeves said...

It works well, because we don't want mundane. The point of picking up a book, or watching a movie, is to step outside of the sphere we know. Strong emotion, positive or negative, makes us feel alive. It's kind of like why good girls like bad boys. It isn't so much about ticking parents off, or wanting to get in trouble, it is about feeling the natural high. A drug if you will.

For years I was a police/fire/911 dispatcher in a rural town. I loved my job. Partially because I helped people, but to be honest, a lot of it had to do with the “rush”. Being a dispatcher in that environment provided opportunities to step outside of who I thought I was. I became a certified hostage negotiator/crisis intervention specialist, and I worked closely with the detectives, narcotics task force and the Special Response Team (SWAT).

There was nothing better than walking in to work, on a full moon, Friday night, knowing, not guessing but KNOWING the crap would eventually hit the fan.

Some of the calls were anticlimactic. Your average barking dog, loud music, neighbor parked too close to the caller's driveway. But there were the big ones: The fire chief rolling a fire truck; the biggest accident in state history, when I got to be the person in the hot seat, calling all the shots; homicides in progress; pursuits; barricaded subjects; felony warrant arrests; meth lab busts &c.

Don't get me wrong, we weren't actually happy these tragedies were happening to people. We were focused on the emotions, like the time a seven year old boy fell out of the back of his father's truck and was ran over by the trailer hauling a bobcat tractor. Or the time I received the call that my best friend's daughter was choking. I handled the calls like the experienced professional I was, but when all was said and done... I cried.

Yet when a successful raid went down, without a hitch; when they caught the pedophile, the serial killer, or the rapist; saved someone from a burning building; when I talked the guy out of shooting his wife and daughter, we celebrated.

It wasn't uncommon to have several dramatic situations, on opposite ends of the spectrum, in the same night, and usually all at once.

But that was work, when I was home I wanted a prosaic life. Most of us have that, or at least strive for it between raising families and keeping a relationship together. Few have an adrenaline junkie job, so when we read we want something we don't have. We want to step outside of feeling numb and experience the manic-depressive, if you will. We identify with those characters because we want to feel alive, too.

K. M. Walton said...

Absolutely going to read that book. You've given me a lot to think about...

T. Anne said...

OK, I'm sold. I hope it's available for the Kindle. I'll consider it a teaching tool. Sounds like a fun read too.

BTW, I graph every one of my WIPS as I go along. I'm a visual person, and this helps me see the pinch points in my novel.

T. Anne said...

Just purchased this on Kindle. John Green can thank you now.

Julieanne Reeves said...

Sorry, should have edited that before I posted.
My mind doesn't edit while creating, so I have to write, then go back and edit or it looks like that. :(

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I like the graph for the way it shows both the escalating highs and lows and the ideal number of them. Too few ups and downs, and the climax seems unearned. Too many and the story becomes predictable and melodramatic.

This model works not only for developing the intensity of the relationship but also for raising the overall stakes. In my WIP, the relationship between the two teenage characters is really about something else (of which the main character is ignorant), with increasingly higher stakes in each encounter between the girl and the boy.

Kimberly Kincaid said...

GAH! Nathan, that's screaming brilliant!

I haven't read this book, but absolutely will. I am looking forward to reading it with the graph in mind, and am intrigued by the dynamic. I write contemporary romance, and relationships intrigue me because they must :) So I can't wait to dive into this.

I will just throw this out there- you mentioned that life doesn't exactly work in terms of these extremes (love you! no hate you! no...), but I'll argue that for a YA audience, life works EXACTLY like this. All those hormones with no place to go- really? The thought of it is enough to scare off a charging rhino, if said rhino knows what's good for it. So the target audience is probably able to easily identify with the concept. Brilliant move on John Green's part. But then, the book sounds brilliant in general.

On my way to fill in a tiny gap in the grander scheme of The Books Less Traveled. Yeah. My gap list is embarrassingly long. But it gives me something nice to look forward to at the end of the day :)

Thanks for the insight!

Yat-Yee said...

Eh, I placed an order for this very book this morning and now find that you've written a post on it. I'll be sure to come back to check out your very scientific method after I read the book.

Linda Godfrey said...

I'm with Julieanne; I don't need to read about normal. I live it every day.

Graphing my WIP may be a stretch for my artsy-oriented head but you have pointed out something I'd never thought about before and I am grateful. I may at least make a relationship outline chapter by chapter. Thanks!

Elaine AM Smith said...

Great to see writing with a graph feturing strongly: the very first thing I did, before I planed my wip, was to draw the graph of how I wanted Jess to feel. Then, I work out what would make her feel that way.

Marilyn Peake said...

Interesting post. I love your "VERY SCIENTIFIC graph". :) Here’s my take on this topic...

All novels, except those purposefully designed to defy the tradition, must have tension. The story must also be bigger than life, in order to highlight certain important aspects of life. Dialogue needs, for the most part, to be distilled into meaningful expression, rather than include all the filler parts of real human conversation. In the case of LOOKING FOR ALASKA, Alaska’s recklessness and self-destructive nature add to the tension of the novel. There are other novels in which something other than a chaotic romantic relationship creates the primary tension, e.g. novels in which the primary tension arises out of a fight between good and evil. In ROMEO AND JULIET, their love was constant, but tension was created by the battle between their families which made their own situation chaotic. In HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski, although there’s tension between husband and wife, the main tension is with their seemingly possessed house. And, of course, there are books like ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER by Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and science fiction writer John Barnes, one of my most favorite science fiction books ever, in which the main tension is made up of politics and dangerous situations while exploring outer space. It’s awesome that there are so many ways for writers to create tension within their fiction.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Spot on!

Mira said...

What a cool variety of posts this week.

Nathan, you're a very talented blogger.

And writing teacher. This is really interesting, and I hadn't conceptualized it this way. I like the organized thoughtfulness here.

Also, your point about the difference between real life and this type of intensity is very apt.....Thinking about it, I think books capture not real life, but how real life FEELS to us. Maybe?

I think we all experience love this way, even if it's not really what's happening. I'm not sure I'm explaining this well - but when you have feelings for someone, you don't know how they feel, so you look for clues. And every interaction becomes very important and dramatic.

(Some)Adults learn to take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy it, but that's just because they went through teenage angst and learned by experience not to take it so seriously.

But we can all identify with it - where every interaction has so much riding on it. That feeling inside.....books capture that feeling.

I'm sort of thinking this through as I type, because it's so interesting that books are not real life, but they have to RING true, or they don't work.

Anyway, thanks for the helpful and thought-provoking post.

And the book recommendation. :)

mary said...

So basically we're all aiming to create characters with borderline personality issues. Right. No problem.

By the way, I love your blog, Nathan.

No, wait. I HATE THIS BLOG.

Oh yeah, I actually do love it passionately with my entire being!

There. Look how much closer that little bit of conflict brought us.

Melissa Gill said...

I loved this book. One of my teacher friends gave it to me when she found out I was writing YA. I think about this book at least once a week because of that profound question the teacher asked to write a paper about. Good call Nathan

CS said...

ha ha mary that's exactly what i was thinking!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. It does work for LFA, but not his other books, so much. In fact, he tried to do the same thing in Paper Towns and sort of failed because Margo was so prickly and unlikeable-- you can alternate too much with that once we were friends, and then she ignored me, and then she took me out for a night of pranks, and now she's disappeared, but inexplicably wants me to find her, even though she doesn't like me, and I will! I'll find her! But when I get there she's pissed that I found her, and then she leaves.

End of book.

So before everyone goes and re-writes their mss to have love-hate-love whiplash, it truly doesn't work for every book, even if you are John Green. (I think I'm allowed that criticism since I paid hardcover prices for his last three books).

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I haven't read that one and thus can't agree or disagree on the particulars, but just in principle I agree that as with any writing tool, this technique can be done well and not well. If characters are just swinging back and forth willy nilly or if their fights don't come across meaningfully and realistically you're going to give the reader whiplash and they'll stop caring. I also would hesitate to adhere to the back and forth model too strictly, lest it become predictable.

I also agree with Kimberly that these swings are felt more keenly by young people, and I think you can get away with a bit more quick and intense swings than you can in an older novel because that's what young love feels like.

This essential push/pull is an important in relationships in books, but it's not a strict formula. More like a rough guide.

Lady Glamis said...

Excellent points. Thank you for a great post and ideas to ponder for creating more dynamic relationships in writing.

Yat-Yee said...

Anon @1:39: I had that same reaction to Margo as well. I just felt as if her character is almost manipulative. Made reading about this boy who's so in love with her just not that enjoyable.

I am going to read Alaska and see how I like it.

Vijaya said...

Wow! I finally understand something I need to do in my own wip: magnify the ping-pong reactions/emotions as the story progresses.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Question about YA for Nathan:

Is there a too dark area for YA literature?

Does it ever get a rating?

layne said...

Nathan:

This was so helpful, I'm printing it as I type!

Caledonia Lass said...

We live in Alaska and my teenager had to read this in her Language Arts class. :D

Krista V. said...

Very informative post, Nathan. I've never thought about developing a key relationship between characters in that way. Thanks for this.

Daryl Sedore said...

Another great post. I don't read YA, but you've instilled an interest in trying John Green out.
Since characterization is something I'm always working on I would love to see what he did that inspired the post here.
(By the way; what inspires one to remove comments? I wonder what they said.)

Anonymous said...

"What I find interesting about this dynamic is that it's not generally how real life works." Unless you are Alaska, you are speaking for yourself, here.

Sissy said...

I find this very interesting! Thanks.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

<<(By the way; what inspires one to remove comments? I wonder what they said.)>>

Speaking from experience here: Made a mistake in the original comment and wanted a do-over.

Beautiful said...

My sentiments, exactly Mary.

I

Love
Hate
Love

this blog.

Anonymous said...

Something I wish I coud be taught: perfect pitch ear for dialogue. "Alaska" sounds like my 33 year marriage to my late, great first wife. Always on the edge. But hang me if I can get it down on paper in a way that would keep people reading.

Madeleine said...

Actually, I have a couple of relationships that are nearly always up-and-down. It's irritating and interesting. :D

And, yes, LOOKING FOR ALASKA is on my gap list. I've had it as a to-read on Goodreads for a long time.

Laura said...

Am I the only person who did NOT like LOOKING FOR ALASKA? I found it completely predictable, how could anyone like the character of Alaska? Maybe I just don't like self-destructive characters (I loathe Heathcliff, Catherine Linton, etc).

I never quite saw the fascination with John Green and find him to be a bit overrated.

Zachary Grimm said...

I almost picked this one out to read it at my library about a month ago, Nathan. Now I feel I must. Thanks! :)

Oh, and I hereby renounce the negative vibes I had to Stephanie Meyers's "Twilight." It's actually a pretty good book. Being surprised about a book is fun!

Anonymous said...

All this hate/love/hate/love is sort of how I feel about the publishing industry. I flirt with it and it winks back. I sit around waiting for it to call, it never does, so I begin to hate it. Then, just when I'm crawling on the floor, gnashing my teeth, my book sells. I'm over the moon and can't imagine any greater love. My next book? "Thanks, but no thanks." I rip up all our love letters and draw horns and a devil tail on every photo.

One minute I want to stick a needle in its eye, and the next I'm ready to have its baby!

abc said...

I agree with Kimberly K. (and later, Nathan) that this kind of relationship is pretty perfect for YA. First love/lust/infatuation is intense and crazy and all sorts of crying yourself to sleep kind of times (what, you didn't do that in high school?) When you are living with an adolescent brain, the ups and downs are more intense. Adolescents are all about FEELING.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have a great section on this in their book Nurture Shock (The Science of Teen Rebellion, I believe).

While I find graphs a little too left-brained, I like this one and this whole post is--as always--a great kick the in pants for me and my current WIP. I have to wonder if Alaska has Borderline Personality Disorder. Or perhaps she is Bi-Polar. I haven't read the book, but, man, poor Pudge.

Well, off to Amazon.com for my next read. YA books are the most fun!

Kevin said...

This Pole to Pole growth in character relationships is well discussed in a great many books on the craft. Aristotle started it in The Poetics. Lagos Egri discusses it in the Art of Dramatic Writing, Christopher Vogler in The Writers Journey, James N Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel (the best craft handbook of them all) and Robert McKee in Story, who also points out that the 'graph' can end up both positive and negative in what he calls an ironic closure.

What's absolutely crucial though, (and I haven't read Looking for Alaska) is that the swings between negative and positive are organic and they grow out of the dynamics of the story's action. Arbitrarily creating a negative reaction because the last one was positive can appear exactly as it is: contrived and emotionally false, which of course leads us into the area of stereotypes and cliches.

The key of course, is to know your characters so well that you can write from inside their emotional centres. Most writers don't spend enough time with their characters to be able to live within their emotional capacities at the time of putting them into action and creating dialogue. But, once in that position, the rest flows naturally.

Excellent topic Nathan.

Madeline said...

I love love LOVE John Green and LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and this post is brilliant and so so so true.

Anita said...

We were actually taking our daughter to interviews at a swanky private school AS I was reading ALASKA. I was like, "Hmmmm, maybe the public school is gonna work after all."

I liked ALASKA, but thought AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES was better.

Steve said...

Nathan, you said:

"Our opinions about people do not tend to swing wildly back and forth based on every interaction we have with them."

I flatly refuse to believe you were never an infatuated teenager (in which such opinion swings are entirely the norm). I attribute this silly statement to selective amnesia. :)

-Steve

Claire Dawn said...

Nice review. Definitely needs to be added to my TBR list.

atsiko said...

I don't know, Nathan... I may not have a photographic memory, but from what I remember of highschool (which for me was not all that long ago), people's feelings could swing around pretty quick, and they swung wide.

I should also point out that first love and a five-year-old relationship are not exactly the same thing. I think it's much more likely to involve quick swings because we don't really have a set impression of the person yet, so it's easy to think maybe you were wrong the first time--or the eighth, I suppose. Especially if the people involved are individually intense or moody. Or still in an uncomfortable place in their general social development or the specific relationship. Sounds a lot like highschool to me.

Ted Cross said...

I really don't like it that relationships in novels must be so wildly different from real life ones, but I do understand the reasons behind it. I don't do this in my novel, though, because the one small relationship that develops is not meant to be in any way the focus of the story, so I t(think I) portray it more realistically. Sadly, that may mean agents would rather I cut it out.

Kate Evangelista said...

For someone who enjoys writing romance, I learned a lot from this post. Thanks! Now, I have to find this book.

Janny said...

"For the most part our interactions with the people we care about don't tend to end on a definitively positive or definitively moments annnnnnd scene."

Am I the only one to whom this sentence made absolutely no sense? Were there words left out here?

JB

Simon said...

I'm constantly surprised and frustrated by aspiring writers slavish adherence to the 'real' world.

Be it in dialogue or the dynamics of a relationship, the ways of the real world should never be taken as an absolute barometer of whether something either works or doesn't work in a fictional context.

Different rules apply. Things happen all the time in real life which we don't accept in fiction.

Jaymi said...

OMG-READ THIS BOOK!

Thank you, Nathan, for the reomendation. I read this book and LOVED it.

TheFan said...

so i read the book over the weekend on your recomendation and it was pretty much a perfectly made book. But i didnt find the relationship to be very intense. Sure, there were up and down moments but those were caused becaused Alaska was suh a moody and secretive character. I think the intensiity you speak up was exclusive to these characters and it wouldn't really work when applied to other characters.

[/2 cents]

what i would have worn... said...

Great post. I’m digging out my geometry set as soon as I finish typing. I was in need a new reason to procrastinate; now I couldn’t possibly start on my 3rd draft before making a graph!

Becca said...

I'm actually in the middle of reading this book after I picked it up at the Five Below store.
I am so glad I finally found a good book. Everything I've been reading lately just makes me cringe.

Katy said...

I just bought a few weeks ago this on your recommendation, and just finished it -- absolutely fantastic! I can't believe I'd never heard of it until I saw your post!

Dayana S said...

Awesome! This post saved me from doing something terrible.

a_v_s said...

The graph looks good for conflict dynamic between young adults: as a teenager, you often feel overwhelmed. The peers' vices and aggression are bigger and stronger than you. They toss you around like an ocean wave does.

However, here is a question about writing for younger children (elementary school). While they do experience conflicts, they are not usually so focused on them as teens are. They are more focused on action and dialogue. So, it would seem, for a children's book, one could sketch two graphs: one for conflict (occasionally flattening out), and another for action and dialogue. Any recommendations for this specific age group?

Nathan Bransford said...

a_v_s-

I don't know, I think the graph is relatively universal. The intensity might be different, but the ups and downs are not.

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