Connected Rings

When years have passed since the last English class, an adult, like this editor, can forget useful tools taught in the classroom. One of them recently came back into the view finder, and I was struck by its elegant simplicity. That is the practice of linked rings. You place a character in each ring and draw lines between them. Then you write what qualities each possesses that influences the other.

Elena Ferrante may have been aware of this tool when writing My Brilliant Friend, because she does such an incredible job of building character relationships. That practice relies on intuition and the flow of the developing manuscript, to be sure, but why not give yourself a head start by clearly delineating major points you want for a pairing of characters?

What I see so often are buddies that bumble forward side by side rather than establishing a relationship foundation that can be deepened. Objectives are not defined; they grow closer only because they share so many scenes together. I know one reason why: an author thinks, “My best friend X would say such a thing,” and that rings true. But does an outsider share that feeling?

When you list how Sydney and Peyton relate to each other, you can move beyond “extrovert” and “introvert” very quickly. You can start listing instances of their interactions. Consider early behavior first. What classroom antic of Sydney’s caused what reaction from Peyton, and then vice versa? Who made the good grades, and how did that affect the other? Which had the more stable parents, and how does that play out in higher education? These are not character traits; the trait matters only in its effect on the buddy. People in real life are shaped forever by childhood friendships, and you can use your particular memories to create a special bond. Even better, you can then write in implied aspects of the relationship—and don’t have to explain anything.

The initial notes can be supplemented by a second phase of consideration: what happens to them during the course of the book. This can be a crucial exercise, because in limning their in-book development, you can sense how important the relationship will be. Is the childhood friendship going to morph into one that is more distant? If so, why spend a lot of time writing about it? Is the relationship going to reach a crisis point that packs an emotional wallop? How important is that—i.e., when will that occur in the novel? By the use of the rings, you can shape what appeals to you without spending months lurching down a blind alley. 

Exercise: Links between two characters can also pinpoint what quality of a character will emerge most sharply with whom. If you have two friends who bring out the same quality, you have duplication of function. Separate out each character so that they show a different quality. That way the character’s companions won’t be an amorphous scrum.

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” —Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.