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Monday, October 10, 2022

The 4 Basic Types of Relationship Arcs (with Examples & Variations)

Much has been written about character arcs, but little has been taught about relationship arcs--despite relationship plotlines playing key roles in most stories, in most genres. Writing instructors such as Blake Snyder and Robert McKee, and approaches such as Dramatica Theory, all touch on the importance of having a central relationship in a story.

But there aren't very many resources on how to actually write or arc the relationship itself--unless of course, you are writing in the romance genre (and if you are, definitely take advantage of those resources--a great one is Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes). 

The central relationship in a story (which often involves the protagonist and the Influence Character) isn't always a romantic one though. It can be a relationship between allies, friends, coworkers, siblings, a mentor and student, or even rivals or enemies

So while the romance resources can help you write a lot of stories, they won't work for all central relationship types, as you'll see by the end of this article.

Because, while it's most common for the central relationship characters to become close, it's not the only option. And some characters are already close when the story begins. How do we write about them? By undoing their past and re-doing it, like so many writers have done poorly in sequels?

Plus, your protagonist (and any other key characters) will likely have important relationships with others outside the central relationship (even if they aren't a major plotline)--few relationships stay stagnant, so how do we arc those? They can't all follow the same format!

These are concerns that have been on my mind over the years, particularly because multiple writing approaches emphasize the need for a relationship plotline for the B Story (secondary plotline), but then those same approaches tend to be awfully vague on how to actually do that.

Well, several weeks ago while I was doing my hair and thinking about the basic character arcs, something clicked with me on a level it hadn't before. And a bunch of these questions I've had about relationships started getting answers! Suddenly things that had felt vague and elusive (and, I admit to some degree, unimportant) started making complete sense.

The info is more than I can fit in a single article. But the best place to start, is with the four basic types of relationship arcs.

Which is great, because arcs build off concepts you probably already know . . . 

What is a Relationship Arc?

A character arc is how a character grows or changes through the story. And a relationship arc is how a relationship grows or changes through the story.

Those familiar with my approach to character arcs, know I like to start with the most basic categories. We can build and get more complicated and specific off those categories, but ultimately when it comes to character arc, there are only four types: change positively, change negatively, remain steadfast positively, remain steadfast negatively.

Well, guess what?

This is the same breakdown we can use for relationship arcs! 

Now, this can be a little tricky and confusing at first, because we need to look at the relationship itself, and not the individuals in the relationship. The individuals in the relationship will likely have their own arcs (which play into how they interact in their relationship). But for a relationship arc, we are looking at the relationship itself.

Just as with my breakdown of character arcs, any relationship should, theoretically, be able to fit into these types at the most basic level. So let's go through them!

4 Kinds of Relationship Arcs

So there are only two directions a relationship can grow.

1. Closer, through love and respect (Positive)

2. Apart, through dislike and disrespect (Negative)

And there are only two ways this can happen.

1. The relationship changes

2. The relationship remains steadfast (strengthening in resolve)

That's it! While we can get more complicated and specific from there, at the most basic level, any relationship should, theoretically, fit into this breakdown. 

Positive Relationship Arcs

In a positive arc, the participants in the relationship will grow closer together, typically because they grow in love and respect for each other. This can either be a positive change relationship or a positive steadfast relationship.

Positive Change Relationship Arcs

Out of the relationship arcs, this is the most common, so it will likely sound and look very familiar to you.

In this arc, the relationship will largely change through because of the story, in a positive way.

Often the relationship will do a 180 flip (more or less) from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. The characters will go from being largely strangers, or even downright enemies, to becoming best friends, found family, or significant others. 

The obstacles of the journey ultimately draw them closer in love and respect.

Examples of Positive Change Relationship Arcs

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice start out as strangers, and it isn't long before Elizabeth (and others) deem Darcy as too proud for his own good--he refuses to dance with Elizabeth at the ball. Yet over the coming months, Mr. Darcy begins to fall for Elizabeth, and, to her surprise, proposes to her. She turns him down, citing his arrogance. But her feelings toward him start to take a turn--perhaps she had misjudged him. At the end of the book, Elizabeth accepts his (second) proposal.

In The X-Files, Mulder and Scully start as strangers, though Scully is familiar with Mulder's negative reputation. The division chief assigns Scully to the X-Files to debunk Mulder's work, and they become partners. Over the years of cases, they grow closer and closer, as the obstacles of the show require more and more personal costs and sacrifices. From partners, they become friends, to close friends, to essentially found family, to lovers.

In Monsters Inc. Sulley is first terrified of Boo, and her escape into Monstropolis leads to chaos. Forced to hide her in his apartment, Sulley realizes she's not a danger, and begins to grow attached to her before discovering she's the one in danger. As they navigate antagonistic forces, they soon develop a parent-child relationship.

Other examples include Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sherlock and John in Sherlock, and all the guardians in Guardians of the Galaxy

Often these characters are pushed together because of other forces or circumstances. Maybe they are in the same social circle or must work together toward a goal. This may not always be the case, but if the arc is for a plotline, typically it is. It is possible they want to draw closer together out of their own free will, like in Romeo and Juliet, but they might be facing obstacles.

Positive Steadfast Relationship Arcs

In a positive steadfast relationship arc, the participants are already close. 

Instead of doing a big flip or experiencing a big change, the relationship will be, more or less, the same at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story. Instead of transforming, it will grow in resolve

Some relationships will remain essentially the exact same through the story--in which case, it may arguably be a relationship arc, but it's not really a relationship plotline. If you want to make this into a relationship plotline, it likely needs to grow by degree

This means the characters will grow even closer together by the end of the story--or more accurately said, because of the story.

A positive steadfast relationship doesn't necessarily mean the relationship never wavers or never gets rocky. Only that when all is said and done, the characters will remain loyal to each other at the end.

Just as with steadfast characters, these are often relationships people struggle to know how to write well. A common lament I hear is, "What do I do when the characters are already together?" "Or already in love?"--particularly for sequels. . . . And a common mistake writers make is to try to undo what already happened--through weak antagonistic forces--and then redo it.

In reality, the positive steadfast relationship arc (like the steadfast character arc) is about testing the relationship. What can the writer (believably) throw at the characters that will threaten to wedge them apart? 

The greater the threat, the more meaningful it is when the characters choose to remain together.

Examples of Positive Steadfast Relationship Arcs

Perhaps one of the best examples of this relationship arc comes from The Lord of the Rings (and I like the film adaptations in particular). Frodo and Sam already start with a positive relationship. But the journey of the story threatens to separate them. First Frodo believes he needs to bear this burden alone. Then Smeagal and the Ring begin to chip them apart. Eventually, they go their own ways. But Frodo realizes he needs Sam, who re-realizes the exact same. They are only able to make it to the Crack of Doom by Sam carrying Frodo over his shoulders.

In a couple of renditions of Spider-man, Peter and Mary Jane fit this arc as well. They start already friendly, close, and on good terms. But their relationship gets tested past its breaking point before they come back together.

Another (atypical) example comes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where the central relationship involves Harry (and the trio) and Albus Dumbledore--despite Dumbledore not being present (you can actually have a relationship arc with one of the participants absent). Harry starts the story loyal to Dumbledore, but the information coming out about him begins to chip at that loyalty. Maybe Dumbledore wasn't who Harry thought he was. In the end, this loyalty is re-cemented into place and made even stronger.

Ultimately, the relationships withstand the trials, and the participants are brought closer because of it.

Alternatively, you could, theoretically, use the arc to help others have a change arc, in the same way that the steadfast protagonist often helps others or the world around them change. But we don't see that very often.

Negative Relationship Arcs

When we think of relationship arcs and plotlines, we generally think of drawing characters closer together. But it is also possible to arc relationships by pulling characters apart. Instead of growing in love and respect, they ultimately grow in dislike, disrespect, and distance

This will happen in one of two ways.

Negative Change Relationship Arcs

In this arc, the relationship will largely change through because of the story, in a negative way.

Often the relationship will do a 180 flip (more or less) from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. The characters will go from being best friends, found family, or significant others, to largely strangers, or even downright enemies.

This is about the deterioration of a relationship.

Instead of overcoming the challenges thrown at their relationship and drawing closer, these obstacles (or in some cases, distractions) tear the participants apart. They may increase in dislike, hate, or disrespect for one another, or simply become more distant.

Examples of Negative Change Relationship Arcs

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin and Obi-wan begin the story as close as brothers, with Anakin going against orders to save Obi-wan twice. He would rather risk his death, the death of others, and his mission than leave his master behind. But the tension between the Jedi and Palpatine, and the seduction of the dark side being able to save Padme, starts to strain the relationship. Halfway through the film, Anakin accepts that Obi-wan may need to die, and by the climax, he's more than ready to kill his master himself, openly professing how much he hates him.

From the beginning of Stranger Things to the most recent 4th season, the audience has . . . more or less . . . watched a deterioration of Mike and Will's friendship. They started as the oldest and most trusted friends out of the group of boys, and Mike does all he can to rescue Will. But by season four, Mike doesn't even really "see" Will, even when Will is right in front of him. The relationship is more one-sided, and arguably more distant than ever, as Will is unable to truly get closer to Mike, and Mike is blind to Will's real feelings for him.

In The Hunger Games, Gale starts the story as Katniss's closest and most dependable friend. They begin hitting some rocks in Catching Fire and then it gets worse in Mockingjay, as Gale grows interested in using more violent war tactics. While they certainly have their ups, when Gale becomes willing to sacrifice others to ensure victory--which likely led to Prim's death--the relationship crashes to a hurtful end.

Negative Steadfast Relationship Arcs

In a negative steadfast relationship arc, the characters start apart and end apart. They may be strangers or enemies and ultimately end up that way.

This doesn't mean the characters never get close or never love each other for a time--they may flirt with the idea of always being together, but when all is said and done, the characters won't stand by each other.

Some relationships will stay essentially the exact same through the whole story--in which case, it may arguably be a relationship arc, but it's not really a relationship plotline.

The story may test their resolve to be strangers or enemies by offering opportunities that could draw them together. But by the denouement, they usually end up with a bigger divide. You can hate a stranger or an enemy, yes, but you usually can't hate a stranger or an enemy as much as you hate an ex. Or alternatively, you can feel distant from a complete stranger, but you will feel even more distant when parting with someone you were once close with. It's in this sense that the negative steadfast relationship grows by degree.

Examples of Negative Steadfast Relationship Arcs

In 1984 by George Orwell, Winston and Julia start as strangers. Suspecting Julia is a spy, Winston hates her, until she slips him a love note, and the two start a secret affair (in a society where individual relationships and sexual desires are forbidden). They draw closer together, to the point of Julia saying she'd do anything to tear down the Party, except she doesn't want to betray Winston. In the end, they are tortured and brainwashed to the point that they each betray each other. Despite running into each other in the denouement, they no longer share their previous affections or desires, and go their separate ways.

In Cruella, Estella has the opportunity to work for the Baroness von Hellman, but when she sees the Baroness wearing her mother's old necklace, makes plans to steal it back by creating the alter ego "Cruella" as a distraction. A feud between the Baroness and Cruella ensues, and eventually, Estella learns the truth that the Baroness is her biological mother, who tried to have her killed shortly after her birth. What should have been a loving relationship becomes a fierce rivalry of power, where one actually attempts to kill the other. In the end, the Baroness is arrested, and the relationship destroyed.

The Prestige starts with the Angier and Borden working together for a magician, but the two men aren't close. When Angier's wife dies in a water tank trick accident, he blames Borden for tying the wrong knot. The two become rivals in magic and revengeful enemies. Despite Angier being advised to move on, he becomes more obsessed with taking down Borden. Eventually, Angier frames him for murder, and Borden is sentenced to death. In a twist, however, "Borden" is able to ultimately kill Angier. Lives are lost as the relationship comes to an end.

Another example would be Mia and Seb in La La Land.

Relationship Arc Variations

Just as with character arcs, there may be variations in relationship arcs. In writing, things often aren't either-or nor black or white. We use simple categories to help us better discern and learn how to write arcs. These categories are intended to explain what exists, not police what is allowed to exist. 

Love at a Distance

The characters may grow in their love for each other, but also grow distant from each other. While this is unusual, it's not impossible. For example, one character may observe the other and love him more, while she simultaneously draws further away. 

At one point in The X-Files (in the "revival" seasons), we learn that Scully grew distant from Mulder because she loves him so much. She couldn't bear to watch what was happening to him.

Another common trope is that one character pulls away because he feels incapable or unworthy of the other person, and resolves to love that person from afar--in thought or even action.

Love Your Enemy

Sometimes the characters love each other or learn to love each other while ultimately being enemies. 

Often the protagonist will begin to see herself in the antagonist. While this can lead to more hatred (which is actually hatred directed at the self), it can also lead to love, because one character begins to more intimately understand the other.

In Ender's Game, Ender is able to defeat his enemies because he understands them on a personal level.

Keep Your Enemies Closer

As the saying goes, "Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer."

This is similar to the last variation, but a little different. 

One character may be drawing closer to the enemy and getting more personal with them, but may not really love them.

In fact, it's possible they hate them more.

In Death Note, the central relationship involves the protagonist, Light, and the antagonist, L. The characters draw closer together while investigating ongoing murders--that Light is secretly committing. L is the biggest threat to Light. And Light is the biggest threat to L. Ultimately, one kills the other. 

The Frienemy

"Frienemy" comes from the words "friend" and "enemy." This is a relationship that is a mash-up of the two. It may be a friend that also serves as an antagonist--such as a rival.

This may not be so much an arc itself, but can be an option to use in an arc that will bring in some variation to what I said above.

For some interesting takes on "frienemy," look no further than the Wikipedia entry on it.

Toxically Close (No Boundaries)

Typically the most toxic relationships come from the closest relationships. Loving your abuser or being codependent is ripe with dysfunction. Boundaries are a healthy part of a relationship and help individualize the participants. 

The Collective

Sometimes the character is in a relationship with a group of people that, more or less, acts as a unit. It might be there is a relationship arc between the protagonist and his football team, or the protagonist and his staff. How individualized the people of the group are may vary, but when it comes to a relationship plotline, the protagonist is in a relationship with a collective.

You can find an example of a negative relationship with a collective in Mean Girls, which largely centers on Cady's relationship with The Plastics.

I'm sure there are a lot of interesting variations to what I outlined as the basic arcs, so use the outlined arcs as tools to help you, and not standards you have to meet to a t.

Tip: Consider Specific Labels to Map the Arc

It's useful to look at generalities and the basics, but it can also be helpful to get more specific. 

One of the influences of this post, came from me running into people online who would identify tropes like this:

Enemies to lovers

Friends to lovers

Lovers to exes

. . . and I realized they were essentially describing relationship arcs.

It might be helpful to look at the relationship arc in your story, and map it out in a similar way:

Strangers --> best friends

Enemies --> allies

Allies --> rivals

Brothers --> enemies

Friend --> frienemy

Classmates --> found family

It may be more accurate to add more stages:

Strangers --> allies --> best friends

Enemies --> friends --> enemies

Strangers --> colleagues --> best friends --> lovers

Lovers --> exes --> lovers

Family --> strangers --> enemies

Not all the terms you may come up with will fit this idea perfectly. For example, earlier I used the term "brothers" . . . well, even if you are "enemies" you are still technically "brothers" in the biological sense. Use the terms that suit you best. No need to get too rigid. And again, not everything is always black and white. The point is that it helps map out the journey, which can bring more clarity. (It also helps to ensure that the relationship plotline is a plotline and not just filler--more on that in the future.)

Here are some more examples . . . 

Sherlock Holmes & John Watson in Sherlock:

Strangers --> roommates --> best friends

Fox Mulder & Dana Scully in The X-Files:

Strangers --> partners --> best friends --> lovers

Nancy & Steve in Stranger Things:

Love interests --> couple --> exes --> friends ( . . . with maybe some feelings still)

Luke & Darth Vader in Star Wars:

Enemies --> family

If you want more ideas and insight into specific relationships, check out Writers Helping Writers' relationship thesaurus

Why are Relationship Arcs Important?

We've covered a lot of ground with relationship arcs. Well, so what? Why does this matter? Why are we told they are usually key in a strong story? Even when the primary plotline isn't about a relationship?

Well, there are a few reasons. . . .

How Relationships are Often Thematic

Several well-known sources (such as those I mentioned in the beginning) point to the relationship plotline (which includes a relationship arc) as being a crucial element of theme. In fact, some say it is where theme really happens. I definitely wouldn't take it that far. I agree it is a key element, but I think it's a bit of an error to say that the relationship plotline is where theme really happens. I've talked about this before, though, and won't repeat my whole commentary on that. I'll summarize by saying often the thematic arguments are more obvious in the central relationship plotline.

This is because the way each character arcs individually is part of what makes up theme. Usually, the relationship plotline will be between the protagonist and Influence Character. And the Influence Character helps guide the protagonist to adopt a worldview, which essentially encapsulates the theme. However, sometimes this is reversed, and the protagonist helps the Influence Character adopt the theme. (Just as a note, while less common, it's also possible one or both adopt the anti-theme, as you'll see in a second.)

More often than not, these characters will have the same goal or at least be on similar journeys, but they have different methodologies, which lead to arguments. These arguments are normally thematic--the reason the characters have different methodologies is because their worldviews differ. How they want to move forward often demonstrates the story's thematic arguments.

For more information on this, check out, "Writing the Influence Character."

For the relationship as a whole itself, it might be helpful to consider how the characters grow together or apart, and what they learn. For example, in Mockingjay, Gale grows more interested in sacrificing others in order to claim victory--which is actually the anti-theme of the whole series. The true theme is that we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves to save others, which is what Katniss has done time and time again--starting with saving Prim. It's the idea that Gale essentially sacrificed Prim in order to secure the Capitol that ultimately drove him and Katniss apart.

When you think about how Gale ultimately chose the anti-theme (though understandably), it's really not that surprising that Katniss ended up with Peeta instead of him.

With all this said, there is no need to overthink or get hung up on the relationship arc and the theme, especially for every relationship. If each person in the relationship is tapping into the theme individually, you're probably good. After all, Katniss and Gale are each on different sides of the thematic argument as individuals. But it can be helpful to see that this is why they grew apart.

Relationship Plotlines Add Dimension

Most stories will feature a big external journey and a big internal journey for the protagonist. 

A relationship plotline helps add dimension to a story by offering a third type of plotline that fits between those two. It's not as extreme and far-reaching as the external plotline, but it's not as intimate and deep as the internal plotline. Rather than adding more and more external plotlines or more and more internal plotlines, it's usually more effective to add a relationship plotline. I'll share more about relationship plotlines in a later article. 

Again, these are basics, and I know they aren't perfect, or yet perfectly refined, but they should help you understand relationship arcs better than before and direct you on the right track.

They will also help you see other options so you don't keep picking the same enemies --> best friends (positive change) relationship journey in your stories. I find I tend to pick the same type of relationship arc for the secondary plotline, not only because I love it, but because I didn't understand there were other options I could utilize.

So there you have it, the four basic types of relationship arcs (with examples & variations) 😉. I'm feeling more eager to look deeper at the central relationships in my WIPs. Hopefully you are too!

And next time, we'll delve into them a bit more. Until then, happy writing.

Love this info? It's part of my online writing course, The Triarchy Method. Learn more or register here.

Continue to "Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots" -->

Related Articles

Writing the Influence Character

What is a B Story? 6 Key Qualities of B Stories

Writing Relationships Readers can't Resist

The 4 Basic Types of Character Arcs

More Resources on Relationships

How to Write Three Types of Friendship Arcs by Mythcreants

How to Use the Romance Formula to Develop Friendships, Partnerships, and Rivalries by The Darling Axe


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