Turning on the Chemistry Between Characters

Please welcome guest author Mary Patterson Thornburg to the Cafe.

We all know about “chemistry” between people, right? It’s the mysterious force that attracts us to – or repels us from – another human being. It can take a long time to develop, or it can happen immediately, and when it does we usually recognize it but don’t understand it. It just is. If it’s the positive, attractive, kind of energy, we can put up with a lot from that person. If it’s the opposite kind, the kind that repels us, we get away from him or her as fast as possible. And if there’s no chemistry at all, the feeling between us will be impersonal, so it will take a strong act of will to maintain any kind of relationship.

What causes chemistry, positive or negative, between two people? Good question! It may be something simple and literal – for example, you might be wearing the same scent my second-grade teacher wore, something I don’t consciously remember, but when I meet you I’m attracted – or turned off – depending on how I felt about that teacher. In most cases, though, it’s probably a lot more complex than that, a mixture of many physical and psychological factors. It involves memories and half-remembered associations from the past. It’s something intensely personal, intensely human.

So, as a reader and a writer, I have a question: How can chemistry exist between characters in a story? After all, these aren’t real, actual people. They look and sound real, we hope – at least real enough for readers to believe in them while they’re reading the story. But all writers, and all but the most naïve readers, know this realness is an illusion. We may imagine a past for them, but we haven’t imagined every minute, every association, every event that’s contributed to who they are now, in the fictional moment. In the hands of a good writer, these characters are much more than paper cutouts, but there’s a big difference between them and our intricately layered selves. So how can this mysterious energy exist between them, convincingly enough for the writer to feel it and make the reader feel it too?

Because it’s absolutely necessary, especially in the romantic story, that both the writer and the reader feel the characters’ positive chemistry. If it doesn’t exist, the relationship will be cold and neutral. It will seem arranged. It will be, in a word, boring. If a story doesn’t take us into the bedroom with the characters, we should at least want them to get there themselves, and if there’s no positive chemistry between them we won’t care if they do or not! And if there are sex scenes between characters with no chemistry, these scenes will be contrived and mechanical, as meaningless as descriptions in a medical text.


There are two main ways, I believe, to establish a real, positive chemistry between fictional characters. The first, like so much else in fiction, is through conflict – not just in the plot but in the characters’ feelings. Since fictional characters “live” by means of fictional devices, the kind of tension that signals a positive chemistry can be achieved, in the reader’s perception, by having a force or drive in one direction battling another force or drive going the opposite way. There are probably as many specific kinds of conflict as there are individual characters, but here are three:

1. The chemistry is there, but one of the characters misses it or misinterprets it, thinks it’s something else – great respect or admiration, maybe, or maybe just a comfortable brother/sister closeness.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett knows she can relax and be herself with Rhett as she never is with any other young man of her acquaintance. She’s drawn to Rhett – they’re very much alike, after all – but she doesn’t recognize what the energy between them means because it isn’t what she wants it to mean. She thinks, moreover, that the real chemistry is between her and Ashley, although she only imagines she knows Ashley and only fantasizes that he feels the same thing she does. It’s her long daydream about Ashley that keeps her from recognizing the chemistry between her and Rhett until too late.

In Rhoda Baxter’s romantic comedy Doctor January, the heroine Beth thinks of her co-worker Hibs as a good friend, but she rejects all the signs of a romantic attraction between them – and the signs are there, as the reader can easily see – because in the first place she believes Hibs isn’t capable of having a long-term relationship with anyone, and in the second place she’s too busy mooning over Gordon, the absent ex-lover who’s hurt her pride by dumping her.

2. Both characters feel the chemistry between them, but at least one of them believes it will never work because of some impediment.

Jane Eyre and Rochester, in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, both recognize their attraction to each other from the start, when Jane rescues Rochester from an accident that’s injured him before either knows who the other is. Their relationship is immediately close and physical. But when they learn each other’s identity, they become aware of things that stand in the way of their attraction reaching a satisfactory goal: they’re from two different social classes, and Rochester seems to be courting a young woman of his own class. And finally, of course, when they seem to have overcome these initial impediments, Jane discovers Rochester is married to the murderously insane – but undeniably healthy – Bertha Mason.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s fascinating and tragic takeoff on the Jane Eyre story, “Bertha” (whose real name is Antoinette) and Rochester are forced into an arranged marriage, but at first there’s strong personal chemistry between them – so strong, in fact, that its passionate sexuality disturbs and frightens the inhibited Rochester and becomes, ironically, one of the obstacles to their closeness. This and the other obstacles – chiefly their different backgrounds and upbringing, along with their insurmountable misunderstanding of each other – drives them entirely apart. Antoinette is by far the more sympathetic of the two characters, but if there hadn’t been that chemistry of attraction between them to begin with, the tragedy of her story wouldn’t be as powerful as it is.

3. Both characters feel the chemistry, but it shows itself first as dislike, anger, or some other negative emotion.

In Jane Austen’s great romantic novel Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get off very much on the wrong foot with each other. Darcy, annoyed because the party he’s attending is obviously a husband-shopping expedition for a group of country girls and their mothers, makes an impolite and disparaging remark about Elizabeth, and she overhears it. This doesn’t really hurt her feelings – she has too much self-confidence for that – but we know it bothers her because she can’t stop thinking and talking about it. Thus we also know that Darcy sparked her interest; if he hadn’t, she’d have shrugged his remark off and forgotten about him immediately. Circumstances bring them together frequently after their meeting, and Elizabeth goes out of her way to infuriate Darcy at every possible opportunity. The two of them bristle at each other like a pair of cats, and as readers we soon realize that they enjoy doing this. We know, long before either Elizabeth or Darcy does, that the energy between them is a lot more positive than they are willing to admit.

…Or Magic

There’s another way for great chemistry to happen between two characters, of course, and that is… by magic. The characters come to life – they feel that chemistry, they make the writer feel it too, and the writer does everything she can to pass it on to the reader.

A few years ago, I’d have said that statement was total nonsense. But then it happened to two of my own characters. Here’s how it came about:

I was writing a Young Adult novel, and my two main characters were young teens, just at that marvelous age when certain hormones begin to kick in and first love can hit hard. I was about halfway through the book, and had the whole thing roughly plotted out. My two characters were a girl and a boy, Alyssha and Kardl, and Alyssha had just met Kardl’s 15-year-old cousin, Shan, whom I’d planned would be the obligatory “love interest” – the boy she’d get a crush on. She and Kardl would be good friends, but it would be Shan who stirred her heart and those budding hormones. I didn’t know Shan very well yet, but I knew he was sweet, handsome, and more serious than Kardl. He seemed like the type my teenaged girl readers would find appealing.

But then, during a scene involving Alyssha, Kardl, and an old woman who intimidates both of them, the woman says something sharp and hurtful to Kardl. Alyssha sees his hurt but hears his quick response, which is smart, cool, and perfectly polite, and which turns the tables on the old woman. Alyssha jumps in immediately, cool and polite herself, but daring the woman to take them both on. At the same time, she sees Kardl in an entirely new light. The chemistry between them takes hold, and she falls in love with him.

I had no idea this was going to happen. The kids said what they said, did what they did, completely on their own. They amazed me, these characters who’d suddenly sprung to life, and I quickly went back to everything I’d written and made the necessary changes to foreshadow this turn of events – which included making Shan into a real character instead of a sort of Ken-doll figure transported into the world of my book. And almost as immediately, I began to write what I saw as the “sequel,” which took Alyssha and Kardl (and Shan) six years into the future and which, eventually, became my novel The Kura.

How does this kind of magic work? I’m only guessing here, but I think in order for it to happen you need to know your characters very well. When you do, they stop being paper cutouts or beautiful animated sculptures that you can push around – they become real human beings. And if they’re lucky, and if you’re lucky, they find for themselves that point of contact that blossoms into a true and compelling chemistry between them.

~  ~  ~

The Kura CoverThere’s something wrong with the Verdun Street Bridge in Granville.

People don’t like the way it feels. They take the long way around it if they can – and Alyssha Dodson knows why.

A dark doorway under that bridge leads to another world. Alyssha spent a summer there when she was a child. She’s promised her father she won’t go back. But now she has no choice, does she? A hit-and-run victim from that world has brought her a message of trouble there – a message she doesn’t understand, but one she has to deliver.

Of course, she has other reasons for going back. There’s a place for her in Bandor, better than any place in her own world. It’s where she belongs. And there’s Kardl – the boy she met there when she was twelve. She’s daydreamed about him for all these years, and now he’ll be there, waiting for her the way she’s waited for him…

Won’t he?

~  ~  ~

Mary Patterson Thornburg was born in California, grew up in Washington State, moved to Montana when she was 18, and spent many years in Indiana, where she studied and then taught at Ball State University.

Her dream was always to write fantasy stories and novels, but she didn’t get started until she and her husband moved back to Montana in 1998. When she’d finished her first story and it was published, she took off running and never looked back. She’s had stories in Cicada, Zahir, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, among other places. Her first fantasy/romance/adventure novel, A Glimmer of Guile, was published by Uncial Press in 2014. Her second book for Uncial, The Kura, came out in April, 2015.


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