Okay, story time:
I met my best friend in kindergarten halfway through the school year. Over the years (20 of them, actually, as of this year. Ain’t that fucking awesome?) this girl and I have weathered arguments, miles of distance due to moving around, awful 90’s haircuts, a couple life and death situations, boyfriends, disagreeing family members, pig-headedness, and the eternal disagreement as to the deliciousness of mushrooms (I am firmly in Mushrooms Are Awesome Land while she is…not). She’s been by my side, I’ve been by hers. She’s the rabid chihuahua to my don’t give a fuck rottweiler, the Dean to my Sam, the hurricane to my hellfire.
She absolutely hated my guts when we first met.
See, when people figure out we’re best friends they get this look on their faces like, wtf, how? On paper, we absolutely should not work. Our interests are so widespread many of them don’t even touch, our personalities should not mesh, and there appears to be no common ground from the outside. Not to say that the relationship has always been smooth sailing, but it’s one that has survived, and it’s all due to the metaphorical peanut butter of life.
Metaphorical peanut butter is kind of exactly what it sounds like. It’s sticky, it’s thick, it can be crunchy and smooth, and it is absolutely it’s own kind of glue. Try cleaning old peanut butter out of the carpet or doll hair if you don’t believe me. The thing is that peanut butter doesn’t shellac two people together on its own, and you need to show the cracks it has fused in the foundation for people to understand how it came to be there.
When you have two characters who you know are supposed to be together in any kind of sense it pays off to spend some time building a backstory. You don’t have to do it all at once, but it has to be done so you, the author, can at least understand how these two people have come to be around each other and why they both stick around, for however long that is. Knowing their origin story, as it were, will give you the foundation to write your characters at later dates in their lives.
When I met my best friend the teacher made us share a cubby hole. My best friend was the only kid in class that had one to herself and, as the baby of her family, this was, as you can imagine, a stroke of luck to rival winning the lottery and going to Disneyland. Then here I come in the middle of the year, a shy but determined country kid with a weird love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a habit of borrowing crayons for indefinite amounts of time. I moved my shit right in and took up space. Yeah. She hated my guts, but I latched on to her like a greedy limpet and refused to buzz off. In the end, I won her over with a combination of swapping Lunchable deserts and sharing Barbie Dolls. She found she could jabber on about anything and I would listen. I found someone who didn’t care if I was into weird stuff and was both quiet and loud by turns. We’ve stuck together ever since.
Kindergarten gave us the first peanut butter layer of glue for our relationship.
I know, those acts don’t really seem like much. They seem kind of insignificant, I’ll agree, and yet that paragraph holds the keys to the very foundation of our relationship and tells you everything you need to know about why we are still friends 20 years down the road. We both needed something. She needed someone to pay attention to her, to see her. I needed someone who let me be me and still liked who that was.
Relationships start out in a variety of ways, but the key ingredient is always a need being met on both ends. That need can come out of anything whether these two people share common traits or interests or not.
So. Back story. Take some time to hash it out for your characters. For me, I need to know at least five key events that my character’s built their relationship on. I always need to know how they met because that’s your first layer, the one that becomes their foundation. The next layers usually go something like, one time character A stood by or up for character B and vice versa, the fight that almost ripped them apart, and the best time they ever had together. If you need to know more layers then that’s fine, but those five usually give me enough of a sense about my characters that I can proceed with the general story. Other layers to their relationship will pop up as the story progresses, but you need to know the bare bones foundation first, because that is what your characters will fall back on when shit goes down for them, and that foundation will catch you when you push through the story and get turned around.
If you don’t know why your characters are with each other the story is much harder to write, because then they don’t know why they are with each other, either. So find the reason. Learn what sticky situations caused their metaphorical peanut butter glue to bring them closer together instead of driving them apart.
Then, once you know, go to town and test the hell out of that foundation and see how it holds up. That’s what stories are all about, right?