This week, the question comes from Ramani, who asks:
People keep talking about all this chemistry between two characters before for readers to believe they are actually in love. My question is… what do you consider chemistry?
Great question. I think chemistry in real life is not the same as chemistry on the page… On the page I feel like it’s an undeniable attraction between characters, but there’s some HUGE reason they can’t be together. Maybe they hate each other (Pride & Prejudice), he wants to eat her (Twilight), she can’t be with him because they’re not “free” (Shakespeare in Love), or he’s the bad guy (Son of the Shadows).
When I’m writing character-chemistry, that’s how I approach it. Push/pull. Desire/obstacle.
I agree with Susan. Chemistry most usually arises out of conflict, e.g. the characters want each other but something is in the way. In high school, it’s probably shyness and fear of rejection, so the characters moon at each other most of the book but never quite get up the courage to get together.
Chemistry can have a different meaning too, however. For example, well established couples can still have chemistry that stems from their mutual desire. Friends can have great chemistry as well. Chemistry in these cases is the energy that arises between two people when they interact.
For me, chemistry is more than just “OHMYGAWD he has the most gorgeous blue eyes and rock hard abs!”. It’s a chemistry between your character’s personalities. And yes, chemistry also involves the physical to some extent – but they don’t need to be so extreme or quite so superficial. Sometimes, you start to notice things like the size of someone’s hands, or how close they’re standing to you, or how nervous they make you – it doesn’t have to be the chiseled good looks or enormous breasts. And good chemistry will often involve a bit of tension – and conflict is one of the best ways to go about that. Because really, who wants to read about two people falling in love at first sight who live happily ever after without anything coming between them? No one. Everyone loves to see the unwanted chemistry, or the friendships that turn awkward, the enemies who can’t help but want one another. It’s cliché, but you can make it less cliché when you give your characters flaws and complex personalities.
Chemistry can also be when conversation flows naturally and easily between two people (be they friends, or rivals, or whatnot). It really depends on what kind of chemistry between characters you’re looking for – the chemistry between friends and family (or perhaps a lack thereof), or the chemistry that leads to a romantic relationship (between a boy and a girl, or two boys, or two girls). You’ll know when characters lack chemistry when dialogue and physical interactions fall flat.
I’ve always thought of chemistry as what you have when two characters can’t ignore each other. They may believe they hate one another, or that they are completely indifferent, but the reader can see that something binds them. The old adage, “opposites attract” seems to apply to a lot of fictional relationships with strong chemistry. Reiterating what Susan said, it can help quite a bit if the characters’ goals are at odds.
What’s YOUR definition of chemistry?