How to Get Characters to Trust Each Other

A common trope in fiction is to have two or more characters initially suspicious of each other, but eventually growing close. This varies from ‘Strangers to Friends’ to ‘Enemies to Friends.’

So how can we get this transition to feel organic?

Today, I’ll be looking at Person of Interest, a crime-tech thriller. (Highly recommend!)

This show has a ton of characters who begin as strangers or enemies and evolve to allies, friends…and, uh, frenemies? Sometimes?

To keep things simple, I’ll focus on the friendship between the two leads, Harold Finch and John Reese.

Note, minor spoilers.

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1.  Reasons not to trust each other.

First things first – why do your characters not trust each other?

In Person of Interest, Reese and Finch are very private people, with dangerous secrets and guilt-ridden pasts they’d rather keep hidden.

Already they have good reasons not to trust each other, but soon the stakes are raised.

Finch reveals he knows everything about Reese, including that he was a former CIA agent. This gives Finch the upper hand, another reason for Reese to be suspicious. Now Reese wants to find out more about Finch as quickly as possible to even the playing field.

But not all characters are as secretive as Finch and Reese. With those who otherwise wouldn’t be so distrustful, we might team up characters who share a rocky history, or have two enemies work together.

Novel in progress

 

My protagonists, Ebba and Tahir, begin on opposite sides. On top of that, Tahir attacked Ebba in the past, making their team-up a little more than awkward…

 

Not all relationships need to begin so intensely. Two strangers may not trust each other because why should they? They’re strangers! It all depends on the character and the genre.

 

2.  Reasons to stay.

If our characters don’t trust each other, why are they hanging around each other? What incentive do they have to stay together or keep meeting?

Often the plot will force the characters to be together – but it’s important to remember to let our characters be active agents in their own story. Once they’re together, they must choose to stay together, even if that decision is a reluctant one. So why make that choice?

Most team-ups involve a collective external goal, such as:

  • Save the world
  • Stop the bad guy
  • Find the treasure

To give the team-up more emotional weight, it should also include something internal. 

In POI, the external goal is to save people by predicting crimes and preventing them. The internal element is their shared motivation: Reese and Finch want to atone for the people they failed to save in the past.

Finch has the intelligence, Reese has the physical skill. They need each other to get what they want, and their motivation gives them an understanding vital to the development of their friendship.

 

3.  Judgements about each other.

First meetings come with first impressions, and if we’re beginning a tense relationship, those impressions aren’t going to be positive.

At first, Reese is very sceptical about Finch and his plan. He believes Finch is just a ‘bored, rich guy.’ He soon learns otherwise.

Novel in progress

 

Due to their rocky history, Ebba thinks Tahir is untrustworthy at best and bloodthirsty at worst. Meanwhile, Tahir doesn’t respect Ebba’s humanity because she is what he refers to as ‘Uncured,’ meaning she has magical abilities.

 

Judgements are a good way to reveal depth to all participants.

  • What are your characters flaws?
  • What traits do your characters despise?

Pit these against each other!

Some judgements will be incorrect. Only time will prove them wrong.

May Allah's blessings be upon you.

4.  Acceptance of each other’s company.

Teetering on the border of respect, there’s acceptance. They don’t quite trust each other yet. They might not even like each other. But they’re in this for a long time and they’ve come to terms with it. They’ve learnt to work together.

With Reese and Finch, this happens immediately. They have no reason to argue or fight, all they care about is the ‘job.’

Everything isn’t peaceful – remember, Reese is trying to discover Finch’s secrets, and Finch knows this. But neither of them are wiling to compromise the job. This is the situation they’ve accepted.

Again, it depends on the situation.

If your characters aren’t happy about the situation they’re in, it’ll take a little longer for them to accept this long-term arrangement. They’ll argue. They may even try to sabotage each other.

Novel in progress

 

Ebba and Tahir argue and ignore each other, until they finally realise that their survival depends on them putting aside their grievances and working together.

 

5.  Respect certain qualities about each other.

Reese quickly comes to respect just how intelligent Finch is, and Finch is equally impressed (and sometimes disgusted) by Reese. This is a constant in the show, and is a big part of their banter.

respect 1respect 2respect 3

I’m a sucker for little moments like this.

Respect is a huge part of a good relationship. Without respect, a healthy friendship can’t form. Consider,

  • What qualities do your characters admire?
  • What situation can you put your characters in to reveal these qualities?

 

6.  Testing boundaries

Depending on the character, they might poke and prod at each other from the start, or steer clear to avoid conflict.

With Reese wanting to find out as much as he can about Finch, he’s pushing at those boundaries from the start. Researching… Blowing his cover identity… Stalking… Hiring someone else to stalk for him….

These are some extreme examples.

More common is verbal sparring, which Reese and Finch partake a lot in. This is a good place to lighten up and start developing a rapport. It’s not quite harmless. It’s still a little tense, like those few first jokes with a stranger that don’t quite land. Some jokes might go too far, and have the less trusting putting up their walls again.

  • Remember not to have your character bicker too much. That can get repetitive and tiring.
  • If your characters do push too far, have them show remorse.

 

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7.  Doing things for each other

Give a little, get a little back. In POI, Reese and Finch are always saving each other from deadly situations. But it’s not just the big stuff that counts: They give each other gifts, bring each other coffee, go for walks together, take turns taking care of their dog – all sorts!

What things do your characters like to do? Have them share interests.

It might help to make a list of ideas and put them in a rough order of where they might fit in the plot, similar to a scene list. It’s important to know what your characters feel towards each other and why. Remember: Cause and effect.

 

8. Opportunities to take advantage of each other and choosing not to.

One of my favourite POI moments: Reese is given the perfect opportunity to find out more about his mysterious employer when Finch is drugged.

Finch says, “Ask me anything.”

Reese says, “Goodnight, Harold.”

This speaks for itself.

 

9. Opening up to each other

That mutual respect for each other skills has become respect for each other’s values and desires. They might find more in common and reveal their pasts to each other, voluntarily and with no regrets.

Novel in progress

 

Ebba is the first to open up when she tells Tahir the story behind her most cherished possession – a pair of battered ear trumpets that don’t fit her.

 

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10.  Concern for each other

This is where the fluffy friendship stuff starts: Giving each other space when needed, caring about each other’s feelings, supporting each other in tough times – all that good stuff.

 

11.   Friendly teasing

Remember that tense rapport mentioned earlier? It’s evolved into something a little sweeter: jokes, friendly insults, teasing, all punctuated with fond smiles or head-shaking. You know the ones!

 

14.   Celebrating together 

In the middle of all that conflict, our characters need to have some victories. What better way to show they are friends then by having them celebrate together?

 

15.   Sticking together

There will come a moment were our characters don’t need each other anymore. Their situation has changed in some way. Maybe one of them has a separate mission. Maybe they fulfilled their bargain. Whatever the case, the logical thing for them to do is part ways.

But friendships aren’t logical.

Their time together has changed them. If they were the same people at the beginning of this relationship, this would be it for them.

Reese discovers that Finch put in measures that if he’s ever killed or goes missing, Reese could carry on the work they started alone. But Reese refuses, avowing “He’s my friend, and I won’t do this without him.”

***

Have you watched Person of Interest? Do your characters trust each other or not? Do you have enemies working together, or strangers? Do you know of any other works that have this similar arc and would you recommend them?


Header image by Pixabay.

Subtitle images designed on Canva.com

Person of Interest © Warner Bros. Television

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