Start Your Characters Off On The Wrong Foot (Part 1 of 4)

Who doesn’t love dynamic characters? Character relationships, watching them form and change, is what makes fiction so enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, one of the most popular writing tropes is Enemies to Friends (and maybe more…). Characters who are initially suspicious of each other, yet grow to care for one another have the most interesting arcs. But how can we get this transition to feel organic?

First, a heads up – this is PART ONE of a series.

How To Write Dynamic Friendships According To Person Of Interest

Person of Interest is a TV series that aired from 2011 to 2016, and has some of the best character dynamics I have ever seen.

It’s premise is this: Billionaire recluse, Harold Finch, has created an artificial intelligence he calls The Machine that is able to predict terrorist acts and identify those planning them, but because of The Machine’s vast capabilities, it also sees smaller, but no less deadly, crimes that the Government consider irrelevant, so this information is ignored and deleted each night. Feeling tormented, Harold recruits ex-CIA agent John Reese to help him prevent these crimes.

Combining science-fiction, crime, and mystery, it’s a fantastic thought-provoking show about what it means to be a good person in a world of increasingly troubling circumstances. Because of this, a lot of the main characters are looking for redemption and forgiveness.

Over and over again, characters meet, conflict, and grow from strangers/enemies into allies, close friends, and, for some, lovers. Not one character relationship stays the same.

So how does Person Of Interest do this so well?

This series will have four parts, to cover the four stages of the Enemies To Friends trope. While there are a-many amazing character arcs to choose from, I’ll be exclusively looking at the two leads, Harold Finch and John Reese.

Spoilers ahead.

person of interest friendship stage 1

This is arguably the most important stage when working with this trope. The beginning of any character relationship needs to be carefully thought out, but none more so than this. This is the part where we figure out just where our characters are coming from.

Are they on complete opposite sides? Are they distrustful of each other? Do they have any history?

While Finch and Reese don’t start off as complete adversaries, they are both antagonistic and distrustful of the other. Reese has spent the last few months on the streets, growing a depression beard, and ignoring the world around him. Everybody who knows him thinks he’s dead. After he is arrested for getting into a fight with some men on a subway, he is bailed out and taken to the mysterious, all-knowing Harold Finch.

How To Make The Most Of This Moment

Understanding where your characters are coming from is key. Not only that, you need to give your characters a reason to come back to each other. Even if they are on opposite sides, there must be a shared understanding or foreshadowing, cluing us in that this is not the last they’ll see of each other. Ask yourself:

  1. Why don’t your characters trust each other?
  2. What plot goal do your characters share?
  3. What are their first impressions?

Let’s see how Person Of Interest does it.

1. Why don’t your characters trust each other?

Because Person Of Interest begins with John Reese as out POV character, we see this meeting from his perspective. Here he is, hiding, content to ignore and be ignored, when some geek in glasses comes out of nowhere and offers him a job.

A dangerous job: Help him save people from dangerous situations.

That would be enough to put anyone off. But Person Of Interest takes it three steps further: 1) It’s established quickly that John Reese is operating under a fake name, which Finch points out. 2) Finch offers his own fake-name in return, and 3) Finch gives Reese detailed information about Reese’s very private history about his role as a CIA agent, his faked death, and his current drinking habits.

Finch has the upper hand, and is not nearly as forthcoming with his own information or about how he came to learn so much about Reese.

This gives Reese an important goal: Find out who this guy is and how he gets his information.

And just to make it better… Finch is fully aware that this is what Reese is trying to do. He tells him, firmly, that he is a very private person. In other words, he’s not going to make it easy.

That leaves us with two very private characters, locked together, with one trying to keep his secrets and the other trying to discover them.

It’s okay if your characters aren’t as secretive as Finch and Reese. You might choose to team up characters who share a rocky history, or have enemies work together. Two strangers may not trust each other because why should they? They’re strangers!

Keep character and genre in mind.

2. What plot goal do your characters share?

Often the plot will force characters to be together. Being a serialised TV show, Person Of Interest has a new crime mystery every episode to slap the characters into their role as partners.

But it’s just as important to let our characters be active agents in their own story. The plot brings them together. Once they’re together, they must choose to stay together, even if that decision is a reluctant one.

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 Person of Interest, Finch offers Reese a job. This is the external goal: Save people. This matters to Reese because he has spent so long doing nothing, and this job offers him a purpose other than drinking himself to death.

The reason Finch chooses Reese is because they have something in common, that all important internal element. Both of them have lost people to crimes that could have been prevented. They want to atone.

But Finch is physically handicapped. He walks with a limp. He is not fast or strong. He does not have the means of protecting the people he cares about. He has all this knowledge and no way of acting on it. Reese does. They need each other to get what they want, and their motivation gives them an understanding vital to the development of their friendship.

3. First impressions

Naturally, Reese isn’t exactly onboard with Finch’s plan. Especially when Finch invites him to follow a woman and find out everything about her. Reese, understandably, raises his eyebrow and goes on his way.

It’s hard to say what Finch is thinking this early on, because we know so little about him. Later on in the show, we find out that he’s had previous people working under him, and so has been very careful when selecting Reese. He has a lot of faith in him, but is closed off and guarded. He knows Reese will get the job done, and that’s all that matters.

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

  • What are your characters flaws?
  • What traits do your characters despise?
  • What beliefs do your characters have? Do they conflict with each other?

Pit these against each other!

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

Bring all of these elements together and you will have a first meeting that’s both antagonistic and alluring.

Finch and Reese only become closer as the show goes on, but it’s their initial distrust and polarizing personalities that makes their friendship one of the best in TV history.

Next Up: How To Transform Your Characters From Antagonists To Friends

Published by

J.H. Dixon

What's this? An author's brand? You mean I have to boil down my complex human personality into something marketable? That's a lot of pressure. Where would I even begin? I have many facets. Many hats, if you will. One second I'm scribbling down heart-stopping thrillers, the next I'm writing a rhyming poem about a rabbit stealing eggs. What I'm writing could change any minute. No writer should have to stick to just one hat.

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