Stories tend to show characters getting together.
Stories don’t get going until there are at least two characters.
That’s because the characters in themselves are not really what interests the audience. What the audience likes to experience is relationships.
At a fundamental level, there are only these three ways that people – or characters within a story – can interact with each other:
It is the complexities of these types of relationship that authors present to their audiences.
At least two of the three types of relationships are likely to be depicted in any story, cooperation and conflict. To make the story feel complete, authors especially of popular stories such as Hollywood movies often include the third type in the form of a love interest.
Many stories are designed by the authors with an A-plot and a B-plot. The A-plot will provide the tension of the conflict by having the protagonist struggle to overcome obstacles, invariably with the help of cooperating characters. This is the outer layer of story that provides the plot. Intertwined with this is a second layer that has the protagonist getting romantically involved with another character. The two plotlines conjoin at the resolution.
Of course, love stories also head towards a union at the end. In a love story, the audience pretty much knows that the couple are going to overcome their difficulties and get together eventually. So in this genre, we can clearly see the general principle that it is not so much the question “what’s going to happen?” that interests the audience as “how is it going to happen?”.
In love stories, there are a few stock possibilities for how the story works: opposites attract, the cat and dog style relationship, head over heels, the re-emergence of lost love, the comedy of errors or misunderstandings, the second chance, that kind of thing. The trick is to establish contrast between the couple. Furthermore, their respective internal problems must initially hinder them from recognizing how good they would be together. Each must learn something about themselves, experience a revelatory moment after which they will be able to recognize the lover as a partner or mate.
Often in love stories an external crisis will bring the internal problems that hinder the relationship to a head. The outward plot provides obstacles and struggle, but the development of the characters and their growing relationship is what makes the story interesting for the audience.
Buddies and Union with the Group
Not every story ends in a wedding. The “mate” is not always to be taken literally as the union of a romantic couple.
Buddy stories, for example, are about union per se. Here the coming together does not happen at (or as) the resolution, but might well be set from the very beginning (as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), or start off with the meeting of the buddies as an inciting incident (as in Lethal Weapon 1).
In many stories the protagonist is (re-)unified with her or his tribe at the resolution. Indeed, it can be quite irksome how often movies end with a scene of the successful hero being cheered by a group. Star Wars (1977), like many many other movies, ends like this. A group festivity signifies success, whereas being solitary suggests the outcast, which implies failure. Consider in comparison the ending of The Godfather part 2, which shows Michael alone and lonely. The inclination to endings in which the group recognizes the protagonist and confirms the (re-)welcoming into the fold through a celebration of some sort is another manifestation of the primal urge to live in the group, tribe, clan, community.
Classical Comedies and Fairy Tales
Classically, comedies and fairy tales end in the union of a couple
In stories that feature a prince and princess getting married at the end, the union represents the cyclical aspect of human experience of the world – that after every drought comes rain, after every winter comes summer, after every night comes day.
Marriage as the embodiment of cyclical experience? The explanation lies in the basic constellation at the end of the story. It reflects the initial situation – the world, or rather the kingdom, is back to normal after the upheaval of the adventure, only now it is led by the next generation. The synthesis of the two romantic leads follows the thesis and antithesis of the old order of things (represented by the king and queen) being confronted by the new, young, fresh world-view of the prince and princess, who initially have to learn the way of the world. With the prince and the princess getting together, the old (probably patriarchal) order has been revitalised by the new order of the younger generation: Synthesis. The fairy tale does not necessarily serve us this insight on a silver platter, but it often resonates within the story.
The classical fairy tale shows the cyclical nature of human experience by exhibiting the rebirth of age-old principles in terms of succession to the throne, displaying continuity and reliability (when a kind king is succeeded by a good one), or the exuberant victory of good over bad (when a wicked king is replaced). The old king became weak, and the fresh successor springs up, who with young strength defends the old interests. The fairy tale even allows us to imagine that this is how it could always remain: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Implied in the union at the resolution is the forming of a new entity – the young generation prince and princess are now king and queen, will grow older and begin to represent the established order to their offspring, who will in time challenge that order.
Compare the classical comedy to the other great classical genre, tragedy, which is concerned with the human truth of mortality. Two universal experiences: Life goes on, and life ends in death. Put most simply, comedy is about life, tragedy about death.
Not only children’s faces in front of the television reflect pure emotional reality, the facial expressions and physical reactions of adults speak volumes about the power that experiencing a story can exert. Every emotionally effective story is therefore a “real” experience.
The portrayal of complex relationships is the primary concern of all stories. Stories represent our instincts of how to deal with the fact of our living together in communities. More than that, they teach us about conflict, cooperation and partnership, and provide us a sort of emotional playground in which we live the emotions that these types of relationships may elicit in us. When we experience stories, we experience the emotions they call up.
And after all, we learn best by experience.
Have you read Relationships Between Characters, Part 1: Allies?
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool: