Friendships Among Your Characters

A lot of people talk about romantic relationships in their writing. Romance is certainly a popular genre, and one a lot of my friends write in. I’ve written about my thoughts on romantic relationships in books before, in particular the question of whether a romance should be followed until death does them part.

Yet there’s another type of relationship I don’t tend to see as many people talking about: friendships. While I’m sure there are plenty of great books out there that are focused purely on friendships instead of romantic relationships, I don’t tend to see them often. Usually a friendship is developed more on the side of the main plot, rather than being the focus.

I’ve been thinking about friendships in writing a lot lately because I’m developing one in my own novels. While the friendship would certainly be a subplot instead of part of the main plot, it’s still an element I’ve put a lot of thought into developing. There’s a few certain specific concepts I’ve been exploring, each of which has different variables worth considering.

The specific friendship I’m talking about is between two of my main characters, Tock Zipporah and Maelyssa Southeby. They’ve got quite a bit in common: they’re both teenage girls who have developed magical powers, they both dislike authority figures, they both roll with a tough crowd, and they both enjoy excitement and wild rides (Mae is a skater and Tock likes to cruise in arcane-powered vehicles of her own design).

Of course, your novel might not contain these supernatural elements. You might write about detectives solving crimes. Soldiers returning home from war. Explorers on an interstellar spacecraft. Llamas procrastinating by drinking coffee. But whatever your story is, the focus should be on the characters.

So what elements will affect the development of a friendship between your characters? One question is “What is the basis of their friendship?” This question can help you know whether the friendship is a key part of your story or just part of another plot element. For example, many romance novels have a friendship story on the side, usually between the female main character and her best friend. These kinds of friendships fail the Bechdel Test, which asks the following:

1. Does the story have to have at least two women in it?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something besides a man?

It’s #3 on this list that will make the difference between a friendship that’s there to be a friendship versus a friendship that’s there to support the romance plot. Usually, the best friend in a romance novel is someone for the main character to talk to about her new boyfriend, someone to support her after the inevitable fight that almost breaks the romance up, and possibly someone to backstab her somewhere along the way (such as by revealing a dirty little secret or trying to seduce the main character’s love interest). In a situation like this, the friendship doesn’t have anything to stand on by itself.

I wanted to make sure Tock and Mae’s friendship existed independently. So I made sure to develop it based on their personalities and interests and goals, rather than on any external variables. So far, they’ve never once talked about a man or each other’s love lives (though I’m sure they could in the future, after their friendship has been firmly established). They show genuine, platonic affection for each other. They’ve supported each other through some serious tough times. And they have a really good rapport, so that when you see their interactions on the page, you should really feel that they’re true friends.

Of course, not all my characters have developed as strong of a friendship as Tock and Mae have. For instance, Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez are good friends as well, but their friendship hasn’t gotten quite as much development. That might be because there was always a greater focus on Gabby’s relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough. Which means that Gabby and Maria’s friendship might have a harder time passing the Bechdel Test.

And I think another interesting type of friendship to explore would be a platonic friendship between a guy and a girl. Usually, male/female friendships have some underlying sexual tension and the assumption (or hope) that they’ll eventually get together. Just look at something like the Harry Potter series and how many people ‘shipped Harry and Hermione (including, it later turned out, the author herself). A lot of studies have shown that male/female friendships are rare, and the majority of the time one person or the other is secretly attracted to their friend. Despite this, it could be interesting to explore a legitimate friendship with no romantic or sexual aspects whatsoever. Though odds are, your readers will still ‘ship the characters anyway (just like some will probably ‘ship Mae and Tock, even though that’ll never happen).

There’s probably a lot of other variables that go into a good literary friendship. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, along with any other examples of well-developed friendships in the books you’ve read.

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22 thoughts on “Friendships Among Your Characters”

  1. well the thing is with good friends you tend to talk about the big things… and love interests are big things… I mean whenever I get around my girl friends we tend to talk about the men in our lives… and laugh over the comparisons… and then we talk about sex… and then we bitch… but mostly it’s men and sex… even growing up before any of us really knew anything about any of it… it was what boy we had a crush on and what we think we would do with them if we actually knew what we were doing… unless you go really far back and then it’s barbies… but then you have Ken getting all up in that mix… I mean obviously other things come up… I mean the crazy interesting life you’ve created for your characters would obviously give them plenty to talk about… but I would be seriously wondering about the character if they not once checked some dude out… I’d begin to wonder if maybe they were 2 girls that are closer than just friends… you know…

      1. lol… I’m not saying they have to be in love… but at some point a girl is going to say something about a guy being cute… I’ve hung with women from all over the country, married ones, ones in a relationship, ones that are single… and they all at some point in a conversation mention some guy being cute or that they like or wishing they could find some perfect dude… even if it’s an off hand remark… unless of course they have no sex drive… I mean there are people out there like that… but that would be a hard character to relate to for the average person…

      2. “At some point,” yes, there would be a conversation about guys. But there’s a big difference between an occasional one versus a character who exists for no other purpose in the novel than to talk to the main character about a boy.

      3. there’s no reply option on the other comment… but that’s what I was saying… it just seemed like you were saying that there’s no reason for them to ever talk about guys… and if you take a poll and ask what is the number one thing teenage girls talk about… the answer will be boys… not joking… I just called all my friends and asked just to make sure it wasn’t me talking crazy over here… guys talk about girls, girls talk about guys… it’s human nature… and any close set of friends would definitely talk about such… and it’s not like the only reason they exist is to go find a man… because I’m not even talking about characters in a book here… I’m talking about what real life people tend to talk about and that is why characters in a book do… I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie or read a book that didn’t have the tiniest mention of a love angle…

    1. I don’t normally know much about how friendships work in real life, since I’m really bad at making friends. The ones I do have seem to have been more or less accidents. Which, now that I think about it, is how most of the characters in my books have met: by accident.

  2. I’ve noticed the same thing, a lot of fiction really tends to downplay the friendship angle. And, like you, I find myself really wanting to see more of it, because it is a dynamic that I enjoy and could be explored more thoroughly.

    That said, I think I know a few reasons for why that might be the case. One is what you alluded to- writers generally have to draw from what they know, and especially in the modern era, friendships aren’t really given much play in the popular consciousness. There’s no modern equivalent to the Round Table, for example, and it seems like deep friendships have become rarer, or at least, less remarked upon.

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that the corollary is that readers tend not to be as interested in such things. There is a reason that there’s a romance genre and not a friendship genre. *laughs* The emotions involved tend to be less conducive as the focus for a story, especially when compared to romance, and the reading audience tends to gloss over it more than they do for other relationships.

    The extension of that is that it feels harder to make friendship a central part of a story. Do it too little, and it fades into the background. Too much, and you either get shippers involved or readers just tuning it out. (Interesting note: it seems like female friendships seem a lot more common than male friendships, which are in turn more common than intergender ones. Again, the bleed-over to assuming romance is a strong cultural current there.) It also takes an adroit hand to make it work- romance has nearly gotten to the point of baking, where adding in the right story ingredients in the right way will lead to success every time, whereas friendship is more of an unknown quantity and has to have other things- a more involved plot, external threats, etc.- to make it work.

    Which means… that authors like you and I have our work cut out for us. But I think it’ll be a worthy goal, and I’ll look forward to seeing Tock and Maelyssa interacting.

    1. That’s a good point, but maybe we NEED a “Friendship Genre.” I’d be interested in seeing something like that break out and become popular. Everything you said about people not understanding it or not being interested in it just means it’s a challenge. I like challenges. I like pushing the boundaries.

      Whether I’ll succeed or not is another question entirely.

      1. That would be the question, but it might just be a worthy attempt to make. Wouldn’t be the first time that one or a small group of authors focused on something and made a (semi-)popular genre out of it.

        Tell you what, if you decide to give a serious crack at it, let me know. I’m starting to get intrigued by the challenge as well, and like you, I want to see it become more popular. Would be happy to help out as I can. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. The Bechdel Test is a fantastic way to make sure you have a friendship for the sake of a friendship. Also, asking what they are friends about. Friendship always revolves around something, usually a common interest but sometimes a common trait or circumstance.
    I love writing and reading friendships far more than romance. Romance has been done and redone a thousand ways, but friendship hasn’t been played with near enough.

    1. I think part of the difficulty I have is that I don’t make friends easily in real life, so I don’t know how friendships really form. So it’s definitely something worth studying.

      1. Well, we DO tend to spend a lot of our time locked away from the public in dark rooms with nothing but the characters in our heads.

        That might contribute to the problem.

  4. Being a rather large Supernatural fiend I am always annoyed when people ship the male characters, I also want to tear my hair out when people started shipping Felicity and Oliver in Arrow from day one. Here’s why.

    1. There is a segment of the female population that goes on and on about how women are constantly just decorations for the main male leads and how women need to stand on their own etc etc. Then many of these same people turn around and start romantically entangling characters because they have “chemistry” and whole shipping wars ensue, while the drum of not enough strong female characters beats on. People, pick one.

    2. Supernatural is the only show I have ever seen which has successfully navigated keeping the show away from romance and I love it. Romance is fun unless it’s incredibly well written always detracts from other plots. Buffy managed to keep it in it’s place but I have seen other shows that had crashed and burned because of it. If the show is a romantic comedy, great, but if it is not, then don’t lose your plot to have two characters hook up. Supernatural has shown so much emotional depth because the relationships have stayed away from that male/female sex dynamic. You see what a true brother or friendship should be and you want them to always win because of it.

    In my Honor Bound series I explore several relationships, family, friends and even though I fought it tooth and nail two of the characters become romantically linked but it helps develop the one character past her really screwed up childhood so it’s more of a plot device then fluff.

    I know people love love but that doesn’t mean it has to be romantic love and quite often it is more dynamic if it is not.

    1. What you’re saying is very similar to something I’ve heard people say about Doctor Who. Especially in Tennant’s years, it seemed like he flirted with every one of his companions (including the male ones). And Tennant’s clone actually ended up getting together with Rose in his finale. Smith’s years avoid this to an extent by pairing him up more with River Song, but he still tended to flirt with Amy Pond enough that for awhile there was a love triangle with them and Rory.

      Then, when Capaldi took over, I’ve heard that he declared adamantly that he didn’t want any flirting. It’s interesting to see him trying to take a different role on the character (though I’m sure the shipping is still happening, naturally).

  5. First, can I just say that I agree adamantly with Kat about shipping in Supernatural?

    Also, I love stories about friendship though I, too, find them difficult to cultivate in real life. I’d love to be part of the Friendship Genre movement. I’m in the middle of three other projects right now, so it’ll be awhile before I can tackle one.

    Would you guys be interested in an informal writing group to concentrate on friendship stories?

    Incidentally, have you considered that there’s already a Friendship Genre in movies? Buddy cop films. (My favorite.)

    1. I hadn’t thought about buddy cop films. That’s an interesting intersection. They definitely develop the friendship as a major focus (second only to the crime being investigated, of course). I’ve also seen some TV shows that had individual episodes focused on a pair of characters trying to forge a friendship. Though I still think it’s often underutilized.

      I’d love to hear more of your ideas if you have any. Or read some of your friendship-oriented stories. Maybe even as part of a blog hop.

    2. I’m not Jason, but you definitely piqued my interest in the informal writing group idea. If you’d have me along, I’d definitely be interested in that.

      (And ugh, hear you about the project overload. I hope that they’re proceeding on apace, though!)

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