Regardless of the genre that you write in, and the type of main character that you have, it’s likely that your main character is going to have friends. Or allies of some kind, even if they’re not the type of have “friends.”
Writing realistic friendships can be surprisingly tough, though. That’s especially true if you’re writing about a character who’s quite different from yourself. Not everybody has the same needs when it comes to friendships, so the type of friends and friendships your character has may be very different than the type you have in your life.
Your character may be a social butterfly with a wide network of friends. They may be a political figure whose friends are also the people they work with and network with on a regular basis. They may be a loner who only has one or two close friends. You may be writing a cyberpunk story with a character whose only friend is their robot companion.
What’s the First Thing to Think About?
First - what is available to that when it comes to friendships? Not every character is capable of easily making friends - perhaps due to mental illness, or isolation, or other circumstances.
Or, if they can easily make friends or socialize with a lot of people, are they the type to forge deep friendships with these people? Or do they keep people at a distance? Do they “put on a mask” and not show their “true self” to the people they come in contact with? If so, they may know a lot of people but not feel that they have any true or close friends at all.
What is their situation regarding friendships as your story begins?
As your story starts out, think about the people around your character and their social circle. If you are starting them out with a social circle and friends, then you’re going to have to establish their relationship with these friends right out of the gate - which can be a difficult task.
It’s really not enough to just say Character A and Character B are friends and to leave it at that, especially if the friend character is going to play a significant role in the story. This is where a lot of novels in the romance genres and chick lit genres fail. (This isn’t to say I dislike those genres at all. Just that I’ve read a fair few and found this to be an issue.)
We need to see how these characters became friends. More importantly, we need to see why these characters are friends. All too often, friendships come across as fairly unbelievable, especially when characters have conflicting personalities, which leads me to my next point -
Friends Need to Have Reasons to Be Friends
Just as in romantic relationships, friends fulfill needs in each others lives. It’s all well and good to create a character that’s interesting and dynamic, but if that character doesn’t fulfill some role for the main character - provide something for them beyond simply being comic relief, or someone for them to talk to like a brick wall for dialogue, then that character can feel very flat for readers.
Imagine if you will two characters as friends for Character A. Character A is going on a quest to save the kingdom from an evil wizard. She has two companions.
Her first companion is a drunken dwarf. Her second companion is a beautiful elf. The drunken dwarf is revealed over time to have lost his wife to the evil wizard during a raid on his tribe, something which he reveals to her over several conversations with Character A. This helps her to realize the full extent of the evil wizard’s power and motivates her to continue on with her task. Their friendship is also cemented by the fact that she lost her parents to the evil wizard.
The beautiful elf has several conversations with her about good and evil. We learn a lot about his life with his clan, and he’s a well developed character by all accounts. And yet, even though he travels with her through the entire story and they have several conversations, they never really “feel” like friends or companions. He doesn’t fulfill any role for Character A as he doesn’t tell her anything she wouldn’t already know.
Remember - Friends Fight Sometimes
One of the great things about Harry Potter is that J. K. Rowling remembered that friends fight sometimes. It may be a little annoying to read about, but that’s only because it’s a little too real for people who’ve been there. Letting your characters disagree, fight, and get pissed off at each other adds to the realism of their friendship (and also helps them become stronger friends in the long run).
Don’t Be Afraid to End Friendships
I rarely see it happen in fiction, which is surprising. But in real life, sometimes friendships end and people realize they have to part ways. Maybe that’s because you suddenly figure out that being together has become unhealthy or toxic for the two of you, or because other things get in the way and you reach a point where you know you just can’t continue on the way things were.
But it happens. And it could make for some interesting, poignant moments for your characters to deal with, especially if those friendships have made a big impact on their lives up to this point. Just a little something to think about.
Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truth and feel despair and think, ‘Is this my life?’, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.
Love does that. It makes you feel infinite and invincible, like the whole world is open to you, anything is achievable, and each day will be filled with wonder. Maybe it’s the act of opening yourself up, letting someone else in—or maybe it’s the act of caring so deeply about another person that it expands your heart.
The last time I told that to a guy he got super judgey with me about it but then his favorite turned out to be the novelization of a video game (Halo I think). A good match we were not.
I was at a lecture awhile back where the professor talked about how Jane Austen is one of the few literary authors that is still read for pleasure and how that hurts her in a lot of literary circles. He taught a Jane Austen course at a university and other professors would make fun of his class to their students because they were teaching “real literature” while he was teaching “chick lit”. He also talked about her upswing in popularity in the mid to late 90′s and how there has been a subsequent backlash where people are less willing to claim that they like her. And it was only when he said that that I realized I had done similar to myself. I love Jane Austen but I have been less proud to admit that in recent years.
Perhaps I wanted my favorite book to be something less cliche and well-known and “girly”? I mean I love The Things They Carried or Catch-22 or Ender’s Game for their portrayal of military life that has resonated with me on a deeper level throughout the years. I adore Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man or Isaac Asimov’s Azazel both are full of these amazing, thought-provoking, short stories that have continued to impact me decades after I read them. Great Expectations will always be dear to my heart for the things it taught me about self-acceptance, the nature of wealth, and the importance of true relationships (all things I don’t always see when I try to reread it). Lord of the Rings, Captain’s Courageous, Dune, The Alchemist, Jane Eyre, Count of Monte Cristo, are all great books that I could call my favorite that would make me sound “cooler” I guess? But they aren’t my favorite.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel I keep coming back to every couple of years. I check in with the characters and with myself. When I first read it I remember being as shocked as Elizabeth at Darcy’s proposal and Wickham’s perfidy and I rolled around in the angst of the unrequited feelings and the misunderstandings. This was a love story for the ages! But then I came to it again in college and found myself nodding along to Charlotte Lucas and reveling in the examination of matrimony as a strategic life choice and the theme of equal and unequal marriage. And what exactly changed Elizabeth’s feelings anyway? I have, at various times, hated, loved and felt indifferent toward Lydia. My concept of Darcy has evolved as my concept of myself and my own introversion has become clearer. In short every time I read Pride and Prejudice I not only enjoy the story but somehow find an entirely new angle from which to enjoy it. And it’s that continued presence and importance in my life that makes it my favorite.
I was well into typing this post about my consumption of Sophie Kinsella books in my teens, when I realised two things:
First, it’s been years since I read those books, so they’re not really my guilty pleasure, or any kind of pleasure for that matter.
Second, I don’t think chick lit as a genre really needs any more hate, even if a good portion of these books perpetuate heteronormative gender roles and idealised fantasies of what romance is.
Consequently, my question is this: why should anything you read be considered a guilty pleasure? If you enjoy it, why should you feel guilty? And if you feel guilty for reading it, maybe you shouldn’t be reading it at all?