Friendship is so underrated in fiction. There are at least a few recent reads that come to mind when talking about it, though there are definitely fewer than there should be. In a lot of books, the protagonist has friends and often as the reader, we take them for granted. Sometimes we might get to know about their friendship, how they met, what their relationship is like, but more often, the other plot lines in the novel matter more and the protagonist’s friends become tertiary characters who don’t need more than a few lines in the book anyway.
I won’t complain about books that don’t give friend-characters more than a few pages or one conversation. Sometimes that’s just what’s needed for the story. But anyway, we’re talking about books that care about friendship and want to talk about it extensively. So, after some reflection, most notable books that I can come up with off the top of my head about friendship tend to somehow make that friendship matter to the plot. Like in this old-school example, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
It’s not a happy one, but from the start George and Lennie talk of a shared dream that they plan on pursuing together – buying a farm. As the novella goes on, the events in the story make this dream less and less a possibility. Because of their friendship, George and Lennie equally serve as the protagonist. As the reader, there isn’t really time to take sides. It’s a short short novella. You keep thinking, maybe they will one day be able to buy their own farm and be successful. The important note is that their friendship is at the center of this story and the plot builds entirely upon it.
Friendship and the Plot of Your Story
Like in Of Mice and Men, a story about friends finds a way to make the friendship relevant to the plot. The same rule applies to romance. If the love story can be removed from the novel and the story still works, there might be something wrong with it. It goes back to one of the core rules of storytelling – if it’s not relevant, why is it there?
If you want to write about two friends, the important thing is that both characters are deeply involved in one story, instead of two parallel stories. There is a difference between two novels set side by side and one novel about two characters. One method of ensuring this is making characters want the same thing – like in Of Mice and Men. Though in Of Mice and Men, they share exactly the same dream, it does not necessarily need to be quite so specific and articulated.
On a Supporting Role
Not all books about friendship need to have two protagonists. Many have only one and that does not detract from their theme. Most examples I’ll share only have one protagonist. With that said, their friends usually have a pretty impactful roles in the story. Let’s look at The Hunger Games for an example. This similarly applies to writing about love interests.
In this book, Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games, a horrifying fight to the death between 24 kids from 12 different districts. Katniss also doesn’t particularly want to kill anyone. She wins her battles through wit and self-defense, buddying up with a few characters along with way, including the boy from her district, Peeta.
Spoilers ahead, readers beware. Peeta announces early on, very publicly, that he’s in love with Katniss. She doesn’t exactly feel the same way, but pretends for a long time that she does to garner support from the audience watching the games. Their relationship, despite Katniss’s true feelings about Peeta, sways the audience to the point that the game-makers are willing to change the rules of the game to allow them both to live. Though when push comes to shove, they try to renege on this promise, but ultimately, because of Katniss’s cleverness, they both live to see the next book.
I bring up this example because the “romantic subplot” does a lot of work for the overall plot. Subplots about friendship or romance don’t need to always have that level of impact. But it’s a good example to see just how much it can effect the plot.
The Practical Stuff
I want to talk a little bit about friendship and identity. In a lot of ways, writing about friendship is not unlike writing about any other type of relationship. A lot of relationships provide an individual with labels that add to their identity – like “mother,” “daughter,” “wife,” etcetera. Friendships though offer a lot more choice. We see this loud and clear with high school stereotypes and labels like “geeks,” “burn-outs,” “jocks,” and so on. To some degree, because of this, a lot of great books on friendship involve characters in their teen years or around that time, when they are still forming their identity.
I always love to talk about The Secret History by Donna Tartt. In this novel, our protagonist Richard Papen aspires to befriend a tight-knit group of classics majors. To get into their Greek class alone, he completely alters his identity. He buys expensive clothes second-hand and suggest that he comes from an affluent background out in California, far enough away from his Vermont campus that he can success pull it off. Through these actions alone, we already can guess a lot about what these new friends represent and who Richard might become by association.