Most good books will feature at least one friendship, if not a few, so it’s important to learn how to write them well. Whether the friendship is your main plot or a sub-plot, it’s important to make it believable. Your audience can’t connect with your characters and relate to their friendship if it’s completely unrealistic. Today, I’ll only be talking about platonic relationships, because romantic chemistry and relationships deserves a post of its own, but some of the tips will still apply. Having said that, let’s get started!
It is important to have your characters share some common interests. You can’t be friends with somebody if you have absolutely nothing to talk about or do together. There should be a reason your characters enjoy each other’s company. These interests can be pretty much anything, from science, to boxing, to a love of certain T.V. shows. This can also help determine the kind of friendship your characters have. For example, if they both love history and biology, they could have a more intellect-based friendship. If they were both competitive swimmers, they might have a sort of rivalry, or they could have a supportive team-dynamic.
With all of that in mind, not all of their interests should be common. Unless your characters are clones of the same person, that is. But, assuming they aren’t clones, they are going to need individual identities. Your protagonist’s best friend shouldn’t exist to follow them around. Imagine that each character has their own book, where they are the main character, and your protagonist’s book just the one you’ve chosen to write. You need to create individual, rounded characters in order to make the friendship seem believable. Your friends will have separate interests, and they will disagree on some things. It’s good for them to have disagreements, like real friends do, and will help you create conflict between your characters. Maybe Character A is a vegan and animal rights petitioner, and Character B is a cattle farmer who owns a lot of leather. They can still have fun, say, snow-boarding together, but odds are they are going to have a few debates, too.
If your characters are close friends, then they need a reason to trust each other, too. This tends to be easier when writing friends that have known each other for awhile before the book starts, because the trust is already there from the past. With newer friends though, you’ll have to create a point where trust between them is established. With more high-stakes stories, you’ll often be able to have them in a dangerous scenario, where they are forced to trust each other. Character A has to trust Character B to watch for zombies when it’s their turn to sleep, and vice versa, or they could both die. With lower-stakes stories, there are still ways to force them to trust each other, but maybe not an “I trust you with my life” kind of trust. It’ll likely be more of a “I know you won’t rack up debt on my credit card if I give it to you to go buy that cake we forgot for the birthday party” kind of trust, at least at first.
After you have established a point where the character trust each other, and that trust pays off (e.g.: they get the cake on time for the birthday party), it will be easier for the reader to understand why they trust each other so much going forward. This trust can grow over time or, depending on the stakes of the novel, it can be established as absolute. No matter which you choose, establishing trust will create a more realistic closeness between the friends.
The friendship needs to be mutually beneficial. Having one character (usually the protagonist) be the best at everything, and having the second about as useful as a flash-light on the sun, makes for a frustrating and unrealistic story. Both of the characters need to bring some sort of value to the friendship, whether that is in the form of combat skills, moral support, or always sharing home-made cookies. Real people choose people as friends that make their life easier/more enjoyable, and so should your characters. You need to figure out how Character A positively impacts Character B, and vise versa. Your main character’s best friend isn’t always going to bring their cookies to share and get nothing in return, just like your main character probably isn’t going risk their life going to save somebody that just hung around and did nothing for them.
Not only do people want a friend to have something to bring to the table, but they want to be appreciated for what they bring to the table. This isn’t a business transaction–this is a supportive, trusting relationship. Why should Mart keep bringing his home-made cookies if nobody even says “Thanks” or tells him they like them? He’ll be discouraged, and think that nobody cares about all of his effort, and maybe nobody liked the cookies to begin with. People need affirmation that they are bringing value to the friendship, and they need to feel that their value is appreciated. So, when a Character A is doing something to help the Character B, make sure that Character B shows their appreciation in some way.
Affection is one of the ways people show appreciation and fondness of their friends. This can be shown in many different ways, depending on the person. Think about the people you are close to; how do they show their affection for you and others? Some friends are physically affectionate (hugs, play-fighting, etc), some are verbally affectionate (telling them how much they mean to them, nicknames/joking around, etc.), and some prefer to show affection with actions (taking notes when they’re sick from school, cleaning the shared apartment, etc.). These will be determined by your character’s personality, and their dynamic with the friend. For example, classmates with a strictly intellect-based friendship probably won’t be as likely to play-fight or give each other weird nicknames as they would to take notes for each other when one of them is sick.
Consideration & Trust
Just as trusting a friend can pay off, not trusting or being considerate of a friend can lead to negative consequences. A lack of trust or betrayal of trust by Character A will leave Character B feeling angry and hurt. A lack of consideration will do the same. For example, if Character A and Character B are going to meet for lunch, and Character A shows up a forty-five minutes late with no explanation/no text to say they would be late. Character A hasn’t thought, or cared, about how it would impact Character B. Character B was stuck waiting for them, maybe worried something bad had happened, and that could have been fixed if Character A had either let them know they were running late, or made sure they weren’t late. Good friends communicate with each other and take the other’s feelings into account, which lets them avoid senseless conflict.
With that in mind, it becomes an excellent place to create lasting conflict. Your characters need to be there for each other, and when they aren’t, it will create conflict that is more serious for them (e.g.: jeopardizes the friendship). In order for them to become friends again, they will have to grow and mend things in some way. Or, if they choose not to mend things, this could be an interesting opportunity to make one of them into some kind of antagonist. Either way, just keep in mind that your characters need to think about their friends’ feelings, or suffer the consequences.
Fictional friendships adhere to the same rules as real-life relationships, needing trust, common interests, value, and appreciation and consideration for one another.
What are some book friendships that you loved? What kinds of friendships do your characters have?
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With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!