Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

It’s worth noting who your characters “hang out” with. One of my favorite sayings, and I’ll paraphrase, goes something like this: You are who you attract.

Your protagonist’s choice of buddies can—surprise!—aid in the characterization process.

Merelize → in People

Some questions to consider when creating your character’s “Bestie”:

  1. Is the friend a secondary character? If so, how should he or she be developed throughout the story?
  2. Does the story have more than one main character, and are the characters friends? In other words, is the friendship the focus of the story?
  3. Is the friendship already established at the beginning, or do the characters meet sometime during the course of the story?
  4. What purpose does the friend serve? A helpful hand? Comic relief? Is he/she a drinking buddy? Partner in crime?
  5. Here’s the big one: What’s the dynamic like? Do the two (or more) personalities mesh well? Is a realistic pairing? Do they connect on some level? A hardened biker and a self-involved metrosexual can be friends…so long as there is some common ground. It’s the writer’s job to make it work.

Here are some common story friendship dynamics that you can bend, blend, and harmonize:

1. The Colorful Sidekick:  The goof off. The king’s fool. Think Kimmy Gibbler from Full House. This is a friend who adds some ‘flavor.’ He is audacious, brazen, comical, and flamboyant.

Important: Never underestimate the colorful sidekick. I’ve found in my own writing as well as the writing of others, that despite the personal flaws, these types often prove to be extraordinary friends in the end.

Favorite literary example: Dominick Birdsey’s cheeky, foolhardy friend Leo Blood from Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True.

 2. The Charismatic Crony: Your character both loves and hates her. Best friends, yes, but in most cases, the charismatic crony comes out on top. This is the prettier friend, the skinnier friend, the smarter friend, the more popular friend, etc. We all know the type. And we’re all jealous.

Important: It is possible for this friend to be innocent—she may not be fully aware of her prowess. In other cases, however, she is simply one backbiting buddy.

Favorite literary example: I have two. Gene Forrester’s larger-than-life friend Phineas from John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Rachel’s alluring childhood chum Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed.

3. The Caring Cohort: Quite simply, this is the friend who picks up your character when he or she falls. In fact, in some cases, this is the friend who sacrifices. Donates a kidney. Kills another. Gives up his own pleasure…all in the name of his friend.

Important: Any “friend” type that I’ve described here can lend a helping hand. The caring cohort goes a bit further.

Favorite literary example: George, who cares for mentally-handicapped Lennie Small during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (See my most recent “Old School Sunday” post). Also, although this isn’t literature, in West Side Story Tony kills the love of his life’s brother for stabbing his friend, Riff, to death. Now that’s the kind of friend I’m talking about here. Not to mention good old Romeo, who slain Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt for slaughtering his own friend, Mercutio.

4. The Best Friend: They say if you fall down, a good friend will help you up; your best friend will laugh at you. It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction. These are two characters who are practically one. Often, they will go through various life changes, and may struggle with their relationship; but in the end, they usually find their way back to each other.

Important: Generally speaking, this kind of friendship will require two main characters. They will have separate lives, but be forever tied to one another. Often the foundation of the story is the friendship itself.

Favorite literary example: Kate and Tully, whose lives (both separately and together) go through many transitions, and face many obstacles in Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. Actually, the book reminded me a lot of the movie Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

I’d like to leave you with some links from Writer’s Digest, particularly if your protagonist’s friend falls within the ‘minor character’ category:

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What are you favorite friendship dynamics in literature? Film?Television? How do your characters relate to each other? Can’t wait for the comments!







Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

17 responses to “Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

  1. jolly2012

    Re: “Birds of a Feather.” I just finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This side of paradise.” The main character grows older and wiser through a litany of friends and strangers. The other characters he bumps into along his personal journey reflect his circumstances and act as a foil to his character. Fitzgerald is full of reflection.

    • Hi Jolly–thanks for coming by! I’ll admit I don’t know much about Fitzgerald past the Great Gatsby (it’s a pity, isn’t it?) but this novel sounds interesting. Our characters grow through other characters. Dynamics are so important!

  2. I’m really enjoying the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the new TV show “Elementary.” Was very clever to have Dr. Watson be a woman. Interesting exchange, and gratefully, thus far anyway, a platonic one.

    Nice post. You have a way of getting me to think about things in my writing I haven’t before. 🙂

  3. The dynamic between the main character and the people he (or she) choses to hang out with is always interesting to play with. I do sometimes worry that the sidekick steals the show, but attribute that to the mc’s good taste in friends!
    I’ve always loved Han Solo and his inarticulate Wookie, but platonic friendships that teeter on the edge of romance always keep me reading.

    • Hey Kirsten–I know what you mean about sidekicks stealing the show. Often a “colorful” type though needs someone who’s a bit more level-head. That’s usually why the dynamic works.
      And Yes! I love budding love type friendships 🙂

  4. icittadiniprimaditutto

    Reblogged this on i cittadini prima di tutto and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  5. jamesroom964x

    I always really liked Razumikhin and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. It’s great because you can see Raskolnikov going to this really dark place, and having committed a pretty brutal murder, but his friend sticks by him, and even sticks by his family once things get really bad.

    • You really like Crime and Punishment…I really should read that book (all the way through). Otherwise,I can’t continue to go around boasting of my literary prowess.

      I like the way you described the dynamic between the two characters though. Good choice.

  6. In my first WIP and its sequel, my hero and his best friend (also male) are thrown together by circumstances, but manage to maintain a close friendship for a century (slowed aging), because they must and because they have to keep certain aspects of their lives a secret. It makes for some interesting interactions as the story goes along.

    I guess my point is: friendships are not always forged by choice. 😉

    • Hey Melissa. You’re right–they aren’t! Sometimes the best friendships are unexpected. The ones that organically click into place. Isn’t it great that as writers, we have the ability to do this to our characters?

  7. You are really good at writing about this kind of stuff 🙂 I feel kind of sad saying that I have not read many books where the friend plays a part in the story. Normally the friend is introduced and then…disapears. Well, I read mostly YA so…

    • Thank you, Lottie! Yeah I guess the friend can play many roles. In some stories they are more relevant than others. I’m not familiar with YA novels…I’m surprised that there wouldn’t be more friendship-driven stories in the genre though…especially since the action revolves around teenagers, right? Do I know what I’m talking about?? 🙂

      • Yes, I do 🙂 I get that you would think that but most YA novels focus on the relationship between a girl and a boy. There are some YA books that do have the friends as relevant characters but not very many…

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