Hi everyone! Welcome to our third roundtable! Today we’re discussing female friendships, with an emphasis on what makes them compelling in fiction and media, why we write them, and how to write them well.
*Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator: Katy Pool / Editor: Ashley Burdin
Kat: A friendship is compelling when it’s clear that there are layers. I do think that new friendships are exciting too, but even when I first meet someone I’m always finding out new things about the other person, and it’s always shifting how I perceive them. I don’t think any deep friendship is free of conflict, so I like to see how characters deal with the bumps in the road (both small and large). I think this is done really well in a series since we have time to see how the relationships develop and progress. UNSPOKEN by Sarah Reese Brennan had a very interesting dynamic between Kami, Angela, and Holly. Holly being the new factor in an older, more established friendship between Kami and Angela. Part of that is because both Holly and Angela got their own story arcs and were created as their own people. They weren’t just reacting to Kami as the MC of the story.
Meg: I mean, it’s important that each character has her own wants and goals. The best friend isn’t solely there to cheer on the main character; the best friend has to be there to ask some tough questions. They might not see eye to eye at all times, but at the end of the day they’re still there for each other. I do think sometimes characters just click really well together though. They might not have as much tension, but their banter and the joys of their friendship are equally interesting to read about! Especially if there’s a juxtaposition between their happy moments and what they’re dealing with narrative-wise.
For example, Laia and Izzi have a bunch of problems to deal with in AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, but they personally don’t clash with their wants/needs per say. They both want to escape their current situation and they band together to do so. The home they find in each other is really quite beautiful.
Mara: I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the cardboard cutout best friend who’s just a sounding board for the main character to discuss their romantic problems. One way to make the friend character feel complete is definitely the same way that every secondary character feels complete–give them problems and goals of their own. Good conversation in real life (ew, real life), has been described as a tennis match–a volley back and forth instead of one person holding the ball. Don’t let the main character hold the ball all the time. Also, history. Why are these two people friends? How did they meet? What do they have in common, and why do they actually like each other specifically?
Meg: Mara, I’m offended you don’t like the cardboard cutout I sent you of myself.
Kat: I agree, Mara. I think about it like this: IRL if I only know someone in passing, I don’t look forward to seeing them. I don’t anticipate the time until our next hangout. I don’t text them randomly when something makes me think of them. Not to say I don’t like these passing people in my life; those relationships are fine, but I can live without those people. In books, I don’t think a BFF should be someone the character could “live without.” The friendships that affect and change someone are the ones that I want to read about.
Mara: Yes, Kat! I think this goes back to what we were saying earlier–like romantic relationships, friendships have their own chemistry, too! If there’s no chemistry there, you’re not going to be friends. Also, shoutout to the cardboard cutout of Meg gathering dust in my closet!
Ashley: Friendships are compelling when they have complexity, I think. Friends don’t always agree on everything or have the same sense of right and wrong, and they definitely argue and fight and challenge each other in ways that people who aren’t good friends just don’t.
Kat: Also, from a craft standpoint how the MC sees others, especially those close to them, affects how the reader sees the MC. If the MC is cruel to their closest friends, that’s telling about who the MC is. If they are willing to sacrifice themselves, or they have friends who would sacrifice for the MC then that’s also telling. A book that does this really well is TINY PRETTY THINGS. The relationships are super complicated and reveal so much about each character.
Ashley: Yeah that’s a good point, Kat. The way an MC relates to and treats their friends says a lot about who they are. Also, the people the MC chooses to be friends with in general says a lot about who they are. Your friends are your chosen family in a lot of ways, and that can make those relationships even more powerful and important than blood relationships. So, who a person chooses to connect their life to says a lot.
Kat: I was thinking about this and realized that my female friendship are probably the most complicated, confusing, combative (alliteration!) relationships in my MS. But, I think it’s because I wanted to make sure that the girls in my book were their own people and had their own distinct opinions on the world I built. Also, most of the people in my book are pretty broken (I am not kind to my characters, oops). What I wanted to avoid more than anything was to have friendships that felt too easy. I don’t think any relationship is easy, but I often see that reflected in the romantic relationship. And since my book does center around a boy-loves-girl set up, I wanted to ensure that I gave thought to the other relationships so that didn’t overtake my story.
Mara: I mean the vast majority of my social life is spent in the company of women (shoutout to this blog), so I’m just being realistic by writing girls talking to girls. Female friendships were so formative to me as a teen. I had, and still have, friendships that felt like relationships, in that they could be complex, challenging, exciting, hurtful–as I said before, they were journeys. I have a lot of feelings about every other relationship in a main character’s life being shunted to the side in favor of their romantic relationship. The human experience is bigger than that. And I think especially for teen girls, who are still so often being told to judge their worthiness based on whether or not they can get a man (it’s always a man LOL), it’s important for fiction to contain these multitudes.
Ashley: Yeah, I agree with all of this! My female friendships are the most important relationships in my life. My friends are the people I turn to for everything; when I want to celebrate, or be salty; when I need advice, or simply a listening ear. They always have my back no matter what. They make me a better, braver person. I wouldn’t be who I am without my friends. As great as romantic relationships are, there’s something so powerful in female friendships. The story I’m working on now has a female friendship at the center of the story. I wanted to write something kind of like the friendship between Jessica and Trish in JESSICA JONES, where that is the most important relationship, the one that spurs both women to act. Their love for each other is what ultimately saves the day, and I love that.
Meg: I think all of my female friendships have been a lot of sisters actually! But, I did go to an all-girls high school as I mentioned earlier, so I think of a lot of my friends as sisters (we did have literal religious sisters at our school also, hah!). There’s just something so compelling to me about when girls get together and are loud and obnoxious and funny and don’t care about anything else in the moment but each other. Most of my friends are women, so it makes no sense to me why I wouldn’t include them in my own writing. My good friends from high school and grade school are all women and they’re part of the reason I am who I am, and why I grew into this person who loves to talk about femininity in all its capacities! Strong girls are like none other, so why wouldn’t I showcase them in my writing to the best of my ability?
Mara: I’m like lowkey emotional. Female friendships are so great y’all!
Kat: I don’t want the only interactions between two strong females in books to be about competition. I don’t deny that there probably is competition in many aspects of life, and if there are two strong personalities, then conflict and clashing is bound to happen. But I don’t like the idea that two strong females can’t coexist. Some of my best friends are women who are so badass that they challenge me to be better in what I do. I don’t think I’d have accomplished half of what I have without them. So, when I decided to make multiple strong females in my MS I decided that even if they fought, it would have more layers and nuance. I often think that it does a disservice to both girl characters to write off a fight as something trivial. Our girls deserve better and so do our readers.
Ashley: Yeah, I think sometimes the situation sort of breeds competition, and it wouldn’t really make sense if there wasn’t competition between the two. But, I think that kind of competition can be really healthy if it’s done right. It can be a motivator for the characters to be better, stronger, smarter, etc. and inspire them to not settle for where they are. And it can also make the characters kind of take a look at themselves and really interrogate who they are. The comparison game is dangerous sometimes, but I think if it makes you question ways you might improve, that can be a good thing. Buffy and Faith from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER are like that.
Mara: Also, Korra and Asami from THE LEGEND OF KORRA.
Meg: I love competition between girls. It happens in real life, so of course it’s going to come out in media. My favorite trope, though, is two girls who hate each other and compete, then end up friends! I adore Mia and Lana from THE PRINCESS DIARIES. If you never read the books and only saw the movie, you’re in for a surprise. Mia and Lana start out disliking each other, but as the series continues on, the two become friends and realize that there was really no reason for them to dislike one another.
In general though, I don’t really mind when two girls are fighting over a boy. I find issue with that concept when the two girls are reduced to only liking a boy, and we ignore all of their other qualities. Of course, that’s partially on the writer to give us more tangible information and wants/needs for the characters, but also on us as readers. I don’t want to ignore everything Katniss does to reduce her to someone trying to choose between Peeta or Gale. However, I do like romance, so again, it’s a matter of making sure that a character isn’t defined by the person they’re interested in, in the same way that a best friend character shouldn’t be totally defined by the main character.
Ashley: I think the most important thing with a competitive relationship (or any relationship) is that it evolves beyond the competition. Two characters might naturally be competitive when they first meet, but by the end of the book/movie/TV show, that shouldn’t be the main aspect of their friendship anymore.
Meg: I also don’t think every girl in a YA book needs to be friends, even though that’s a trope I enjoy. You’re not going to like every single person you ever meet, so it’s a bit unrealistic to expect all girls in YA to like each other all the time. What’s important is that there’s mutual respect.
Meg: Right now I’m thinking about Jane and Petra from JANE THE VIRGIN. They’re always at odds with each other because they don’t see eye to eye. They’re friends in a way, but at the same time still each other’s main antagonist. Petra is threatened by Jane’s perceived perfection, and Jane gets annoyed with Petra’s antics that mess up her life in different ways. They’re trying to one up each other in multiple ways. They’re never going to be the best of friends, but they still respect each other. That’s honestly a dynamic between them that keeps the show interesting.
Ashley: I can’t think of any specifically, but I think when the competition becomes less about beating the other person, or being better than the other person and more about just pushing yourself to constantly improve, that’s a good evolution of a competitive friendship. It feels like a double standard sometimes that women can’t or shouldn’t be in competition with each other because obviously that means they are tearing each other down when they should be lifting each other up. But competition can be empowering.
Mara: I plead the fifth.
Kat: Oh for sure. I am a nine-tailed fox that eats souls, so my book is fairly autobiographical.
Meg: I pull the emotions from my real life friendships. The trust and the love. If my female characters have either of those for each other anyway.
Mara: Okay, but really, my favorite take on “write what you know” urges you to “write what you feel” instead. The friendships I write have different window dressings (and wildly different circumstances, because I write fantasy), but the universal stuff comes directly from my heart onto the page.
Ashley: Absolutely! I don’t directly cut and paste my friends into my books, but I definitely have friendships that feel like, or have certain aspects of, my real life friendships. I definitely draw on the emotional aspects, too.
Meg: We all must spill our hearts out onto the pages. Ideally, not literally.
Kat: To be honest, any time a character is upset or petty, it’s a bit based on my feelings. Because I want to make sure it’s something a person (AKA me) would actually do, and isn’t just a vehicle to create plot tension.
Ashley: That’s a good point! I definitely have to interrogate my own feelings to figure out whether the way a character is acting or reacting makes sense, or if it’s me just trying to make things happen a certain way. Like, I have to ask myself, “If my friend did that to me, how would I feel? Would I forgive them right away, or would I be mad forever?” Your characters aren’t you, so they can (and should) feel and act differently than you do sometimes, but it’s a really good sort of compass to think about your own feelings.
Meg: Yeah, I never base anything I write on real people, that is a gateway to trouble. But I agree with Kat, it’s so important to get your character’s emotional responses correct, so you obviously have no one to rely on but yourself for that! Good luck.
Do you have thoughts on female friendships? Share them (or some of your own favorite female friendships in YA) in the comments below!