How to write a fictional friendship: Tips from the world of psychology4 min read
In some ways writing a friendship is a lot like writing a romance. You need imperfect characters that have good reasons to admire each other and spend time together. Think about why you spend time with your own friends. Is it for laughter, comfort, political likemindedness, or none of the above?
There are some famous and unique friendships in literature, think of Holmes and Watson, Lizzie Bennett and Charlotte, the three musketeers. How do writers display a realistic relationship between these characters?
Let’s break down the psychology involved in friendship.
Step one is the basic necessity of running into each other. Something in the geography or events of your novel brings these people together. (If they’re already friends before the story begins this is still going to hold true in the backstory, whether it’s important enough to mention or not.) Lizzie and Charlotte from Pride and Prejudice are geographically close. Ron, Harry and Hermione are all on the same train to Hogwarts. Our musketeers are all in the same job.
Once you’ve got your characters together, what turns them from acquaintances to friends? They need to share something in common. Anything. Baking, singing, taxidermy; it doesn’t have to matter (though it may be important for your story). Ron, Harry and Hermione are all first year students and unsure of what waits for them at Hogwarts. Holmes and Watson share an interest in solving crimes, and it helps that one has a room going spare and the other needs a place to stay.
At this point there’s also an element of reciprocity required. Acquaintances need to share information and receive the same level of information back. One character dishes out all the hairy details of their latest break up, the other only talks about her recent boiler fitting. As a result it’s unlikely to be a win for friendship. So have them share, and share alike.
What’s next for your fictional friends? At this point we reach something called social-identity support. Your closest friends probably tend to mirror your sense of self in society. If your character sees his or herself first and foremost as a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then probably their best friend is also a devotee, supporting their primary societal identity. The musketeers are all musketeers. Jane and Charlotte are young, intelligent, single women in search of husbands (or just a way out of their family homes).
Primary social identities can be cultural, religious, about perceived social roles (e.g. identifying as a mother), or any number of things. This works for friendships because, in supporting primary identities, you boost self esteem. Clever friends re-affirm “cleverness”, as in; ‘I must be clever or X, who is very clever, wouldn’t hang out with me’. Sports team or band mate friends reaffirm your character’s status as “footballer” or “musician”.
Your character’s friends will almost certainly support the main identity of your hero. They will help to affirm the status of the hero as warrior, space captain or mighty morphin’ dumper truck.
What else do you do to set out your own fictional friendships?
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