When people ask me these days, “Who is your best friend?” I always answer, “My husband.” It’s true. He fits the definition of Best Friend. He and I spend all our time together. We share all the ups and downs. We laugh at each other’s jokes, and cry at each other’s sadness. He gets as angry along with me when something goes wrong, and vice versa.
But then people roll their eyes and say, “Well, of course, but who is your best friend besides the person you’re married to.”
That answer is harder to provide. I have had several people over my lifetime that I considered best friends. All of them have faded away over time and been replaced by others. There is one woman right now I consider my closest friend, but we don’t hang out together like friends do in the movies, and she has at least a dozen other good friends that are probably higher on her list than me. Still, I know if I need her shoulder or support, she’ll be there. I think she knows that about me too.
I was at a wedding last night where my step-niece of 25 had two best friends as her bridesmaids. They claimed to have been her friends since they were four years old. Wow. They seem like the kind of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants kind of close, and I can see them being all Ya Ya Sisterhood when they’re old. I’ve always envied those kinds of friendships. I never have had those.
I recall having a couple best friends from Girl Scouts in 3rd grade. I changed schools in 4th grade, and those friendships were gone. It took a while at my new school, but I finally got one solid best friend before the year was out. Jennifer was her name. We were Judy Blume novel tight until 6th grade. That’s when the mean popular girls in school decided to hate me, recruit everyone else to hate me (including Jennifer), and bully me. It was a real Harriet the Spy type experience. I finished elementary school with no friends at all.
Middle school for me was 7th and 8th grade. I had one friend named Betty in 7th grade. She was a very smart girl, super shy, and we liked doing art and calligraphy together. Sadly, our friendship came to an abrupt end before the school year was over. I don’t really know why. She never told me. She just stopped calling me or taking my calls. I don’t think her mom liked me, and that may have played a part in what happened. So… I went into 8th grade with no friends again.
But then! Then! I got into Musical Theater class. I connected with a group of complete nerds, and we hit it off. These people remained my best friends for the next five years. We were a force of Drama nerdiness, and we loved it. My bestie of the best was a girl named Sonia, fresh from living abroad in Taiwan. She was hilarious and bright. She was exuberant and extroverted to counter my quiet introvertedness. We were an inseparable team. None of the boys we dated through high school managed to get between us. Their existence in our lives was brief.
Alas, high school, that weird time when teens are trapped in a dome where nothing exists outside of it, ended. My dearest friends and I parted ways for various colleges. The colleges changed everyone, and all of those people I loved so much were gone from my life. Completely.
Once again I was alone. I never made friends like that in college. I was too shy to get in involved. I never realized how much I leaned on my best friends in high school to provide my social life for me. Without them, I was lost. I had some boyfriends, but no real friendships came out of that time.
I have a reason for all this best friend reminiscing. I recently beta read a book for an author I know, and my favorite character in her book was the quirky best friend. It got me thinking about how best friends are often portrayed in YA and MG books. A lot of the time they are the more easy-to-like character. If the main protagonist is serious, the best friend is often silly. If the mc is heroic, the best friend might be more timid. If the mc is super smart, the best friend might be a little dorky. In girl books, isn’t the best friend always a little less attractive or beguiling than the mc?
I confess, even in my Juniper Sawfeather books, Haley comes across as far less noble and desirable as Juniper. One reviewer of Whisper of the Woods wrote honestly, “I still have reservations about the best friend when I started reading this book and I honestly don't like her. She's immature and annoying and well, I guess she's being her age. But I was glad to see her character developing in this book.” (Yes, I did just put a fairly negative review quote about my own book in my blog post. For more about my thoughts on teenagers being teenager-y in books, read my post: http://www.dgdriver.com/write-and-rewrite-blog/how-teenager-ish-should-a-ya-book-be
Why would I create a character that is less-so than my main character? Well, Haley was created to be more “typically high school”. Her concerns are inside that dome I mentioned above. She wants more friends, popularity, and a hot boyfriend. These are her main concerns right now. She cares for Juniper, but the extreme environmental activism of Juniper’s parents has made Juniper super unpopular. Haley suffers beside her, resenting it quite a bit. She has a hard time coming around to support Juniper’s exploits in the first two books, but in book three Echo of the Cliffs (coming out in May, 2017), you’ll see a whole new Haley, inspired by Juniper’s activism, with a mission that is all her own.
I created Haley (and consequently the mean girls Regina and Marlee) to juxtapose against Juniper’s character. Juniper is in her parent’s shadow, but she still shares their views about the environment and sees the bigger world outside the high school dome. She is eager to escape from high school and get her life started. So naturally, when the mermaids stranded in an oil spill present themselves, it isn’t farfetched that she would step up to try to help them. And when she learns that a 1,000 year old tree is going to be chopped down by a timber company, she would want to climb into its branches in order to save it.
But is Haley superficial? Not in my mind. I think her desires for popularity and a good boyfriend are real and valid. There’s nothing wrong with those goals. I think that if I told the whole story from her point of view, she’d have a lot to say about it all. Granted, it would be a very different kind of book.
In real life, best friends are the lead characters in their own stories. Sonia was my fun, vibrant best friend in my personal high school story where I (in my head) was the leading actress of the high school drama department. On the other hand, I was the shy, overly serious best friend in her story of being the much-loved center of attention.
Think of Ron from Harry Potter. Clearly, of the three best friends, he is the silly one. He gets all the funny lines and comedy scenes. However, no one can argue that he is superficial or unnecessary to the book series. Likewise, Grover, in the Percy Jackson series, is the cautious one and gets most of the laughs. Still, without him, Percy wouldn’t achieve much success. Iko, the best friend to Cinder in the Lunar Chronicles, behaves just like a typical, adorable, always there pal even though she’s actually artificial intelligence. She is lovely comic relief in a very intense science fiction series.
There are books where the best friends are more complex, but I am finding that tends to happen more often when the POV changes to the different characters. In the Raven Cycles, for example, the best friends are not quirky and funny. Ronin is quite severe and Adam is quiet and pained. They each get their own chapters, and Ronin even is the main character in the second book. Other books with marvelous rotating POVs of best friends are The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Sometimes, though, as in real life, the main character has no best friend. Being alone with no one to talk to is the point. Mark from my book Passing Notes has no one to give him good love advice, nor does he have anyone to tell when he starts communicating with the ghost. His loneliness is part of his troubles. He doesn’t know how to talk to people, because he has no one. Other lonely characters might be heroes on quests in fantasy novels. Eragon comes to mind. Or you have someone searching for someone to understand them like Gordie from These Gentle Wounds by Helene Dunbar.
As a reader, think about the best friends in the books you read. Why are they there? In what way are they helping the plot or the main character’s arc?
If you are a writer, think about the best friends you are creating. Remember that the more real these people are to you, the more realistic they will come across in your writing. Think of your own best friends from your school days. How did they enhance your life? When those friendships were strong, how did they help you? When those friendships failed, how did it hurt? Imagine their story if they were the leading character, and you were the supporting role.
I’d love to know your thoughts about best friends in books. Feel free to comment, listing any books you know that have great best friend characters and why.
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.