A Little Help From My Friends: The Best Friend

Good morning, threes of fans, and happy winter storm season!

Everyone I hear from right now is talking about cold weather. It was -11 degrees here on Saturday morning, and I think we may have been a warm spot up here in North Idaho. Even my in-laws in Arizona are suffering through it; they had to weather a nippy 67 degrees a few days ago.

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In any case, whatever level of cold you are experiencing right now, I hope you have all the layers you need to come out the other side.

Last week, I offered up a profile of Letha Catspaw, Mairead’s best friend, and this week, I want to dive into the Best Friend trope a little more as part of this unofficial-official series on side characters.

Best Friends in Literature

There are a lot of Best Friends in literature and pop culture. I immediately thought of Charlotte Lucas to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Ron Weasley to Harry Potter in the whole Harry Potter series, and Horatio to Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And of course, there are many, many examples in The Lord of the Rings.

Which shows you how much of a nerd I really am.

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As I consider how this trope functions in literature, my own thoughts turn, of course, to my own bestie. I’ve known her since 1978 (we are not old!), and we’ve been through thick and thin, in our lives and in our friendship. We’ve drifted together and apart over the years, and she definitely has a wider social circle than I do, but even when we’ve gone months or years without talking to each other, the minute we reconnect, that time just melts away.

I suppose I could say that my husband is a kind of best friend, but I think it’s different. Obviously, we have a pretty deep emotional bond and we talk about a lot of very important things, including those four other humans who share our genes, but romantic attachment puts a different layer on the best friend relationship. We were friends for several years before we dated, but he was not a “best friend” even then. There are ways that we’re friends as much as we’re romantic partners; we have a lot of common interests and beliefs, our worldviews are very similar, we travel well together, we share similar backgrounds and history, etc. But adding a romantic attachment to a best friend relationship does change things… Maybe this is all a post for another day…

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There is a lot of overlap between the Best Friend trope and the Confidant trope, and as I started thinking about how to write about best friends, I found myself thinking mostly about the differences between the two tropes. In some sense, it’s the differences that define the two… Here’s what I mean.

Best Friend vs. Confidant

There are a lot of characters who are both a Best Friend and a Confidant, but I think it’s interesting to look at how the tropes differ.

Emotional connection: The Best Friend has a strong emotional connection to the main character that the Confidant doesn’t need to have. As I mentioned in my post about the Confidant, having a layer of detachment to the main character can allow the Confidant to give better advice–and probably allow it to be received better, too. A Best Friend, though, may be hampered by affection for the main character. This isn’t always a bad thing–Best Friends shouldn’t go out of their way to be jerks, after all.

Backup: The lack of emotional connection can mean that the Confidant isn’t always there to provide backup for the main character, whereas the Best Friend can serve that function better. Of course, “backup” can be offered in a physical fight, a heated conversation, or an after-the-fact bolstering of the main character’s previous actions. The point is that the main character doesn’t have to shoulder burdens alone, because there’s always someone else there with an additional weapon.

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Entertainment: Best Friends are the people we hang with. We have coffee with them, we take our kids places with their kids, we shop together, we ditch the families and get away together… We don’t necessarily hang with our Confidants, especially if the Confidant is our therapist, hairdresser, or bartender.

Rest: The Best Friend is the one you can relax with–the person who can save the advice for another time, because for the moment, you’re both just chillin’. Again, that’s not a role the Confidant has to play.

For the writer, I think it’s important to watch for how these side characters play out in the process. In my work, there’s no way that Sayana Tirzah could be a best friend to Minerva–they just don’t have the right level of relationship. And long-term, they’ll go their separate ways, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to spend time developing that level of relationship.

For Mairead and Letha, the future is quite different. As members of the same tribe with similar positions and similar futures, it makes perfect sense to spend time developing their friendship. Letha isn’t going to be a queen or an empress, but she’ll be around Mairead as an advisor and friend for the long haul. They’ll be raising babies, managing households, and tolerating husbands together for decades. They’ll need each other.

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I think Letha is probably one of those characters who is both a Best Friend and a Confidant, which leads me to think about what a character needs to be both.

The Whole Package

There’s another Best Friend and Confidant character in my books–Edgar Wolfbrother. While he is also tribal “father” to Connor, he’s managed to position himself as someone Connor confides in, depends on, and enjoys spending time with. Connor counts on Brody to have his back, and they’ve certainly shared a lot of entertaining evenings, but Connor wouldn’t confide in Brody. And while Phinneas offers a lot of advice and support, I don’t see Connor and Phinneas hunting, gambling, or drinking together.

But Edgar?

Edgar is an easy best friend for Connor. He doesn’t mind speaking truth to Connor, even when it’s hard to hear, and he’s confident enough that he can speak with authority. He proved that when he confronted Connor after the attack on the Mac Niall estates that killed Connor’s father. However, he’s also relaxed enough that he can let down his guard in the other direction and just enjoy time with a friend. And I think there’s no question that Edgar will always have Connor’s back. Plus, once all the bad guys are gone, they should have ample opportunity to spend time together.

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I think the overlap here might come down to something like the difference between a square and a rectangle–all Best Friends are Confidants at some level, but not all Confidants are Best Friends. Which one you give your main character really depends more on what the main character needs than anything else. A character like Harry Potter needs a wide support system with multiple friends, including a couple of Best Friends and a few Confidants. But Elizabeth Bennet only needed a couple of close friends and confidants, and she had those in Charlotte Lucas and her sister Jane.

My central advice about creating these side characters? Don’t force anything. See what your main character needs, and then let the side character grow as appropriate. You might end up with just a Confidant who serves a limited role, or you might end up with a bestie for life.

Which, honestly, is an awful lot like real life.

I’m not sure what I’ll have for you all next week. I have a few ideas, but which one I pick depends on that mystical combination of time, inspiration, and exogenous events that may or may not intervene.

In the meantime, stay warm out there!

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