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Essay: Writing About Pals

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I don’t have a review for you folks today because I was in Nashville all day yesterday (Saturday = reading day) seeing a live show of My Brother, My Brother, and MeIt was 100% fantastic and amazing and I love those good McElroy brothers and their hilarious goofs.

I know that if I’d tried I probably could have gotten a book read in time. I had all week. Plus the car ride to Nashville was three hours each way. Plenty of time to knock out a paperback. I’d even picked one out and started it. I think you’re going to like it. The cover has a naked dude with a whip and it looks like he’s going to hit a planet with it.

But yeah, I didn’t read it all and so instead of a review I’m going to give you a short essay about something I’ve been thinking about. Don’t worry, it’s generally relevant. I’m not going to just go off on my favorite Halloween candy or something.

(Candy pumpkins.)

All right, let’s get ready to ramblllllle

On Friendship in Speculative Fiction

This line of thinking was actually inspired by one of the McElroy brothers, so it all works out in a way.

Quite a long time ago, Travis, the middlest brother, tweeted this:

For context, Travis was talking about The Adventure Zone. It’s applicable to a lot of things, though! And he’s right, especially when it comes to speculative fiction.

Thanks, Travis!

Looking back―and I know I’m missing something obvious―it’s hard for me to think of any science fiction or fantasy novels I’ve read that were about friendship. Works that have characters who are pals, not comrades-in-arms, or co-adventurers, or crewmates, or whatever.

The only thing that really stands out in the entire science fiction genre is the folks from Star Trek. Kirk and Spock are definitely pals. They have an understanding of one another. They complement one another. The fact that you can throw McCoy in on the mix to make it a best buddies trio makes it even better.

But what about in speculative literature? What characters are best friends?

The best I can come up with are Merry and Pippin. Even this isn’t what I’m looking for because they come into the narrative as friends. We don’t see that relationship develop much (to be fair, Tolkien doesn’t have development of any kind for anyone but Frodo, and that’s debatable). What about Frodo and Sam? Again, that’s debatable―I imagine a lot of this might be debatable depending on one’s definition of friendship―but I don’t think it is. The Frodo/Sam relationship is strongly one-sided. Sam is devoted and loyal, yes. Those are his chief traits. But Sam is Frodo’s servant. This is a wild tangent here, but golly, a lot of The Lord of the Rings has to do with class distinctions.

I did a few searches here on my own blog for words like “pals,” “friends,” “buds,” “friendship,” and so on. The very best and closest I can come up with for examples are Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Sime/Gen novels. There are definitely some friendships that develop over the course of those books, although those friendships also have the tinge of sexuality that permeates almost everything in those books. That’s not a bad thing, but it does bring us to another point.

I can’t think of a single book I’ve read in the speculative genres that features an honest-to-goodness friendship between a man and a woman. I’m not saying they don’t exist. By all means, tell me about some that exist! I really want to hear about it!

My reading outside of SF is perhaps a bit limited, but I’m gonna be honest. I can’t think of the last book I’ve read that has a male/female friendship that is valued for itself, not as a means to something beyond it (boners).

Believe it or not, it’s possible to be friends with someone of the opposite gender without sex happening! Without even wanting it to happen! I know! It’s crazy!

This is, of course, an issue with our culture more than with genre specifically, and more enlightened people than I have commented upon it, but there it is.

Why is friendship so hard to write, as opposed to, say, romance? Aren’t they pretty similar, in a way?

Well, yeah, they are. In fact, I’d say that good romance is very difficult to write, too. Both relationships have something in common to come across well. They need to be justifiable. At heart, there is one all-important question that is rarely asked: Why do these characters continue to hang around with each other?

Romance has the leg up here in that it can also be written badly and have some emotional impact. People fantasize about romance more than they do friendship (at least I do?), and those fantasies rarely have anything to do with reality. A typical romance setup only needs two things:

Randy Lubestick was handsome. He was also rich. He had money and looks. And drive. He always went after what he wanted until he got it.

And what he wanted today was Sandra. He didn’t know her last name. He didn’t care. All that mattered was that she was dynamite. With legs up to her neck and long red hair and lips that were perfect and freckles and a perfect waist and

You get the idea. All you need to do to set up a romance is have the two characters want to rawdog each other. Most of the time, you don’t even need that. You just have to have one character want to get down with the other and then you’ve got drama.

Now, you might be thinking, and you’re right, that this isn’t writing romantic, it’s just writing horny. Where romance has the upper hand here is that someone can write horny and pass it off as romantic, whereas friendship doesn’t actually have an analogous option.

Really writing a friendship―not just saying that two people are friends and leaving it at that―takes work. It requires

oh crap do you know what it requires because this literally just occurred to me

it requires CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.

Even worse than that, it requires developing TWO OR MAYBE MORE CHARACTERS.

That’s a lot to ask!

I’m not even being that snarky here. It’s a tall order! I’m about 90% sure I would never be able to pull it off.

One of the things that puts speculative fiction at a disadvantage here is that it’s so often not about character development. I’m being a bit reductive, and it’s obviously not always true, but it’s certainly a part of the genre on some level. Science fiction and fantasy is more often about world-building than about the characters in it. For some people, that’s great. I’m not one of those people. I think that even a story about colonizing Titan and coming face-to-face with the flaws of over-reliance on technology can be made better by giving us a protagonist that the reader identifies with. And one of the ways of helping the reader identify with that protag is by giving them a real friendship. This also aids in making the stakes more relatable, something we’ve talked about before.

The trend in sci-fi seems to be moving away from simple action stories or technological dramas with cardboard characters. I think this is a good thing. It also means that we’ll get more stories about best pals in space.

Sci-fi and fantasy have another thing working against them. How do you write friendships between different species and make them justifiable? Golly, and I thought that simple character development was a tall order! Of course, I mean real nonhuman characters, not just humans that look and act a little different from the race that we call humans in the story. They need to be nonhumans with their own culture and, importantly, their own view of how relationships work.

Can you write a story of a human trying to be friends with an alien who has a vastly different idea of what friendship means? Or what if the alien culture doesn’t even have a concept of friendship? How would that story even work? In the former case, you can get a possibly interesting story of the human and alien learning to be friends with each other by accepting the other’s differing view of friendship. A key part of friendship is respect, after all, and having the two characters develop that cross-cultural respect by accommodating the other culture’s ideas can make for a fine story.

As for the second option, things could get pretty dicey and I’d like to see someone handle it competently. The best I can come up with is something analogous to my friendship with my cat. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, that relationship is pretty one-sided. I feel obligated to the cat―to keep him fed, to make sure he’s safe, to make sure there’s nothing sitting on any of his nine favorite sleeping spots around the house―but the cat has no obligations in return. He lets me pet him sometimes, which makes me happy, and in the winter he’s been known to keep my feet warm, but that’s about it. Sometimes he brings me dead things, which is sweet, but gross. Now, think about a relationship like this where both parties are sapient and you might get a story that’s either deeply problematic, enlightening, or both.

Writing friendship is about more than placing two characters in the same scenes and telling the reader that they’re friends. It’s about developing a relationship between those two characters. Creating in-jokes for them, finding out how they complement each other and what they do for one another, giving them a history, and knowing that all relationships are not static. Just as your characters ought to change over the course of your story, their relationship should change with them. Will they drift apart, or will they grow closer? Will the adventure they’ve undertaken break the friendship, or deepen it? Whatever happens, it shouldn’t stay the same. No relationship ever does.

So yeah, that’s been on my mind lately, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!


2 Comments

  1. sydlogsdon says:

    Hmm. I’m going to have to ponder this one. My first thought is Kimball Kennison and Worsel. They are friends and they have character. Heroic is a character trait, even if it is laughed at. What they lack is character development. They are who they are from first encounter to the end of the series, and their friendship goes from non-existent to complete in about a paragraph.
    This may be where SF differs from “literature” and I think it is artificial — on literature’s part. The idea that character has to develop has always struck me as sophomoric. A fully formed character can be revealed through interactions, and that’s all we need. Development is mostly an academic affectation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alan Dean Foster’s “Midworld” featured a loner plus a non-human friend as protagonists. It seems to be something of a pattern with his (non-tie-in) fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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