1) Don’t be afraid to show variation and complexity. This depends on how you plot, of course, but I think it’s worth trying, because friendships often seem to offer more flexibility than a romance. If an author wants two characters to fall in love, having them fall out of love or turn into friends or kill each other is usually not an option. Friendship’s ground is wider, though, and can cover a lot of different states, from complete trust in one another to friendship soured and twisted back on itself.
So try showing the ways that two friends relate to each other, rather than the way. Melisandre may be the kind of friend who doesn’t hesitate to tell Lucianna when she’s being a complete idiot. On the other hand, Melisandre may also go too far and cause enormous arguments that Lucianna, a more retiring person, wants to avoid. So they have a mostly one-sided argument, with Lucianna’s contribution being more passive-aggressive than anything, and wander away from each other until a few months later, when their tempers have cooled enough to pick up the friendship as if nothing has ever happened. It’s not the same dynamic of lovers, it’s not the dynamic of sisters (see point 6), it’s not a dynamic that is going to rip apart and destroy them forever because they’ve had one little disagreement. And if an author can show this without implying that, oh, because Melisandre and Lucianna had a fight, they now hate each other forever and Melisandre is going to go join the Dark Lord, then it makes for a deeper and more complex friendship. It might not even be a savory one, since it provides both characters primarily with an attempt to be self-righteous at each other, but it does its own brand of work. And if, say, Lucianna’s quietude lets her discover some threat that Melisandre misses in her brashness, or if Melisandre scents out a court intrigue that Lucianna won’t smell because she’s not observant enough, it can spur at least a subplot.
Go for a healthy best-friends-forever relationship if you want, if it suits the story and the characters. But there are other kinds, and they can serve the story in a variety of different ways if allowed to just show that variation.
2) Try to let both sexes have friends of the same sex. My example of Melisandre and Lucianna notwithstanding, female-female friendships are pretty rare on the ground in a lot of fantasies. And yes, I know that I have made this point before, but since this rant is about friendships, I will make it even louder.
A lot of fantasies have a friendship between two men at the heart of the story, so it’s not as if a heterosexual romance is always the most important element in the book. And an increasing number of fantasies have a relationship between a man and a woman that the author keeps platonic or shows becoming romantic so late in the story that love composes a subplot at best. But a lot of relationships between women remain at the level of “heroine vs. Jealous Bitch,” or “heroine with supportive, fawning secondary woman.” Or else the author turns them into lovers at once, or “sisters” (Point 6, damnit, people).
Doesn’t need to happen. In a fantasy environment where a lot of people spend the majority of their time with their own sex, complexities of friendship are going to develop. And no, they don’t have to be sexual. I’ve heard some complaints that, if women spend most of their time in an embroidery circle in the castle, they have to become sniping competitors with each other, or lovers. Then why can authors write lots of male characters in the army who become best friends but don’t sleep with each other and don’t destroy each other for love of women? There’s a double standard there, and worse, it takes the idea that women are catty and “naturally” in competition with each other as fact. The environment in a castle embroidery circle is obviously going to be different from one in the army, but it’s not necessarily any simpler.
3) Use gestures and in-jokes to good advantage. Fantasists do this with lovers all the time. They share nicknames, secret codes, smiles they only give each other, maybe a favorite song. A pair, or group, of friends could have the same things.
Think of that favorite fantasy cliché, two friends who’ve been together long enough, fighting and on the road, to act together effortlessly in battle and finish each other’s sentences. They can do more than just fight. Depending on their background, they might have an ongoing argument about the best way to clean a sword, a certain fighting move that one favors and the other hates, who snores at night, the time that the horse ran into the flooded river and drowned because somebody thought there was a troll in the trees, whether that shade of blue really brings out the color of Character B’s eyes, who can tell the better ghost story, and so on. I’ve read some stories with examples of those, in fact.
But, usually, it’s just one example, while the romantic couple gets multiple memories and declarations of love and flowers. Think about friends in your own life. Do you share just one in-joke with them, just one reference to a story that happened ten years in the past, just one embarrassing nickname that someone picked up which never changes? Not usually. It’s even less usual with a person you’ve known for a long period of time. Show the in-jokes and references and nicknames evolving, or, if you’re showing the characters for a limited period of time on stage but the friendship is deep and long-lasting, then make reference to multiple experiences shared. It’ll help show a bond that, as well as being varied because of characters’ personalities, has gotten varied because of what happened.
Personal tangent time: A friend of mine picked up a nickname because, as we stood talking outside a movie theater one night, a bat fell and tangled in her hair. She jumped, she shrieked, and it came out, but then it flopped on the ground as if it were hurt. We stared at it for a long moment before it separated and flew away, and we realized it had actually been two bats mating. There was more shrieking, she instantly went home to wash her hair, and we called her Batgirl and offered to buy her shampoo for the next few months. Then she started hitting everyone who did it, and we stopped. Besides, we had another name for her by then.
4) Realize that not everyone makes friends in the same way, and that’s okay. The “best friends forever” model is probably the most-used one. At times, it seems as though the author disdains every friendship that’s not like that. If a friend reports an apprentice mage’s dangerous experiments to the mages in charge because he’s worried about him, then that is BETRAYAL DARK AND DEADLY, the reporting friend is not a TRUE FRIEND, and the apprentice mage retains the right to be pissed off about this sixteen years later. Never mind apologies; never mind that the friend and the protagonist may have had very different ideas about what the obligations of friendship were. It was BETRAYAL DARK AND DEADLY.
As well as working out what your characters’ sexual orientations are and how they’ll fall in love, think about what their friendship styles are. One person may have many friends while another has a few. It doesn’t mean that the popular person’s relationships are all shallow and mockworthy; it doesn’t mean they all have the same depth, in fact—on either side. Similarly, the person who makes friends slowly may go on calling another person “friend” long after any common bonds that united them have collapsed, because he’s reluctant to let anyone he was once fond of go. Or the person with five friends might be willing to let three go without a fight, one go if she lied to him—because their relationship is based on trust—and one not go, ever; he will go into hell to get him back if he has to. Friendships can vary by the personality of the person befriended as well as by the person doing the friending.
And other factors, too.
5) Think about what the friends share. “Birds of a feather flock together” and “opposites attract” are both clichés, and one used to justify a relationship—when that’s the only justification, which, alas, some authors seem to think is all they need—is no better than the other. However, romantic relationships seem more prone to the second, where the author takes two people who have deep reasons to hate or at least dislike each other, traps them in some situation where they can’t just leave, and has them fall in love because they’ve realized that their strengths complement each other’s.
Friendships, I think, work better if the author concentrates on similarity. Why and how does a noble child become friends with a street urchin? Class and social status and power don’t unite them, and perhaps gender and race don’t, either. However, perhaps they both like to explore condemned houses, and they meet there, and because neither knows anyone else like that, their friendship grows. Also, perhaps the urchin has urchin friends because they share living quarters and the same hardships, and the noble child has friends whose parents are also noble. I would be extremely skeptical of a noble child and an urchin child who hated each other on sight and had no common interest becoming friends.
This is also a good thing to figure out for when your protagonist gets in trouble and you need to send her on the run. She has friends in the shadows, much of the time, or friends from out of town, or friends who have unusual fighting or magical skills, to help her get away. But where did she meet them? You can make up shared hobbies, neighboring houses, chance meetings that became more than that, favors owed, or other bonds. But if they have no common ground, then it comes to seem like a plot convenience that Princess Myrtle just happens to know a thief who can dress her like a whore and sneak her out of the city.
6) Don’t limit friendships to comparisons to other relationships. This is in here because it’s damn annoying. It also happens most with male-female friends, and, in the interest of having more of those fictional relationships which are platonic instead of forced, rushed romances, I’m scratching this in the sand.
Don’t say that friends “love each other, just not that way.” Or “he loves her like a brother, and she loves him like a sister.”
Because it seems to declare that no actual friendship can exist, that’s why—the opposite of the very thing the author is trying to prove. All possible connection between the characters still exists on a continuum of romantic love or sibling relationships. It can’t possibly be pure friendship, of course not. She’s not his friend, she’s his sister! Or she would be his lover, but they just happen to lack the sexual element to the relationship.
For some characters, this works. For others, especially those whom the author later portrays in romantic or sibling relationships that have no fucking resemblance to the friendship, it doesn’t. So, if you really want friendship to be distinct from those other types of relationships, try talking about what kind of friends they are instead of what kind of non-lovers or siblings they are.
7) Don’t forget to tend to everyone in the group. One reason I automatically suspect “romance” of so many male-female friendships in fantasy is that, while the author has the male and female leads traveling with a group of other people who help them, she focuses exclusively on them. Their friendship with each other, their growing trust and dependence on each other, is the only one that’s important. The other characters exist to be, mostly, a cheerleading squad, often to reassure the heroine that, yes, the hero really does love her, or the hero that, yes, the heroine really will believe him when he tells her that he loves her. As for them having relationships among themselves, forget it.
I think it’s a shame that the author puts characters in the story if their sword hands and their psychobabble are their only important features. She could make the hero and heroine more introspective and more skilled, and get the same story. I also think it’s a shame that a group dynamic, which is a different thing than the dynamic of two people, gets ignored, when that’s often how friendships maintain themselves.
Challenge yourself. Stretch a little. Is the heroine really the same kind of friend with the archer as she is with the healer? Is she the same kind of friend with the archer and healer together as she is when she’s with the archer, healer, and male lead in the same room? This can get complicated, especially when you start considering that the archer may think very differently about their friendship than the heroine does, but for a serious friend-focused fantasy, it provides all the different shades that one relationship alone may not be able to enter. And, in romantic fantasies, the presence of men and women who do more than advise the hero and heroine on how to fall in love is deeply refreshing.
Well, would you look at that. The rant about things I think are really cool is next.