3 tips for writing female friendships in fiction
“I would be lost without you.” These words from Nancy Mitford The pursuit of love talk about the primacy of friendships between women–a theme poignantly evoked in the wonderful new television adaptation of the novel. The story follows two young women from their little girl days to melodramatic teenage girls and, finally, femininity. By losing themselves, they lose themselves.
In the story of the novel, it’s a radical feeling. Novels focusing on female friendships are a relatively recent invention. A mirror of society and culture, the English novel, which became the precursor of the American novel, favors the marriage plot. Dating back to at least the 18th century, courtship and marriage provided both the subject and the narrative arc of fiction.
Fortunately, we are past the days when friendships between women were relegated to the background. From now on classics like Nancy Mitford’s The pursuit of love and Mary McCarthy The group contemporary books such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy and Emma Cline’s Girls, the authors credibly and richly integrated female friendships into the lives of their characters.
I wrote two novels about real women in history, first the poet Forugh Farrokhzad in Song of a captive bird, a novel released in 2018, and more recently with the iconic photographer Dorothea Lange in The Bohemians, released last April. Each book taught me how looking at female friendships can enrich my storylines and create a truer and more engaging portrayal of the lives of my characters. Here are three.
(5 tips to breathe life into “real life” fictional characters)
Put friendships first
One way to approach friendship in fiction is to treat it as worthy of its own story. We like to imagine our heroines as self-sufficient and independent, but studying the lives of women in history, as well as the women in our own lives, shows how they often only became powerful through their relationships with other women. Rather than portraying your heroine as a lonely renegade, think about how her friendships have helped shape her.
Just as Dorothea Lange’s actual story hasn’t been cohesive until she finds friends without considering her friendships, my story about her may not have been cohesive. When I was doing research The Bohemians, I discovered that she had worked with a Chinese-American assistant in her first portrait studio in the 1920s in San Francisco. Although the relationship has been overlooked in biographical accounts of Lange’s life, it seemed to me that this collaboration must have left its mark on her, so I set out to imagine her through a fictional tale.
In The BohemiansDorrie’s empathy for the strangers and the dispossessed (a signature of Lange’s work) grows through her friendship with Caroline Lee. Thanks to Caroline, she gets to know parts of San Francisco that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. When writing fiction, think about how friendship opens up different worlds for your character. As in life, a fictional friend may present your character with a drastically different life experience or outlook on life, which may cause them to change course.
Complicate friendships to make the best stories
Tension is the cornerstone of good storytelling. Culture and literature have described the relationships between women as predominantly and inevitably competitive. Jealousy certainly makes its appearance even in the tightest unions between women, but friendship is just as likely the source of support and companionship.
While it is important to go beyond the myth of rival women, be careful not to rule out all conflicts between the female characters. In The Bohemians, Dorrie and Caroline are two young women immersed in the drama of discovering each other. They make mistakes and they call themselves on those mistakes. Their disagreements are part of the story of their evolution towards femininity.
While you can certainly follow a character’s development in other ways, putting them in conversation with a friend gives the reader intimate access to their state of mind. Uncomfortable truths, buried secrets, long-standing rivalries: friendships embody complexities and invite dialogue. It is in the conversation with our friends that we give meaning to our life; aspects of our stories that seem fragmented or inexplicable are made whole by the stories we tell ourselves.
Playing friendship against other relationships
Another way to delve deeper into the role of friendship is to consider how it plays out against other relationships in your characters’ lives. Friendships between women can begin in childhood and end in adolescence, or later in life. Other life experiences can darken them or even extinguish them altogether. When Dorrie falls in love with the painter Maynard Dixon in The Bohemians, his friendship with Caroline inevitably changes, creating a different closeness between the two women.
A number of things will change and eventually turn a friendship between women for good. How do friendships survive such changes? What remains of a friendship we left when we went to college or had kids or moved across the country? Paying attention to how friendships change over the years – and why those changes are happening – can tell us a lot about how characters deal with fear and challenges.
Friendships connect the past and the present; they speak forcefully of how we are becoming what we are becoming. In a world where the idea of friendship can seem toned down and imperiled, writing about female friendships can remind us how much our lives depend on genuine connections with our friends. They are our witnesses, our confidants, our champions and, yes, sometimes also our enemies. In fiction, friendship provides a space where our characters can be themselves unvarnished, showing us what might otherwise be lost for us and also for them.
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