Making new friends, as an adult, is a marvellous thing isn’t it? It’s so fun, to discover new partners in crime. It doesn’t happen all that often; by a certain age, we usually have enough friends to get by and tend to put new good people into an Acquaintance basket. Then, every now and then, someone kicks that basket over and knowingly or unknowingly demands more of you.
Each of our close friends sees us differently. Because they are each different. And the power of a new friend lies in their ability to see – to unearth – something in you which you had forgotten you had, or didn’t realise you had. Their version of you is unique to them, because it is unique to your friend’s point-of-view.
Point-of-view. Relatively often, I advise authors in editorial letters: “This heroine needs a new friend.” Or: “This hero needs a few more friends.” Why? Because giving friends to a character in a novel is a magical short-cut to deeper characterisation. Just as our real friends and loved ones reflect different versions of ourselves back to us, so do fictional characters hold up unique mirrors to one another. By using multiple points-of-view, a writer can reflect slightly different versions of each of his or her characters in the various surfaces of the others, creating multi-faceted and multi-dimensional personalities.
Novelists don’t need to rely on their protagonists telling us how they feel and who they are all the time. Instead, they can show us who a character is by inviting us to see what it is that she values in her friends; what she finds surprising in their actions; and of course what they find endearing or exasperating about her and her behaviour.
When I moved from the city to the suburbs a few years ago, I struggled at first with the way most people I met seemed always to be looking for one another’s similarities instead of enjoying their differences the way the parents in my daughter’s London school playground had done. Novelists can use both the urban and the suburban paradigm of friendship to build good characterisation, letting characters spark off one another, or confirm one another, just as in real life we all compare ourselves to one another, on the hunt for complementary or contrasting views and reactions.
Above all, through our best friendships we express a wonderful sort of loving tolerance. Great friendship is a true looking out of our window onto someone else’s lot – their lot framed by our window, their lot in its turn brightening our room with its lovely aspect. And the thing about a really good friend, a best friend, is that the word friend is totally redundant and inadequate. The best sort of friends are co-conspirators, accessories to adventure, soul-mates, sounding boards, shoulders to cry on, the best and worst of our own selves. I wrote recently about our interior landscapes; about our hopeful journeys up mountains, our swims in the deep lakes of our emotions. Our best friends climb the mountains with us, swim with us in the lakes.
There are few things more joyous than being one of a pair of friends making one another laugh, sharing a twist on the world; relishing the way best friends can agree and agree and agree; laughing in recognition and anticipation of one another. And when a group of people laugh as one or cry as one, as we do at weddings, and funerals; at the cinema or the opera; the effect is that of a chorus and our cries of joy or sorrow sing out in powerful, affecting harmonies. Standing in the chorus is like feeling one’s own voice, one’s own self, doubled and reflected and multiplied in glorious ways. And we publishing people all love to join one another in song; we love the chorus that is Twitter, and Goodreads; we hail our favourite novelists as if they were heroes and heroines and we their supporting cast.
Despite the power of the chorus, it is specificity which makes the best fictional characters believable. And it is our best friends’ specific traits and habits which we grow to love, so that they start to feel irreplaceable to us. Their particular version of ourselves is the one we treasure; the one we look to, when we falter.
In that context, the loss of a loved one can feel like a double blow: we grieve for our dear person, for their company and comfort. And we also grieve for the version of ourselves they unearthed and saw and cultivated so effortlessly, just through them being them and us being us. That version of our selves can’t survive them, or so it feels for a long while.
The aim, of course, is to carry a relatively stable sense of one’s own self in one’s head; one that is self-supporting, self-regarding, independent. I have written before about how important a protagonist’s self-awareness is to storytelling in a novel; how the protagonist’s ‘journey’ is determined by their realisation of the significance of event rather than the event itself; by their realisation of what they need, or want, or should do. In the end, the heroine might need friends but she needs to recognise the importance of her own point-of-view more.
Just as in novels, it is our own perception of our journey, our drama, which defines our story. The best of friends unearth our best selves; hold up a mirror to show us our beautiful features; look out on our lot and call it lovely; agree and agree and agree with us; know how to love us well just because of who they are and who we are; and then remind us that it is our own spirit, our own perspective, our own unique point-of-view which is the most important, the most beautiful, the true definition of self.