What do I do when my love is away,
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day,
Are you sad because you're on your own?
—A Little Help From My Friends, by the Beatles
Julie here, and everyone knows that when it comes to life and its problems, we all get by with a little help from our friends.
So why should characters in novels be any different?
I know, I know … it’s more work to flesh out another character or two, especially when they may not be necessary to the plot. But even if your story has no best friends who are integral to your plot, I believe they are integral to both the story and the hero and heroine you create.
YIKES ... thirty minutes ago, I clicked “send” for my final edits on the final book in the Heart of San Francisco series, Surprised by Love (isn't my brand-new cover pretty?), before I begin a year-long break from contracts and deadlines to get back to the sheer joy of writing. In the revision letter from my editor, I was deeply touched by her comment that said, “You never cease to amaze me how your characters just jump off the pages, living and breathing.”
WOW! “Living and breathing” … exactly what each of us hopes to achieve for those special characters in our books. So how does one go about creating “living and breathing” characters who will wend their way into the reader’s heart?
You guessed it … with a little help from their friends!
When I began writing my debut novel A Passion Most Pure (which — shameless plug — is now available for free download HERE), a novel about a close-knit Irish family of eight (six siblings and two parents very much in love), I already had a ton of characters to flesh out for the reader. So why on earth would I risk overworking myself and confusing the reader by adding a blind neighbor, a copywriter friend for the heroine at The Boston Herald, a scruffy drinking buddy for the hero, and a whole other family and cast of coworkers in Dublin, Ireland?
Simple. Because “fleshing out” a buddy or best friend is, to me, one of THE BEST ways to “flesh out” a hero and heroine. There’s only so much one can do with dialogue and introspection to create heart-tugging “living and breathing” heroes and heroines in your reader’s eyes. So why not deepen your characterization by showing them through the eyes of the best friend as well?
In the following examples from my books, I will attempt to show how taking the time to create a full-bodied best friend can enhance your novel, giving the reader a glimpse of the hero or heroine in a way that will strengthen the reader’s bond with them too.
A.) Best friends Can Add Humor: My books are emotional roller-coasters, so they get pretty tense, which is why I like to sow humor throughout to lighten them up.
In this scene from A Passion Denied, John Brady’s best friend Collin uses humor to drive a point home, rounding out an almost too perfect hero with a human side to which readers can relate:
The bag hammered Collin’s jaw without mercy for fifteen seconds of bullet-fire pummeling. Brady’s breath was ragged when he stopped. “Michael may be my twin brother, but he’s the farthest thing there is from me. He’s a liar and a manipulator who has as much use for God as he does for Lizzie. He’s using her to get to me. I’m telling you, Collin, he’s no good for her.”
Collin stepped away from the bag to momentarily massage his jaw. “Well, no offense, John, but lately you haven’t exactly been good for her, either. And what do you mean, he’s using her? Do you really think so low of your own flesh and blood?”
“Lower,” he hissed, then followed it with a curse that sounded so foreign to his own ears, heat shot up the back of his neck. “I pray to God he goes back to the devil where he belongs.”
Collin arched a brow. “I’m not sure, but I’m guessing prayers don’t rise quite as well when anchored by a curse.” He butted his torso hard against the bag from his waist to his shoulders, obviously steeling himself against his partner’s wrath. “I could be wrong, of course, but it’s just an offhanded guess.”
“Shut up, Collin, this isn’t funny.”
In this scene from A Passion Redeemed, Emma Malloy is a quiet and gentle friend who uses quiet humor and truth to reveal an endearing side in a bull-headed heroine.
Charity’s face hardened. “Men. Worthless creations, the lot of ‘em.” She closed her eyes.
“Not Mitch Dennehy,” Emma whispered.
Charity grunted. “Especially Mitch Dennehy. It’s his fault I’m in this predicament in the first place.”
Emma didn’t answer.
Charity opened her lids a slit. “Don’t you? Think this is his fault, at least partially?”
Emma straightened her shoulders and clutched the bowl close to her chest. Her chin jutted the slightest bit, completely out of character. “No. No, I don’t. We make our own decisions, Charity, and you made a bad one. Just like I did with Rory. It isn’t Mitch’s fault that you fell in love with him. Nor is it his fault if he chooses to marry someone else. That’s his right, plain and simple. Just like it was yours to marry Rigan. Moronic as it was.”
Charity blinked. “Well, thank you, Emma Malloy. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll lay my moronic head down on this pillow and put us both out of our misery.” She plopped back and squeezed her eyes shut, lips clamped in a flat line.
Emma’s chuckle floated in the air, followed by a light squeeze on her shoulder. Charity ignored it and pinched her eyes tighter.
“I love you, Charity O’Connor. And just for the record? When it comes to being ‘thickheaded,’ I’m afraid you could teach our Mr. Dennehy a healthy thing or two.”
B.) Friends Can Show Fierce Loyalty that translates into the reader's loyalty for the character.
In this scene from A Passion Denied, the hero John Brady is suffering from a hangover—both from alcohol and from guilt over “unpardonable sins” he has committed in his past.
Brady continued to stare, his bleary gaze lost in a sea of bitter coffee. “I’m not hungry.”
“Yeah, well you need a little something other than vodka to sustain that thick head of yours.”
That woke him up. His head shot up, and the red in his eyes singed like fire. “Go to the devil, Collin. As if I didn’t pull your head out of the latrine more times than I can count.”
Collin eased back into his chair, all humor depleted. “That’s right, John, you did. Which makes this all the more upsetting. What’s going on?”
Brady closed his eyes and ran a shaky hand over his face. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why? From the very beginning, you’ve known everything about me—my past, my present, what I think, what I feel. The best of friends, closer than brothers. Don’t you think I deserve the same?”
Brady lowered his head. “You do, but I can’t tell you.”
Collin’s jaw tightened. “Why?”
“Because I’m not ready.”
Collin slammed his fist on the table. “Not ready for what? To be a friend?”
Brady’s head lunged up, his eyes swimming with pain. “No, Collin, not ready to lose one.”
Collin blinked. He swallowed the emotion lumped in his throat and nodded. “If I leave, will you promise to talk to Father Mac?”
Brady nodded slowly, his eyes dull.
Collin stood. He glanced at Father Mac. “Can you try to get him to eat? I want him healthy at work tomorrow.” Collin gave Brady’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “I’m tired of carrying him.” He started for the door.
“I’ll have half of day’s work done before you even shadow the door.”
Collin turned, hand poised on the knob. His throat tightened. “I want you to know, John, whatever you did, no matter how bad you think it may be, I will stand by you. I’m proud to call you my friend, because I know who you are—a man of integrity, honor and passion for God. And nothing—nothing—you can say will ever change that for me. I love you like a brother, John, and always will.
C.) Best friends reveal truth, giving opportunity to show humility in a hero or heroine:
In A Hope Undaunted, the hero Luke McGee is a godly but stubborn man bent on his own way, but his best friend Parker Riley is able to pull the rug out from under him with a truth that humbles him on the spot, softening his bullheaded personality for the reader.
Easing his head back on his chair, Parker assessed him through dubious eyes. “You’ve never been concerned about making an impression in your life, McGee. You wouldn’t even own a suit if I hadn’t insisted on you taking my old ones for this job.” He paused, studying Luke with a degree of fascination. “It’s this new volunteer, isn’t it? You’re shining up your image for her, changing who you are to impress her, aren’t you?”
A scowl tainted Luke’s lips. He slashed his hand through his hair, wreaking havoc with the Brilliantine. “You’re out of your mind, Riley, I’m not changing who I am for anybody, especially some spoiled rich kid with her nose in the air.”
“Oh, really? And how much did that suit set you back, Luke?”
Luke bolted up from the chair, the heat from the blasted suit bleeding into his face. “You looking for a fight, Riley? ’Cause if you are, just give me the word.”
“Well, that would be one way to get you to take the stupid coat off, I suppose.”
Luke ripped it off and tossed it over the back of the chair. “There, does that make you happy? All comfy-cozy now?”
Parker scrunched his face and scratched the back of his neck. “Not really. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always thumbed your nose in high society’s face. For pity’s sake, I practically had to put a gun to your head to get you to wear a tie to your first interview. Now you’re not only trussed up with one that looks like it costs a week’s salary, but it’s choking you to boot. That’s not like you and you know it. I want to know—what’s going on?”
Luke glared at his best friend and felt his eyes burning all the way to the back of his head. His sarcastic comeback got as far as his teeth when the truth of Parker’s words struck like a blow to the gut. With a faint groan, he doubled over and exhaled, finally sagging into the chair with a hand to his eyes. “Dear God, is it that obvious?”
There was a hint of a smile in Parker’s gentle tone. “Well, not to someone who doesn’t know you, but to Betty and me? Uh, we’re thinking that maybe you hit your head on the tub.”
D.) Best friends can put up with a character’s bad mood to show the reader that the hero/heroine is worth it.
In A Passion Denied, hero John Brady is in the foulest mood of his life when his best friend Collin wakes him from a drunker stupor, demonstrating to the reader that Brady is worth any aggravation Collin has to go through to get him back on track.
“Okay, ol’ buddy, I don’t want to do this, but we need to wake you up.” Collin grunted and heaved him up and over his shoulder. He staggered under his weight before steadying himself, then wrinkled his nose. “Besides, you stink.”
He hauled him into the bathroom and laid him in the tub, then took his shoes off and dropped them on the floor. With a flick of his wrist, he turned the cold water on and flipped the shower lever.
Cold spray pelted Brady’s chest and face like a hailstorm, causing him to jerk like a drunken marionette. A curse word gurgled in his mouth. “What the devil are you doing?”
Collin’s smile was grim. “Cleaning ya up. You smell like a sewer.”
“Turn it off, you no-good …” A colorful string of words burned Collin’s ears.
He fought a grin as he turned the water off. “Drinking and swearing. Tell me, John, what other bad habits did you pick up in New York?”
Brady groaned, eyes still pasted shut. “Shut up, Collin.”
“That any way to talk to a buddy who got out of bed at six a.m. on a Sunday morning to brew you coffee? Now, do you want to take your own shower, or do you want me to give you one?”
“I don’t want coffee, and I don’t want a shower. Leave me alone.”
Collin reached for the faucet handle. “Fine, a shower it is—”
E.) Best friends can Ache for a Character, making the reader ache for them too.
In this scene from A Passion Denied, the hero’s best friend Collin has just spent his last evening ever with the hero, the best friend he would die for. His grief over the loss of this friendship is so strong that hopefully it causes the reader to grieve too.
“Was Cluny there?” Faith asked, obviously hoping to steer his thoughts, no doubt, away from the sister he blamed for Brady’s departure.
Collin kneaded the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Yeah. Cried like a baby when Brady finally sent him home.”
“He’ll be devastated without him,” she whispered.
“Won’t we all,” he muttered. He pulled a clean pair of pajama bottoms out of his drawer and headed for the bathroom. “I need to shower. I smell like Clancy’s on a bad day.”
A bad day. The worst in two long weeks of bad days. He closed the door behind him and turned on the shower, rotating the lever all the way to scalding. He brushed his teeth unaware, his mind too absorbed in the events of the last sixteen hours—the day his life would change forever. He swished water in his mouth and took a drink, spitting it out like he wished he could do to the sick taste in his throat. He discarded his underwear and stepped into the shower. The billows of steam flushed tears from his eyes.
They had prayed tonight. For the last time. And after a day of moving and an evening of reminiscing, John Morrison Brady had once again proven himself to be the man of honor that Collin knew him to be. John had wanted to pray for Lizzie and Michael, but Collin had balked. “I can’t,” he had said.
But he did, because John had taught him how. How to forgive and how to let go, lessons John had learned well, in far harder ways than Collin had ever known. He was a man of principle with an unprincipled past, bent on a path in which God would use both for his glory.
He would be a priest. The revelation stung all over again, as biting and searing as the hot water that pelted his body. A mentor to many instead of just a few, and a mighty force in the hand of God.
F.) Best friends can beat some sense into a friend—literally—to teach a spiritual lesson.
In A Hope Undaunted, the hero’s mentor and best friend, John Brady, resorts to tough measures to beat sense into hero Luke McGee with a lesson that has quite a punch—both spiritually and otherwise, showcasing both the hero’s strength and humility in the reader’s eyes.
He rebounded quickly, circling Luke in ready stance. His fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides as if he were just warming up, and the faint smile returned while he stared at Luke with that familiar white-hot calm. “I can’t help but wonder, Cluny, where you and Betty would be right now if God had used a fist instead of forgiveness.”
Brady’s words stung his pride, detonating his temper. He rushed again, hurtling a punch at Brady’s face that earned Luke a fierce blow to his gut, doubling him over and stealing his wind. Before he could catch his breath, an iron fist to his cheek sent Luke staggering back, momentarily stunned.
“Come on, Cluny boy,” Brady said with a twitch of his fingers, “I whipped you as a snot-nosed kid, and I’ll whip you as a man.” The smile eased into a savage grin. “And it sure beats the stuffing out of boxing with Collin.”
Luke studied the man who had saved his life, not to mention his soul, his muscled body crouched and ready and as powerful and menacing at the age of thirty-six as Luke was at twenty-two. Strength shimmered from his face and arms, now glistening with sweat.
“I don’t want to fight you, Brady,” he said, his breathing heavier than it should have been and moisture beading his brow.
White teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Afraid you’ll lose?”
Luke flashed some teeth of his own. “Nope. Afraid I’ll hurt you.”
Brady’s grin curled wide, taunting Luke with a gleam of a dare. “Or get hurt . . .”
Swallowing the bait whole, Luke pounced, landing a powerful thrust that sent Brady reeling back.
The blow seemed to ignite Brady’s temper, launching him forward in a blur of muscled arms and fists. “Better me than Leo,” he said with a grunt, delivering a clip to Luke’s jaw that hurled him into the grass.
Rubbing his chin, Luke jumped to his feet and stormed forward, his good humor fading fast. “Don’t worry, I have enough for you both,” he rasped. He drove his fist straight for Brady’s face.
With a duck of his head, Brady undercut him, blasting an iron jab to his ribs that felled Luke to his knees. “Not when I’m done with you, you overgrown street punk.”
In a final thrust of his foot, Brady discharged a kick that slammed Luke flat on his back with a gargled groan.
Brady dropped to the grass beside him and yanked a handkerchief from his pants, his chest heaving as hard as Luke’s. He wiped the sweat and blood from his face, then tossed it at Luke.
“Here,” he wheezed with sputtering rasps, “you don’t look so pretty anymore.”
Luke sat up and touched the handkerchief to his jaw, wincing at the pain. “Shoot, Brady, what are you trying to do, kill me?”
Brady rolled his neck. The smile on his lips was as peaceful as the black sky above studded with stars. “Nope, bud, just beat a little sense into you, that’s all.” He looked up, moonlight sculpting his features with a quiet reverence that was uniquely Brady. His words, despite being carried forth on short, heaving breaths, were soft and low. “He’s forgiven you, you know, and so has Betty. It’s time you move on to be the man God has in mind for you to be. No more dancing around the edge anymore, Luke, living for God when it’s convenient, living for yourself when it’s not. Accept his forgiveness for what you did to Betty, and then give it back to those who need it. Like Leo. We’re all sinners, bud, some of us more than others. And nobody knows better than me just how hard some sins are to forgive, especially in yourself. But I wasted years beating myself up, robbing myself of peace when forgiveness was as close as the repentance on my tongue.”
Brady clutched an arm around Luke’s shoulder, giving him a firm pat. He rose to his feet and extended an arm. “Don’t make the same mistake I did, Luke. Refusing God’s forgiveness only did damage to me and those I love. Don’t do that to Betty if you love her.” A nerve quivered in the hollow of Brady’s cheek. “Don’t do that to me if you love me.”
So there you have it—a few ways how friendship can enrich your novel. Leave a comment telling me of a favorite fictional friendship or how you have used friendship in a story, and I will enter you into a drawing for your choice of a signed copy of any of my books. Good luck!
Award-winning author of “The Daughters of Boston” and “Winds of Change” series, Julie Lessman was American Christian Fiction Writers 2009 Debut Author of the Year and voted #1 Romance Author of the year in Family Fiction magazine’s 2012 and 2011 Readers Choice Awards. She has also garnered 17 RWA awards and made Booklist’s 2010 Top 10 Inspirational Fiction. Her book A Light in the Window is an International Digital Awards winner, a 2013 Readers' Crown Award winner, and a 2013 Book Buyers Best Award winner. You can contact Julie and read excerpts from her books at www.julielessman.com.