The Best Friend in Romance Fiction

For many budding romance writers, naïve to what they are letting themselves in for, the creation of a heroine appears as abundantly effortless as looking in the mirror and then describing yourself using reckless amounts of fallacious narcissism. Without the ability to do this you will never get anywhere in publishing. To concoct a suitable alpha male hero, cliches, day-dreaming and photographs of Hugh Jackman should suffice. However, where does this leave you when faced with the further trouble of secondary characters, such as friends, or gasp, a child? What do Mills & Boon authors know about having friends and children? In many cases, the novelist wisely skips over additional characters altogether, but this is a divisive subject among those who like to argue over what makes for a good romance in book-form. Should we bother with a trusted best friend for our heroine, or should we simply assume that her inevitable marriage to the perfect billionaire dreamboat makes her incapable of being liked by anyone female?

Secrets Uncovered has managed to push itself to the forefront of this debate, merely by thinking it up in the first place. 'Not always, but often, a romantic heroine tends to be rather isolated – emotionally, socially, professionally etc. This works because it places the heroine in a space where the hero can truly possess her, and her emotions.' A wise aside, for those mistakenly assuming there was only one kind of her. 'This isolation enhances the sense that the characters need each other, and only each other.' Surely a girlfriend is no match for a sophisticated, wealthy penis, and as a result, authors are inclined to shape their protagonists as outsiders, only to then fail to offer any semblance of an explanation why such lovely, generous, kind people never have anyone to talk to about their feelings.

'In the 21st century, is it really believable that someone would be so alone in the world, and what does it say about them that they are? If you’re asking readers to step into the shoes of a lonely virgin is a best friend hovering in the wings the most useful weapon in your empathy arsenal?!' For Secrets Uncovered and the majority of lonely virgins the answer is, we, or rather they, don't understand the question. How is the assessment framed, by a responsibility to realism or to the wanton ammunition of an empathy arsenal? Is not a novelist's foremost obligation to their novel? Every reader can sympathise with what it must be like to be a solitary waif, innocent of the carnal lessons of passion, but once the writer has given her a close acquaintance won't that rile the jealous bitterness of those who only find companions in they books they read?

Now, say someone was considering adding a confidante to their narrative, what would they hope to achieve from such a character? 'On a positive note, they can offer much needed advice in times of need; they also provide a contrast to the heroine, showcasing why she’s like no other woman and is worth the hero’s attention. Alternatively, sometimes a BFF plays false, forcing the heroine to accept she needs to let go of her past life and throw her lot in with the hero.' Best of all, a contrasting friend offers spin-off value, whereby one novel becomes an entire series, stretching a reader's interest to a sequel long before they have even lost interest in the original. Typically, romance experts advise against using a gal-pal, flatmate or family member as a plot catalyst for obvious reasons. It would be foolish to move the epiphany-having and decision-making away from the heroine, but a sounding-board is preferable to the risible interior monologue most Harlequin exponents continue to insist upon. Furthermore, there are no negative points, so everyone can move down to the next paragraph.

Secrets Uncovered has extrapolated their argument with a handy list of three top tips, useful not only for when inventing an imaginary friend, but also for when someone real comes asking you for insight into their relationship. '1. Make sure the support network is series-appropriate!' Why would your Medical heroine be hanging around a downtown laundrette with a pregnant stripper discussing drag-racing? The very idea is frankly insulting to the reader. Therefore be sure the task of adding a secondary character doesn't make you completely forget who you are and what your book is about.

'2. The reasons behind the friendship need to be believable. Friends with opposite personalities – the quiet heroine and the ballsy BFF – are great as a vehicle to encourage the protagonist to leave her comfort zone, but extra thought needs to go into explaining their connection.' As we have seen in such films as Something Borrowed an unlikely friendship needs a long, tedious sequence for the audience to understand how they became close in the first place in order to comment that history doesn't rationalise when they remain in each other's company in the present. Back-story will not help a reader doubtful of an incredulous partnership. Instead it is more eye-opening to witness the twosome in action, and learn how they compliment and empower the other while doing friendly things such as visiting the gym, shopping for clothing and drinking coffee in brightly-lit locations.

'3. Finally, think about how the dynamic of the friendship will reflect on the heroine.' The use of colleagues and companions for the sake of realism is an unnecessary distraction from the driving force of the plotting, yet it is considered perfectly acceptable to surround the hero with a bevy of mates and business associates to further exemplify his magnificence and sturdy hair-line by comparison. Therefore, the writer must be aware of how the reader will react to the heroine dealing with parents, children and the student serving her coffee, their bleary eyes struggling due to the fantastic light scheme. While an arrogant billionaire can order hot beverages with eye contact and a subtle movement of a coiffured eyebrow, the demure secretary who doesn't know her own beauty must remain polite and respectful to everyone, because the reader reads carefully and seems unreasonably judgmental.

With everything neatly explained, are there any additional secrets we should uncover? 'But if you decide a best friend isn’t for you, that’s ok too!' Sure, but who will you turn to in times of need for things you need, possibly over coffee? Not your fictional heroine, because soon she will be married, pregnant and living in a castle. Who knows whether she will be able to find time to spend with you then, and she can't have coffee, due to the foetus with a low-tolerance for caffeine. Meanwhile, back to the matter at hand, what if you decide to ignore this lesson and not craft a best friend for your protagonist? 'The challenge with writing a more isolated heroine is making that aloneness exceptionally convincing, so that the readers truly get on board with it and can still identify with her. Ask yourself, why would this woman be like this? And think outside the box here – what other ways can your heroine be emotionally vulnerable or isolated that doesn’t preclude having no friends/family?!' Some sort of debilitating allergy?

Once the choice of a credible isolated heroine has been settled upon, this direction should form the entire story. Romance authors often commit an early error with a discordant lack of connection between their characters and their plot, as if one has been dreamed up separately from the other. We see themes hinted at by the heroine's back-story, often involving childhood tragedy bringing about a mistrust of others, then squandered as this woman is thrown powerlessly into a marriage of convenience with a forceful Greek sheikh tycoon. Would a contented, settled childhood have someone react differently to being bought by a Mediterranean businessman who slept with her many years ago only to have recently discovered she birthed his baby and then concealed it from him? As this weblog entry concerns the issue of the secondary character representing emotional support it hardly seems like the place to ask.

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Tags: Friends, Secrets-Uncovered, Writing

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Comment by Rhoda Baxter on April 12, 2012 at 16:47

This made me chuckle. The heroine in my second book doesn't have any friends she can talk to - they're all away on gap years and things. But her loneliness is part of the plot. The Hero has a female best friend who gets more funny lines than he does.

In my WIP, Beth has a flat mate who is her friend and the antagonist because she's going out with the guy Beth wants. HE is Beth's best friend.

And, Francine, your comment about jumped up office managers is SO true. :-)

Comment by Francine Howarth on April 11, 2012 at 15:46

Hee hee...  Oooh, I do so love male best friends for heroine's. Men are much less complicated, and you know, real-life tycoons are more inclined to strong women as opposed to doormats: something to do with power in the boardroom Vs submission in the bedroom!! You're more likely to get a Greek tycoon on his knees than a jumped up office manager. I won't go into sheikhs, except to say I know of one who confessed the majority like blonde blue-eyed women... Thank God mine are/were green... ;)       

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