December 12, 2023

How to Portray Strong Friendships

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m comparing how we might develop different types of character relationships. Let’s dig into how we can use common romance-genre writing techniques to also portray close friendships (or “bromances,” mentorships, or other relationships) between our characters

Romantic Relationships vs. Friendships: What Do They Have in Common?

Friendships and romantic relationships have more in common than some think. No matter the romantic intentions within a relationship, there are certain elements that apply to close, healthy connections (both for the real world and for our characters).

What can the writing techniques we use for romantic relationships teach us about writing friendships? Click To Tweet

After all, there’s a reason why romantic partners — if we want readers to believe in the viability of their relationship — should also be friends. Whether that friendship develops first, before the romantic/sexual sparks kick in (like in a friends-to-lovers trope), or the friendship grows later, during the romantic/sexual interactions (like in a one-night-stand-to-lovers trope), showing a connection beyond just physical attraction is necessary for readers to believe the happy ending in a romance.

In any type of relationship, we can include certain markers that help readers understand these characters are close. For example, they may banter or tease, have a shared history, enjoy rituals together, share common interests, have inside jokes, etc. All those elements apply to friendships and romantic relationships alike.

Writing a Relationship: Where to Start?

In many stories, a friend/family/mentor character (or a love-interest character in non-romance-genre stories) is just a puppet to the plot, there to move things along when needed, such as when the main character needs a kick. That’s fine if that’s what we want for our story.

But if the relationship is a bigger part of the story, we likely want the relationship to feel more real and organic. In that case, we can add a few techniques to our writing craft toolbox when developing these characters and their relationship:

  • Flesh Out Both Characters as Their Own Person:
    Give them each independent traits, values, and goals, and know what makes them tick. Ensure they feel like different people, not just their “voice,” but also everything from their personalities or skills to how they act or react.
  • Ensure the Characters Have a Reason for Their Relationship to Exist:
    Give them something in common: background, hobbies, struggles, enemy, dreams, etc., but also give them a reason for why they stick together beyond that initial connection.
  • Show the Relationship as a Two-Way Street:
    Give them each ways that they help, encourage, or support each other, so neither is just a puppet of the plot, with one doing all the giving and the other doing all the taking. Add some ups and downs between them to ensure realism.

However, even if we do all the above to develop the characters and relationship, readers won’t necessarily believe the characters are close. We can fully develop a “spear-carrier” type side character, and that doesn’t automatically make them important to the story.

Just like how some relationships within romance-genre stories are shallow, friendships — even ones with all the above elements — can be shallow as well. So if we want readers to believe a relationship is close, some of the same techniques we use for portraying deeper, or more layered, romantic relationships can also apply to friendships, or any type of relationship.

How Can We Portray a Close Relationship?

Once again, it’s okay if the relationships we portray in our stories are shallow. Those exist in real life, so it’s realistic for our characters to have them too. But if we want readers to believe a relationship is close, we need to develop the characters’ connection on an additional level.

There are 2 important elements we can include to give readers the impression of a close relationship:

  1. The Characters Recognize Each Other’s Inner Self
    Show (or at least hint at) the characters recognizing the genuine, true self of the other person. This could be anything from knowing how far to push teasing or giving each other grief without stepping over a line, to knowing all the deepest fears, false beliefs, and backstory wounds that a character carries inside.
  2. The Characters Accept Each Other’s Inner Self
    Show (or at least hint at) the characters respecting, caring about, and/or loving the genuine, true self of the other person. This could be anything along the lines of listening patiently while the other character talks about their favorite (uninteresting) hobby, to thinking the other character is making a big mistake but supporting them anyway. (Note that “accepting” doesn’t mean without conflict, but in the end, the characters stick together and don’t try to force the other to change.)

If you’re familiar with Michael Hauge’s approach to characters, these elements align with what he calls an Essence-to-Essence connection. Before I get more into sharing a specific example for us to learn from, let’s hop over to my guest post, where I’m digging into more about these types of connections.

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Strong Character Relationships: From Friendships to Romance

Come visit my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about Essence-to-Essence connections, including:

  • introduction to the concept of Identities & Essences (with an explanation direct from Michael Hauge)
  • how to show characters in their Identity vs. in their Essence
  • how a character’s Essence improves relatability and portraying close relationships
  • using Essence-to-Essence connections in romantic vs. non-romantic relationships
  • examples of character reactions that will help portray close relationships

Also check out my post with a deeper explanation of Identities and Essences if you’re not familiar with the concepts. Then be sure to return here for us to talk about the awesome “bromance” friendship portrayed in the Disney+ show, Loki

Case Study with Loki: Loki and Mobius’ Friendship

If you’ve watched the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but not the Disney+ shows, you’ve missed out on an epic character arc for Loki. In the MCU movies, Loki eventually stopped backstabbing his brother, Thor, long enough to earn an emotional arc.

However, the Disney+ Loki is the character “created” by the time-traveling escapades of the MCU movie, Avengers: Endgame. In that movie, a past version of Loki escaped his fate, right after he was caught bringing in aliens to attack New York City and all of Earth.

In other words, the Disney+ version of the character is from the first Avengers movie, when he hadn’t yet experienced the character growth of the later movies. Yay! A chance for a new and even stronger emotional arc for this fan-favorite character.

What If Someone Knew Everything Bad about You?

This version of Loki lands in the crosshairs of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucracy that manages the timestream. They see everything, every choice, every variation, of everyone at every time.

What can we learn from the Loki TV show about how to portray close friendships in our writing? Click To Tweet

TVA employee Mobius knows every bad thing Loki has ever done or thought of doing in any branch of time. Despite seeing all of Loki’s backstabbing, sibling-rivalry-filled, power-hungry, murderous, insecure, lonely self, Mobius still believes Loki is a worthwhile person under all that, to the point that he asks for Loki’s help.

Some viewers see their relationship as a bromance, some view it through a surrogate father-son lens, and some “ship” the characters (especially given the broader Loki character’s history of gender fluidity and bisexuality). Whatever the case, all agree that the portrayal of Loki and Mobius’ relationship is close — and wonderful to watch.

What If That Someone Liked You Anyway?

As Loki executive producer Kevin Wright said of Mobius:

“He was basically saying, “I see you, I see the pain that you’re in. I see the bad things that you did. That’s ok. I’m not judging. Let’s talk and find a way to you becoming the best version of yourself,” and I think that was exciting.”

For the first time, Loki has a friend who sees through all his b.s., who knows his every fault and weakness, and still enjoys hanging out with him and hopes for the best for him. In turn, Loki learns to allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable. By the end of season one, he gives a genuine hug to his friend Mobius before setting off for the plot goal.

In season two, we see even more of how well they work together, how much they respect each other, and how much they care about each other. Loki even meets the “real” Mobius outside of the TVA, seeing all of his friend’s challenges and struggles.

How Might Your Wounds, Fears, & False Beliefs Change?

By the end of the recently completed season two, Loki is willing to sacrifice everything, all his happiness, just so Mobius and his other new friends can live their lives in freedom. It’s a beautiful ending to his huge arc of emotional growth, and through it all, we see how these characters relate on an Essence-to-Essence level.

They see each other’s true selves, know things about the other that no one else does. They grow to respect their similarities and differences. They don’t try to force the other to change, but by believing in each other, they each grow to become more fulfilled, more in their potential, their Essence.

When audiences see that Essence-to-Essence level of connection between characters — where they each know, respect, and care about the other’s true self — they’ll fully believe that these characters are close. The type of relationship — friends, family, mentor, or romantic — doesn’t matter. When the sense of closeness is there, the audience is more likely to relate to, root for, and care about these characters. *smile*

If you’ve watched Loki, what did you think of the Loki/Mobius relationship? Have you struggled to portray close relationships in your writing? Or if you haven’t struggled, what techniques have you used? Can you think of any examples of close relationships done well? Or examples that fell short? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

Comments — What do you think?

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I’m so in love with Loki 😅 The character and the show—by far my favorite MCU show, and approaching The Mandalorian (season 1 & 2) for best Disney+ show altogether. I thought the Mobius and Loki relationship was amazing. Mobius wasn’t going to let Loki get away with his crap, but he still believed in his ability to change. I wonder if it was because he’d seen the Sacred Timeline version of Loki, so he knew it was possible?

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