Please, Please, Please, Give Your Protag Friends, a Sibling, Parents

All my favourite fiction, whether novels or television, features strong relationships. I’ve started to think that for me the hallmark of good writing is, in fact, the strength of the relationships. So many books/movies/tv fail for me because the protag either doesn’t have any relationships or because those relationships are constructed out of cardboard.

And, no, I’m not solely talking about the lerve and the shipping. I’m talking all relationships: with mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and most especially, friends.

One of the things that attracted me to YA as a genre is that so much of it is about friendship and family relationships. It’s why every time I read a YA book that doesn’t feature those strong relationships I’m deeply disappointed. To me, it’s like the author failed to understand the genre. But then I came to YA via authors like M. E. Kerr and Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. Yes, there’s romantic love in those books but there are also other very strong relationships, particularly with family members. Think of Sophy and her sisters in Howl’s Moving Castle and Laura with her brother and mother in The Changeover.

The core of the Uglies series is not Tally and whoever her love interest is either boring David or sexy Zane.1 It’s her friendship/hateship with Shay. In the Leviathan trilogy there are multiple wonderful relationships beside the central lerve one. My favourite is Derryn’s relationship with the boffin, Nora Barlow.

These other relationships are what make the central characters so rich. We know Sophy and Laura and Tally and Derryn through their relationships to other people. Our friendships are a large part of who we are as people.

Strong relationships keep me going watching a show even when the rest of it isn’t really working for me. I was very disappointed by Homeland which despite being touted as groundbreaking television I found predictable and mostly uninteresting. But I loved the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and her mentor boss played by Mandy Patikin and it kept me watching despite Homeland‘s average script and the way the show kept pulling its punches. Oh and the special and visual effects were so cheesy. Least convincing explosions I’ve seen in ages. I thought Showtime had money? Weird.

Another disappointing show was the BBC’s The Fades, which was visually stunning. OMG. That show is beautiful. It’s a pity about the incredibly boring central character—well, boring when he wasn’t being annoying—and the overloaded and out of control script. Too much stuff, people! Much of it wonderful—enough to keep several shows going but not all crammed together in the one show! Stakes WAY TOO HIGH. Pare it down, already. Also another chosen one story. *yawn* Can we retire “awkward weird guy hated by everyone—except for that one gorgeous girl with no personality—turns out to have awesome powers and be the only one who can save the world” right now, please? Thank you.

But I loved the main character’s best friend and his sister and their relationship with the really boring protag were the only times the protag was even vaguely interesting. Their relationship with each other was the best thing in the show. Those relationships kept me watching.

I often hear beginning writers complain that they’re not sure what happens with their protagonist next. That they’re stuck. Often part of the problem is that their book does not have enough relationships in it. They’ve left out the parents, made their protag an only child with no friends. The only other characters are the love interest and the villian. And none of the characters are coming to life because they’re only in the book for one reason: to be the Love Interest, to be the Villian, to be the Protagonist.

There has to be more. You get the more by complicating things. Let’s say the protag’s best friend is the villian’s sister. Already that gives both the protag and the villian another dimension: their relationship with their BFF/sister. Both characters suddenly became a lot more interesting.

I know it’s convenient—not to mention a longstanding trope—to get rid of the parents but parents add all sorts of fabulous complications and depth to your books. They can arbitrarily ground your character or be indifferent to their goings on. Or have a mysterious job. Or turn out to be the villian. Or be there full of love and advice and patching up or, all of the above. Ditch them at the peril of writing a less interesting book.

Also siblings. They complicate things too. Personally I adore them.2 The protag’s little sister in How To Ditch Your Fairy is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever created. I’d love to give her a book of her own some day.

In conclusion: Please don’t write novels with one character in a white walled room. Family and friends are good plot thickeners and givers of dimensions to other characters.

  1. Uglies trivia: I came up with Zane’s name by the way. []
  2. And not just because my sister is the best which means I want everyone to have a fabulous sister. []

12 comments

  1. Fade Manley on #

    I would love to read a book about the HtDYF protag’s little sister. That setting is so awesome, it totally deserves another take on it from a different character’s perspective.

    More generally, I agree with you about having lots of relationships. I’ve occasionally seen shallow background characters who are mostly there to echo the protagonist’s desires/decisions referred to as a Greek chorus, since they end up as an undifferentiated block of “I totally have friends who support me! (Not that they ever make any demands on me, they’re just there to prove I’m right/pretty/whatever.)” But..that’s totally unfair to Greek choruses. I’m going through Euripedes’ Orestes right now, and the chorus and Electra argue back and forth, and the entire chorus has a personality that a lot of shallow supporting characters lack.

    Part of the joy of supporting characters is that even when they’re supporting in the sense of being supportive, they’re still their own people. They have needs and desires beyond “cater to the protagonist’s plot”, and that’s what makes them seem real and interesting. And it’s what makes the protagonist seem interesting, too. What sort of people surround themselves with only spineless sycophants? No one I want to read about.

  2. Kate Elliott on #

    Really, all I can say to this post is:

    Hear hear.

    Or

    THIS

    Or

    What she said.

    But more seriously, I have had people say that they made their main character an orphan because it was too complex to deal with relationships, but for me, a character who has no relationships, no connection with others beyond what is directly tied in to their own personal journey, comes across to me as self absorbed or even (at times) pathological.

    Characters seem more real to me when they have relationships, whatever those may be.

    And it’s my belief that lots of shows get viewers precisely because people have a relationship with the character and the characters with each other (thus shipping). This should imho hold true in fiction too.

  3. Roxana on #

    I once blogged about this because it bugged me that sometimes not giving your girl-protags decent friends came off as sexist. Now I’m thinking of girlfriends here because so often the protag will specifically say “I never really got along with other girls” or something of the like and then throw shade on things that are considered feminine, like doing each other’s nails or wearing make up or talking about boys.

    Then that leads to some authors creating certain token characters that are omg! such slores because they totally wear make up and gossip and stuff.

  4. Justine on #

    Fade Manley: Thank you! Though don’t get your hopes too high. I have about a million novels in my queue before I get to the little sister from HTDYF.

    So true about Greek choruses. They’re often the best part of the play!

    Kate Elliott: Characters seem more real to me when they have relationships, whatever those may be.

    Yes. People alone with no connections . . . there’s not a lot of there there.

    Roxanna: Indeed.

    I’m thinking of girlfriends here because so often the protag will specifically say “I never really got along with other girls”

    In real life the women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book. Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering.

    And the idea that all girls are into make up and boys and the rest of the so called “feminine” things is also contra to my experiences as a teenager. There were some girls like that. Many of whom were lovely. Hell, there were some boys like that too. Ditto on the loveliness. But there were many girls who were not interested in those things or not only interested in those things.

    Gossip and make up are fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.

    Me, I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped boring representations of the much more interesting world I live in.

  5. Lori S. on #

    But please, please, please don’t give your younger brother protagonist an older girly sister who Doesn’t Understand. Please.

  6. Justine on #

    Lori S. But please, please, please don’t give your younger brother protagonist an older girly sister who Doesn’t Understand. Please.

    On the other hand, do exactly that so we know not to read your book. :-)

  7. Rachel on #

    This is a big issue in the Urban Fantasy genre too. I’ve started more than one series where the MC, despite being thirty-something with a job and developed asskicking abilities, has zero friends and no previous relationships. (Teacher of asskicking? No, conveniently dead just like other parental figures? What about cowor- no there too? Not even other independent psychic investigators? Okay, then. Friends? Okay, okay. Just asking.)

    Drives me up a wall. I’ve been more than lucky that most of the YA I read comes from personal recommendation and is usually quite amazing. :)

    I consider not having relationships (not even just parents or siblings or friends) a failure to create a realistic world. Unless your character was just decanted from a vat of clone goo, they will have routines and come into contact with some people over and over. Even a complete shut-in might still always get the same pizza person on the phone every night.

    Unless the story is super tightly focused and designed to deliberately be placing the character into a relationship void (which I’ve seen done. S’cool when it’s good), then there’s so much depth and breadth that the background relationship stuff adds.

  8. wandering-dreamer on #

    OMG this, just, all of this. As someone who has always been close to my friends (whether I have a lot or a little) it always baffles me when a protagonist has no friends. Or they only have That One Friend Who Is Clearly Interested In You (But Won’t “Win” Because Of The New Kid In Town), which can work in some settings but hardly all, and it frustrates me because friendships are wonderful and important in just so many ways, how can a character develop at all if they don’t even have those frequent interactions?!

  9. Ksenia Anske on #

    Agree. What about the number of “family members” or friends? Do you think a book is stronger if it’s less people / more complex relationships or more people / simpler relationships? Or something else entirely? I’m writing my first novel, and there are only 4 main characters. So just wondering out loud…

  10. Justine on #

    Rachel: That’s hilarious and sadly all too true. My boxing trainer makes a special trip out to the USA once a year to work with her trainer. She’s won titles and has many many students of her own and yet she’s still training and working with her guru. Funny how often that doesn’t happen in fiction.

    Unless the story is super tightly focused and designed to deliberately be placing the character into a relationship void (which I’ve seen done. S’cool when it’s good)

    So true. It can be done amazingly well. Just so often it’s laziness not good writing. I don’t think people realise how much harder a small cast makes the writing task.

    wandering-dreamer: I, too, am a huge fan of friends and friendship. It’s secretly what all my books are about. (Tell no one.)

    Ksenia Anske: I think it really depends on the book. My first novel had a cast of millions. I’ve never been able to find a publisher. There are brilliant books with few characters and brilliant ones with all the characters ever.

    Given that this is your first novel I say write what you want to write don’t worry too much about what random bloggers like myself say. Have fun with it. The main thing you’re doing with your first (and really first few) novel is learning how to write a novel.

  11. Ksenia Anske on #

    This is so true, Justine. Tweeting.

  12. Rinelle Grey on #

    Here, here. Sometimes, the best characters in the book are the secondary characters, even if they’re a cat!

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