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Friends without benefits

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that in romantic comedies (films and books) the heroine only ever has one friend. Normally this friend is also her flatmate or colleague, or occasionally sister. In Friends with Benefits, poor Mila Kunis’s ‘friend’ is her mother. (And then she has to go out with a man who’s never heard of flash mobs, but that’s a whole other story.) Sometimes there might be two friends – a sensible one and a zany one – but in general, if you’re going to have more than one friend, one of them has to be a sister (for example, Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice has her sister, Jane, and her best friend Charlotte).

This always used to bug me because it just didn’t seem to represent the world as I knew it. I am lucky enough to have more than one female friend and my friends have lots of other friends as well. Plus male friends, colleagues, flatmates, acquaintances …

So when I wrote my first book I gave my heroine Alice a ‘best friend’ from school, a friend from work (who is the real best friend), two flatmates, an older sister and a younger brother, and a couple of other acquaintances. Imagine my dismay when my editor asked me to cut some of them out. ‘I like the fact that Alice has friends and flatmates but they feel a bit peripheral and I don’t think they all need to be there,’ she said.

And I realised she was absolutely right. The fact is, unless you’re writing a 500-page blockbuster or a soap opera, it’s hard to keep tabs on that many characters – let alone give them all a reason to be in the story. It’s just another example of how being ‘true to life’ isn’t always a recipe for a good story. One writer I really admire does friends very well – Emily Giffen. She’s really good at surrounding her main character with close friends and also acquaintances, which gives you a real sense of what their life is like. (Also, her main characters often have small cameo roles in other books – it’s fun to spot them).

Anyway: Alice’s younger brother, along with some others, were humanely culled. But at least she still has more than one friend.

Anyone else out there struggling with their character’s friends?

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