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Friendship-by-Naveen-Kadam.jpg?resize=52You know how a realization about your storytelling can strike when you’re reading someone else? Of course you do. How about the kind of realization that makes you regret not having it sooner, so that you could have been taking advantage of it all along? You’re probably still nodding, right? Okay, how about one that’s so utterly obvious that you feel like an idiot for having never consciously utilized it before?

How about a realization in regard to an aspect of human nature that is so elemental to each of us that we’ve all partaken in it since our earliest memories—one that is an essential part of our lives to this very day?

Since you’ve already seen the title, I’m sure you’ve gathered that I’m talking about friendship. If you read my last WU post, you might recall that I’ve been reading John Gwynne’s epic fantasy series, The Faithful and the Fallen. In that post I discussed how Gwynne employs fairly common tropes in unique ways. The series has a broad cast and an epic sweep, but Gwynne’s storytelling is linear and straightforward, featuring good versus evil in a fairly standard mediaeval European setting. And yet, finishing up book three, Ruin, left me continuing to ponder the ways in which Gwynne keeps me in his thrall.

There were indeed some startling twists and satisfying payoffs in the march toward the resolution of Ruin, the penultimate edition of the series. Gwynne never pulls his punches. The man has a knack for continuing to raise the stakes. He knows how to make a reader squirm. Still, if I described some of the story moments that most surprised and/or delighted me, I doubt anything in my description would strike you as exceptionally novel or even particularly fresh.

Which kept me wondering for days afterward what’s been keeping the pages turning for me (over 2,100 of ’em so far). As I was wondering, I clicked on an article that polled readers for their favorite fantasy characters. When I saw the #1 character, my aforementioned realization struck.

The character? Samwise Gamgee. My realization? It’s all about the friendship.

The Best of Friends

Ask a dozen LOTR fans to describe Sam and you’re likely to get a heavy dose of virtuous labels. You’ll hear words like loyal, devoted, determined, and steadfast. You might even get the occasional brave or even heroic. But to what is Sam devoted? To what end is he brave or heroic? He, of course, is fixed upon the shared goal of destroying the ring. But it’s really all about his devotion to Frodo. He is loyal, brave, and heroic in service to his dear companion.

In other words, Samwise Gamgee is, first and foremost, an exemplary friend. And whether or not you agree with the results of the poll I cite above, he is unarguably one of the most beloved characters in literature. Which, by extension, would nominate friendship as one of the most beloved features of storytelling.

As I said, seeing the poll result coincided with my consideration of the attributes of The Faithful and the Fallen. Gwynne’s storytelling features familial duty, mentorship, a bit of religious fervor, and a smattering of romantic love. But when it comes to character relationships, this series is built on the rock-solid foundation of friendship.

The collision of the two led to my head-clonking, “Wow—I coulda had better friendships,” realization.

Making Friends

“Friendship is born at the moment when one says to another, ‘What? You too? I thought that no one but myself…’”—C.S. Lewis

One of the moments from Ruin that sprang to mind as I formulated the idea for this post was the culminating trial of a friendship. It’s a powerful moment. Gwynne patiently begins building this friendship in the opening chapters of book one. The friends’ reckoning caused me to reflect on what made this friendship feel authentic, thereby creating such an impact. We’ve all experienced “the friend,” in story—a sidekick that feels like a prop, thrown in as the protagonist’s ally, or straight man, or comic relief. Often such friendships are explained away by their longevity (we’ve been pals since childhood) or their proximity (she works in the cubicle next to mine).

What did Gwynne do right? First, he made each of this pair of friends an individual, with a backstory and personality all their own. Although the pair is placed together by a bit of routine circumstance and common background, their bond is forged through unique similarities they discover through interaction that we, the audience, witness. We see how they both feel somewhat unrecognized, and often unheard (particularly by their powerful fathers). We glean that they both feel like outsiders. They share similar conflicts, and together they gain a vision of themselves as agents of change for a status quo that they each resent. We’re along for the ride as they come to perceive the value of being one another’s advocate. Their moment of truth forces each of them to choose between their friendship and their sense of duty, honor, and even their definition of right and wrong. As I say, the resulting moment knocked me out.

It seems to me that friendships that are built of elements besides mere circumstance or proximity are the strongest sort. Sometimes it feels like the rockier the start, the stronger the bind. For example:

*Bitter rivalry that leads to begrudging respect that leads to mutual admiration. (Think Spock and Kirk)

*Finding shared goals/foes that outweigh dogmatic cultural divisions. (Think Legolas and Gimli)

*Sharing a common oppressive condition and/or unjust treatment. (Think Han Solo and Chewbacca)

*An inflicted injury, leading to remorse, leading to empathy, leading to atoning action. (Think Hiccup and Toothless)

The point is to take friendships beyond presenting them as a given. It’s good to show the why of the friendship, but it’s even better to show the overcoming of the why not. As with most things in life, friendships are made stronger and are better appreciated when they’re well-earned. That’s true of the friends themselves as well as for those experiencing their story.

A Friend In Need…

As I said at the top, friendship feels so elemental, its value as a story tool feels like a given. Study after study shows that friendship improves our outlook, our happiness, even our health and longevity. In considering its value to story, I can see that friendship can:

*Invite investment—As I said, we’ve all participated in friendship all through our lives. We’re well aware of its benefits, which makes us very willing investors.

*Deepen and empower backstory—Who doesn’t love learning a friendship’s origin story? How often have you told the story of when you and a dear friend first bonded?

*Raise the stakes—What is a character willing to risk, endure, or sacrifice for a friend? Take it to eleven, and your readers will love them for it.

*Be a lure to the wrong path—Can loyalty win out over one’s sense of right and wrong? Can a friend be misguided in their steering of a hero of good intention? You betcha.

*Enhance empathy—What’s more crushing than the loss of a friend? Or a friend’s betrayal? What’s more heartening than their surprise return or redemption? When all seems lost, what could make our heart soar higher than the arrival of a friend?

If you don’t believe that the appearance of friends at the eleventh hour will make an audience cheer, witness the power of the simple phrase, “On your left,” from the movie Avengers: Endgame [Spoiler Alert for the outcome of Marvel’s Avengers movie series].

With A Little Help From Our Friends

“Winter, spring, summer, or fall

All you’ve got to do is call…”—Carol King (from You’ve Got a Friend)

It seems like much of what is intrinsically good and noble about human nature revolves around friendship. The impulse to friendship feels almost like a higher calling. It spurs us to exceed far beyond self-interest, even to self-sacrifice. It buoys us to generosity and forgiveness. It can ground us in truths we willfully blind ourselves to, and remind us of forgotten core values. Friendship can also tether us to common detriment, limit us to outmoded perspectives, or distract us from assured progress.

Friends can lift us when we’re down, spark us when we’ve lost momentum, and even carry us when we cannot take another step. LOTR-Sam-carries-Frodo.jpeg?resize=251%2Because friendship is fundamental to our human nature, in story we long for friendship to form, to deepen, to be repaired or restored. We root for unlikely friendships, and crave uncommon loyalty. We yearn for friends to come through for one another, weep for friends who sacrifice for one another. We mourn friendships lost, and cheer for friendship’s triumph.

I sort of doubt you’ve conked your head like I did, but I hope you’re seeing the value of friendship to your storytelling in a new light. Leveraging such a powerful feature seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? You know what to do, friends.

How about you, WU? Have you been harnessing the power of friendship? Who are the greatest fictional friends, and why are they Frodo and Sam? Who are some of your favorite fictional friends, and how do they enhance their story?

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About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

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