Growing up, I was a shy kid who switched schools every year. Books became a safe haven for me. A place I could escape, where who I was and what I wanted most could be lived out through hopping into the lives of characters. It was a place where people like me could form friendships with ease, become main characters and heroes, or even just learn how to be comfortable in their own skin. I saw possibilities.
But I think more importantly, books were where I saw and really began to understand myself. The things I connected to and the stories that drew me helped me shape my sense of self, and I always connected most to the stories that had a strong friendship at their core. As a result, I’ve always had strong central friendships in my own books.
The Role of Friendships for Teens
Friendships are generally where teens begin to explore social dynamics away from their immediate family. Not only does having friends create a feeling of security and belonging, it’s also where teens begin to test the identities they want to create for themselves, and where they learn who they are outside of parental influence.
When different types of media send the message that teens are catty or are supposed to be enemies, it can be extremely isolating. It can make them mistrust people before they’ve ever had the chance to form significant connections. And it can create a sense of competition in situations where there should be camaraderie, which leads to unhealthy perceptions of the world when they are just beginning to find their place in it.
When friendship is given care and importance, books can be windows, and they can also open doors. Stories give us the opportunity to see what we can be in even the most fantastical settings. They show us things we never knew we wanted or thought we could have, and they can shape the way we view each other as well as ourselves.
When authors create strong friendship bonds between characters, it can illustrate how essential these relationships are in life. Being a teen is a complex time and it can often be lonely, even for those who exist in crowded spaces. But it becomes easier to navigate if they have people they can lean on who are going through similar things, if they have honest conversations, and they are able to open up about their experiences and who they hope to be.
This is why I think friendships are so essential in YA, no matter the genre. Oftentimes, friendship is treated as a lesser relationship. The phrase “just friends” comes to mind, as if friendship is some form of settling. But having positive relationships modeled in the media can shape the way kids and teens approach each other. From a craft standpoint, there are several ways to make friendship a more prominent part of a story:
1. Make Secondary Characters Unique
People might have similar ways of acting, speaking, and thinking, especially in friendship groups, but they will still have things that make them stand out: things that are unique to them, qualities, quirks, hobbies, or skills that no other character has. By taking that quality or skill and giving them a specific purpose in the story, especially one where they are necessary to the overall plot, it will ensure they feel like more than set dressing to the main character.
Even if every detail of a secondary character’s backstory and history remains off-page, they can become as layered and complex as the main character. The details will inform their actions and will end up making them more well-rounded as a result.
2. Allow Friends to Be Vulnerable and Upset with Each Other
By letting characters lean on each other and be honest with each other helps create a bond between characters that readers will find relatable, but it’s also a good idea to let friends be angry with each other and resolve conflicts.
Friendships are rarely all sunshine. There are disagreements, moments of gentle calling in, and hurt feelings. And the ways characters handle these situations can not only be revealing, but can also give their relationship more depth when they find ways to overcome issues and still be there for each other. Scenes like that can also solidify just how meaningful the relationship is as well, if it’s worth fighting for and saving.
3. Avoid Diminishing the Role of Friendships
Treating friendships within a story like they are expendable and there without purpose can make them feel like a lesser relationship. Giving rich conflicts and layered nuance only to romantic or familial relationships can cause the reader to feel like the friendships aren’t as worthy of their emotional investment. This can be disheartening to those whose relationship with their friends is such a large part of their own agency and self-discovery.
Friendship is so important in The Lost Girls, to the point where the story doesn’t work without it. Taking girls who should (according to outdated media expectations) hate each other, and creating a situation where they depend on and lean on each other was something I always sought in stories when I was young and trying to find my own place among my peers.
Friendship creates hope and community and a sense of belonging that most people want to feel and shines a light for those who are lonely, letting them know they won’t be lonely forever.
Sonia Hartl is the author of Not Your #Lovestory and Have a Little Faith in Me (Page Street), which received a starred review in BookPage and earned nominations for the Georgia Peach Book Award, YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and ALA’s Rise: A Feminist Book Project List. She’s a member of SCBWI and the Managing Director for Pitch Wars 2020. When she’s not writing or reading, she’s enjoying pub trivia, marathoning Disney movies, or taking walks outside in the fall. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Twitter.