“I’d be lost without you.” These words from Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love speak to the primacy of friendships between women—a theme that’s poignantly evoked in the wonderful new television adaptation of the novel. The story follows two young women from their days as little girls to melodramatic teenagers and, finally, into womanhood. In losing each other, they lose themselves.
In the history of the novel, it’s a radical sentiment. Novels that center women’s friendships are a relatively recent invention. A mirror of society and culture, the English novel, which became the precursor for the American novel, privileged the marriage plot. Stretching back at least into the 18th century, courtship and marriage provided both the subject and story arc for fiction.
Thankfully we’re long past the day when friendships between women were relegated to subplots. From now-classics like Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Mary McCarthy’s The Group to contemporary books like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy and Emma Cline’s The Girls, authors have credibly and richly incorporated female friendships into the lives of their characters.
I’ve written two novels about real women from history, first the poet Forugh Farrokhzad in Song of a Captive Bird, a novel released in 2018, and more recently with iconic photographer Dorothea Lange in The Bohemians, released this past April. Each book taught me lessons about how looking at friendships between women could enrich my plots and create both a truer and more engaging portrait of my characters’ lives. Here are three of them.
Put Friendships Front and Center
One way to approach friendship in fiction is to treat it as worthy of its own story. We like to imagine our heroines as autonomous and independent, but studying the lives of women in history, as well as the women in our own lives, shows how they often only became powerful through their relationships with other women. Rather than casting your heroine as a solitary renegade, consider how her friendships helped her fashion herself.
Just as Dorothea Lange’s real-life story didn’t cohere until she found friends without accounting for her friendships, my story about her couldn’t cohere. When I was researching The Bohemians, I discovered that she’d worked with a Chinese American assistant in her first portrait studio in 1920s San Francisco. Though the relationship was given short shrift in biographical accounts of Lange’s life, it seemed to me that this collaboration must have left its mark on her, and so I set about imagining it through a fictional retelling.
In The Bohemians, Dorrie’s empathy for outsiders and the dispossessed (a signature of Lange’s work) grows through her friendship with Caroline Lee. Through Caroline she gets to know parts of San Francisco that might otherwise have gone unseen. When writing fiction, think about the ways friendship opens different worlds to your character. As in life, a fictional friend can present your character with a radically different life experience or outlook on life, which may lead her then to alter her own course.
Complicate Friendships to Make the Best Stories
Tension is the lifeblood of good storytelling. Culture and literature have depicted relationships between women as mainly and inescapably competitive. Jealousy certainly rears its head in even the most close-knit unions between women, yet friendship is just as likely the source of support and companionship.
While it’s important to go beyond the myth of women as rivals, be careful not to strip away all the conflict between female characters. In The Bohemians, Dorrie and Caroline are two young women immersed in the drama of discovering themselves. They make mistakes and they call each other on those mistakes. Their disagreements become part of the story of how they grow into womanhood.
While you can certainly track a character’s development in other ways, putting her in conversation with a friend gives the reader intimate access to her state of mind. Uncomfortable truths, buried secrets, long-standing rivalries—friendships embody complexities and invite dialogue. It’s in conversation with our friends that we make meaning out of our lives; those aspects of our stories that feel fragmented or inexplicable are made whole through the stories we tell one another.
Play Friendship Against Other Relationships
Another way to deepen the role of friendship is to consider how it plays against other relationships in your characters’ lives. Friendships between women may begin in childhood and end in adolescence—or last lifetimes. Other life experiences may dim or even extinguish them altogether. When Dorrie falls in love with the painter Maynard Dixon in The Bohemians, her friendship with Caroline necessarily shifts, creating a different kind of closeness between the two women.
Any number of things will alter and possibly permanently upend a friendship between women. How do friendships survive such changes? What remains of a friendship we left behind when we went to college or had children or moved across the country? Paying attention to the way friendships change through the years—and why those changes happen—can tell us a great deal about how characters face fear and challenge.
Friendships bridge the past and present; they speak powerfully to how we become what we become. In a world where the idea of friendship can feel attenuated and imperiled, writing about the friendships between women can remind us how much our lives depend on genuine connections with our friends. They are our witnesses, our confidants, our champions, and, yes, sometimes also our enemies. In fiction, friendship offers a space where our characters can be their unvarnished selves, showing us what might otherwise be lost to us and also to them.