Wednesday, July 27, 2011

F is for Friendships in Middle Grade Novels

Between the ages of 9 and 14, kids are starting to explore relationships with people outside their families. They're thinking about how to be a good friend, who is not a real friend, and which friends they want to hang with. Someone might be your best friend for one day, and then not the next.  

How can you use friends to develop your middle grade story?

Create conflict. Tension between friends increases conflict. For example, in Leslie Margolis’ novel, Girl's Best Friend, dog-walker Maggie Brooklyn gets stuck working with her ex-best friend to solve a mystery. Talk about conflict! Other ways to create tension? Being too busy for friends, wanting friends when you don't have them, jealousy of a good friend...there are so many. Brainstorm for your own unique friend-related conflict.

Sidekick or support. Friends don’t always mean conflict. They can help solve a mystery or provide support on an adventure (think about Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books). Supporting friends make the main character seem more well-rounded, emotional or empathetic. They can also add humor or depth as part of a subplot. What if the sidekick always messes up? Or bails out the main character?

Provide information. A friend's different point of view can be a way for the author to add things that can't be shown through the main character. Conversations between a character and a good friend are one way to add in some backstory without creating an info dump. Something a friend has noticed might be an important clue. Just be sure not to rely on the friend too much or too often; the main character should take centre stage.

More tips on using friends in your story:

Beware of cliches. In books where the main character is a boy, one of the good friends is often a girl, to the point where it’s almost becoming a formula. I think this is much less common in real life than in the world of books, because authors want the book to appeal to girls as well as boys. Watch out for stereotypes like the Hermione effect (smart girl sidekick).  

Friends aren’t always people. Middle graders have strong feelings for pets, other living creatures and even inanimate objects, so you can be create in the friendships you choose to include in your novel. For example, Bobbie Pyron’s A Dog’s Way Home focuses on the relationship between a girl and her dog. In Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve, the main character has a unique relationship with a plant.

Friends change with the situation. In real life, kid’s friendships may be related to the activities they do. They may have one group of friends at school, but a different group of friends on their soccer team or at dance class.

Be realistic. According to at least one reader I talked to, it’s annoying when a character in a book has only one friend. In real life, kids interact with many different peers in different ways. Capturing the flavour of that complexity in your story, even in a simple way, might add to the story believability.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for using friendships to strengthen a story? Have you read any good books where a friendship was essential to the story?

*As usual, if you have any links to other posts or resources on this subject, I'd be happy to add them to the list for our reference.

At Plot to Punctuation, there’s a great post on using a sidekick character in your writing. 

For more material and insights on friendships between girls, a blog by psychologist Irene Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, explores friendships between women of all ages, including teens and preteens. A couple of nteresting articles:

At Fuel Your Writing, freelancer Kolina gives some tips on how to use your own friends to improve your novels.


  1. Friendships help add dimension to a characters life making the story more believable too!

  2. Hmm. I put my MC's best friend on a train headed to Nashville in chapter one, leaving MC at home for a few weeks. MC then drags older sister and sister's boyfriend along on her adventures. The main friendship happening is the sisterly one - sometimes peaceful and sometimes not. The story is set in the early 1890's.

    This works for me. Do you have an opinion?

  3. As I'm revising my current MG MS, I'm evaluating my MC's friendships along the way. Thanks for reminding us that middle grade friendships have multiple facets.

  4. Hooray for middle grade! I love to see more and more people posting about this incredibly special genre.

  5. Great point, Laura!

    Anonymous, it sounds like the sibling relationship in your novel suits the situation you're writing about very well. Characters are not always going to be in situations where their friends play a strong role in the story.

    Thanks Barbara and Caroline.

    Sometimes it's hard to balance the need to be realistic (e.g. many friends) with making the story work for a reader (e.g. not having a lot of characters that could make it confusing).

  6. Andrea, I always love to see a post about middle-grade books, because they often are the red-headed stepchildren stuck in between picture books and YAs. Great post!

    I've left a response to your comment on Bird's-eye View,


    P.S. I thought I was already following your blog, but when I didn't see my avitar, I tried again ... so either it worked this time, or I'm following twice. :)

  7. Great post! I tend to limit the number of characters, so I need to watch out for the "only one friend" syndrome. :)

  8. Someday I'd love to try some MG fiction. I've bookmarked this post!



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