One of the joys in my life is my friendships with other women. These people provide great conversations, laughter, fun, support, and give me a great sense of connection. Yet, in the realm of fantasy literature, it’s surprising how rarely we encounter such authentic and complex female friendships, if at all.
I want to discuss that here. And challenge it.
Why is there an absence of female friendships in fantasy books? If you’re a woman, think of all your female friends and the bond you have with them. If you’re not, think of the friendships you have with women, but also the friendships you see women having with other women around you.
We should represent that in storytelling, and I want to discuss how authors can draw inspiration from real-life friendships to bring authenticity to their narratives. (And in the process, just bring more women into their books full stop. Because let alone a lack of female friends, there’s a lack of females at all.)
The reality of female friendships
I’m going to talk specifically about f/f friendships now, because that’s the main space I actually see it lacking in fantasy. We’re getting more female protagonists, which is great. But there are still no female friends. (I’m not going to get started on the ONE book I saw a female friend who was awesome and then she got killed. Don’t kill off the ONE female friend and isolate the female MC in a 99% male dominated character list. Please. I instantly put down the whole series and will not touch it EVER again.)
In real life, many women form strong bonds with other women. We know this. These friendships can be a source of solace, strength, fun, and shared experiences. Female friendships are a key part of many women’s lives.
I don’t think that needs saying much deeper. So let’s get back to female friendships in fantasy.
Translating real-life friendships into fantasy
The absence of authentic female friendships in fantasy is a huge missed opportunity to connect with readers. As authors, we have a great opportunity to draw from real-life to create more engaging and relatable narratives.
You know, if it’s grounded in reality, it gives a solid base for readers to engage with the world you’ve built.
But many authors miss that whole ‘grounding in reality thing’, thinking ‘it’s fantasy, it doesn’t need to be grounded in reality’.
That’s how people relate to your work.
So how do we put real-life friendships into fantasy?
Observe real-life friendships. Look at the female friendships in your own life, or other people’s female friendships. How do you/they interact, support one another, have fun, laugh over things? What are the dynamics and quirks and moments that make those friendships unique and relatable?
Talk to your friends. How do they have female friendships, and ask them about challenges they’ve faced or the best moments they’ve shared. What qualities make their friendships with other women special?
Character inspiration. You know your characters better than anyone. Use the above to create well-rounded and believable characters by drawing inspiration from personalities and dynamics of people you know to help you craft your characters based on the personalities you want for them. Not all characters have the same personality. Or, well, they shouldn’t.
Shared experiences. Make sure your incorporate shared experiences into your characters’ friendships, even from before the start of the story. Real friendships are formed through adventures, challenges, vulnerability, so make sure your characters bond over similar experiences. This will strengthen their emotional connection and make the friendship feel real. Even have them laughing over things that happened before the start of the book to show people a friendship can have existed before. So dialogue is key too. How do they talk together, about things they go through? Inside jokes? Nicknames or playful name calling?
Like real friendships, characters need to have conflicts and resolve them. How do they fight? What challenges do they face? And how (if at all) do they fix it? This will add depth to their relationship and show the strength of their bonds. And remember, different people fight in different ways.
How do your characters lift each other up and support each other? Offer guidance? Help each other grow? Highlight the positive impact they have on each other. Again, remember everyone shows things different. Showing love and support for one person might be verbal, while another it might be through acts of service. Make it match their personalities.
Diversity: Reflect real life by having interactions between different backgrounds, races, and perspectives.
Avoid stereotypes. No cliché female roles please. People have fulfilling lives and varied backgrounds and stories. We don’t just talk about love or makeup or clothes. Give your characters unique personalities and goals that go beyond serving as plot devices.
Put yourself in the shoes of your characters and aim to make sure there is a great emotional connection with the readers.
And finally, get beta readers to give feedback. Do the friendships feel real? Especially ask for readers that have strong f/f friendships. Their input can really help you refine the characters and their relationships and make sure the friendship seems real.
The importance of female friendships in fantasy
Okay. So now you know how to easily put female friendships into your fantasy work so your work is grounded in reality and so is familiar to your readers (how easy was that. It’s just, like, normal friendship, right? Odd?!) and now we’re going to have a quick reminder of why.
Why is it important, you ask?
Well, at this point I hope you’re not asking that, but let’s dive in anyway.
Let alone the fact there’s not enough women in fantasy full stop, but how realistic is it that your token women doesn’t have any female friends?
Oh, but Sarah, she’s a tomboy and grew up in a tiny village, has seventeen brothers, and a mother who slaves by the fire to cook their food. There are no other girls her age. Pfft. (Mate, now that’s the problem I’m on about.)
It’s important because it’s authentic. It’s real. It matches the world. Women have women friends! Heck, other genders have women friends too. Give everyone women friends! Women friends exist. Full stop.
It allows female readers to relate to the character on a personal level, as they see their own experiences mirrored. “No way! That’s just like me and <insert friend’s name here>!”
Enriched characterisation: Showcasing different friendship dynamics can provide depth to character development that you might not get elsewhere, which will up-level your writing.
Authentic friendships can evoke strong emotions, so it will make the narrative more engaging and memorable. If someone gets emotionally impacted by your work, that’s the win for an author.
Empowers female readers. Win.
Readability: It’ll make your book more readable for women. I can only speak for myself, but I’m so bored of the ‘only male friends’ thing or the ‘no friends at all thing’ to the point I find the book unreadable and will just put the whole book down.
Break the stereotypes that women in fantasy are only defined by their relationships with men. Women can have fulfilling lives beyond romantic interests.
I hope you get the picture now. Female friendships in fantasy stories are essential but somehow often overlooked. Why? Incorporating authentic and diverse female friendships into your fantasy book can create more relatable, empowering, enriching stories, so it’s a total no-brainer.
Women have strong f/f friendships in real life, so they should in books, too.
It’s time for fantasy to reflect the experiences women have in the real world. To let readers see themselves and their friends in the books they read.
I’m fed up of that Mary Sue character who has no female friends. She’s boring. She’s glass. We don’t live or thrive in isolation, so why should she? Let’s build robust characters who have epic female friends around them. And plenty of them.