I’m looking for some friendly advice – literally, advice about writing friendships. In this case, I’m trying to decide what to do with a protagonist’s childhood friends as his life changes.
I’m writing a coming-of-age trilogy where the protagonist needs to come to terms with himself (he’s queer), develop his magical abilities, and defeat the Big Bad. In the first book he makes close childhood friendships and they work together to solve a mystery. In the climax of that book, a political upheaval upends his world: one parent dies, the other is imprisoned, and the protagonist flees his homeland and relocates to a Big City.
I want to maintain the “world turned upside-down” theme to challenge the protagonist as he carves out a new life in the second book. He will meet new people and discover new things about himself. But here’s my struggle: what role, if any, do his old friends play in this? If they stick by his side the whole way, I worry the challenge won’t feel daunting. Should they stay out of the picture, at least temporarily? Should they reunite unexpectedly after the protagonist has started his new life?
In real life, childhood friendships fade away. In literature, I worry that would feel unsatisfying, especially if (as I hope) my readers become attached to the friends.
Thanks a bunch,
Hey Jack, thanks for writing in!
The first thing to establish here is that if you do the job of building attachment to side characters, readers will be disappointed if those characters don’t continue in the story. If you haven’t built attachment, then those characters will be detracting from the story, so they’ll need to be revised until they do build attachment.
By default, characters the readers are attached to should stick around. Greater attachment means a more enjoyable story, which is theoretically what we want. However, there are reasons why they might not continue in the story. A side character might die, their arc might be completely finished, or you might need new characters for the sequel, and including all the old characters would make the cast too big.
In that case, the best practice I’ve found is to establish that the side character is off doing something else important. They’d love to help the hero on their new adventure, but they’re busy helping elven refugees. Or maybe they were just hired as the mayor’s advisory wizard. That softens the blow, as readers know that the character is still out there, just not onscreen at the moment.
Even then, it can be a real treat for the reader if a side character they liked shows up to help during a critical moment. There’s not always room for that, but if there is, I highly recommend it. Mass Effect does that with Wrex and it’s great. He leaves your party to become leader of all Krogan, but then he shows up again to help you in the third game.
Now, for your specific situation, it doesn’t sound to me like you actually need to take the protagonist’s friends out of the story. If you’re mainly worried about the conflict not being difficult enough, that can usually be fixed by increasing the challenge your hero faces. Now, if one of their friends is a grand high arch mage, that might not be a viable strategy. But if they’re more on the protagonist’s level, you can probably give the villain some extra minions to compensate. That’s just based on what you’ve told me here though. There might be other reasons, which is for you to decide.
One final thing to keep in mind: If the protag’s surviving parent is in jail, that will probably feel like an open plot thread unless you take measures to close it. The most lasting way to do that is if they deserve to be in jail: they committed a crime and were justly punished. But if they didn’t do anything, or what they did is out of step with their sentence, then readers will expect a mage-protagonist to attempt a rescue at some point, even if the hero isn’t strong enough yet.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!