craft review by Danielle Sunshine
Beetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard, tells the story of Darkus Cuttle, whose father, a former entomologist, has disappeared. As Darkus attempts to find his father, his two new friends, Virginia and Bertolt, assist him. They not only help with his plot to foil his antagonists’ plans and save his father, they also help him grow as a character. As the story progresses, Virginia and Bertolt become Darkus’ closest friends and confidants. As Darkus’ besties, they add a liveliness to the story and make Darkus’s experience, and ours as readers, much richer.
Let’s consider the why and how of writing a best friend or friends into your middle-grade novel. First, many real kids have best friends, and writing something that reflects reality makes your story that much more believable.
Second, writing in a best friend means that your protagonist is not always alone narrating his or her inner thoughts or talking aloud to himself. The dialogue between the characters can serve to further develop them or further the plot.
In addition, the subplots that come with secondary characters add texture and depth to the main storyline.
Sometimes, a supporting character, like a best friend, can spring from your protagonist’s past. (Think Kenickie in Grease. He was already Danny’s best bud when the story started.) Other times, especially when a story begins in a time of transition, we see best friends made on the page. (Remember how Harry met Ron on the train in Book 1 of Harry Potter?)
Unfortunately, writers sometimes create best friends for their own writerly convenience. They feel they need a sounding board for their protagonist, or a stooge to get the story from here to there. Ultimately, these friendships can feel fake or forced and leave a negative imprint on their stories.
If you’re going to include a best friend, make sure it’s for the right reasons.
Below are some guidelines for writing-in best friends. This is by no means a complete list, nor is it meant to be a required list. If your besties meet even a few of the guidelines listed below, you’ll be in great shape.
1. Make sure your best friend has his or her own agenda and character arc.
Everyone has a life—even a fictional character who is not primary to the novel. Just be careful not to overdevelop this character or you might have a runaway plot. If developed well, the best friend’s agenda will help facilitate your protagonist’s story.
In Beetle Boy, Virginia signs on right away to help Darkus find his dad. While she seems to like Darkus and support his theory that his father isn’t dead, she’s not volunteering to help out of the kindness of her heart. She hasn’t known Darkus long enough to merit that kind of sacrifice. Instead, she makes her motives very clear:
“’I’ll help!’ Virginia sat up. . . . ‘This is fantastic, a real adventure! I’ve always wanted to be a detective’’’ (22).
Later in the book, Virginia’s agenda changes a bit when she establishes a new desire to have her own beetle (128).
Bertolt’s reasons for being involved are a bit less clear. He seems to be a part of the “package” by going along with whatever Virginia says. But he also seems to take pride in his eccentricities: his skills with electronics and explosives. Being involved in saving both the beetles and Darkus’s dad enables him to show his stuff.
2. Make sure the best friend challenges or reaffirms your protagonist’s core belief.
When Darkus meets Bertolt and Virginia, one of the first things he does is try to convince them that his father is not dead, that he would never simply disappear on his own volition, and that he must “be worried sick” about him.” Bertolt confirms the belief that Darkus is trying to hold onto:
“’Of course he is,’ Bertolt agreed furiously. ‘And I bet he’s an excellent dad’” (21).
3. Ensure there is a “why” to the friendship between the protagonist and his or her besties.
If you can’t seem to think why they would even want to be together, then your reader won’t see it either. Of course, in the age of frenemies, it might seem like two characters are constantly at odds, but if you look deeper, there’s usually a good reason they are hanging out together.
When Darkus sees the closeness between Virginia and Bertolt on the first day of school, he envies it. He recognizes that he has never made the kind of friend who could finish his sentences. His longing for this kind of friendship is palpable. By the time Virginia and Bertolt have offered to help him search for his dad, Darkus acknowledges “an unfamiliar warmth blossom” inside his chest.
Bertolt and Virginia have their own reasons for befriending Darkus. Virginia seems to like protecting others and has taken Bertolt under her guard because he can’t seem to defend himself. She comes to Darkus’s rescue as well. Bertolt, for his part, seems to appreciate Darkus because he comes from a serious family of scientists and because he empathizes with Darkus’s suffering at the hands of school bullies.
4. Ensure there is a “why” to their role in the plot.
The bestie can’t just be in the book, supporting the protagonist, for the protagonist’s or author’s convenience. Their presence must be logical and they must want to be there. The best way to ensure their “why” is to show what that character gets out of the relationship. (See suggestion #1.)
5. If the friendship between the characters is primary to the plot, then the writer should be willing to show the friendship’s ups and downs.
Friends fight and make-up. Friends argue and tease. It’s best to keep it real.
Relationships that show no tension can make characters feel flat and one-dimensional. Giving your characters flaws or specific traits that can rub each other the wrong way can help you build conflict. At important moments in the story, this conflict can increase the tension in a good way.
In Beetle Boy, we see a bit of tension when Darkus is introducing Virginia and Bertolt to the Furniture Forest. On pages 98-99, there is a small disagreement between the three about trespassing. This happens again when Bertolt suggests they give the group a name.
“What are you? Seven? Names are lame” (107), Virginia says.
6. Provide at least one moment when the best friend shares the problems going on in his or her life.
This can be something as simple as getting in trouble with their parent for being home late, or getting a bad grade on a test.
Early on in the book, Bertolt shares with Darkus details behind the problems he’s had with the school bullies.
Toward the end of the book, we learn that Bertolt and Virginia have both lied to their parents so they can stay up all night saving the beetles. They are supposedly sleeping over at each others’ houses.
7. Give your besties common interests so that their relationships ring true.
In Beetle Boy, the three friends all seem to align their interests around saving Darkus’s dad, getting the bad guys, and saving the beetles.
8. Resist the temptation to have your protagonist and his best friend instantly like each other. There is interest and narrative tension between characters who are curious about each other or checking each other out.
This technique is hinted at in Beetle Boy. In Chapter Two, Darkus shows fatigue after transferring to his third school in five weeks—this one with Gothic architecture and intimidating spiked railings. When he first meets Virginia and Bertolt at school, he seems more interested in surviving the day than in making friends. He’s also a bit put off by Virginia’s obvious disappointment after looking him over. He seems equally taken aback by Bertolt’s sickly appearance and formal introduction. However, as outliers, the three have good reasons to come together.
To summarize, best friends can be a boon for your main character and your manuscript. Written skillfully, they can add dimension, depth, complexity, and joy to your story.
Here are some resources I’ve found helpful in thinking about best friends:
- Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
- Lisa Cron’s Story Genius
- “8 tips on How to Write a Believable Friendship or Best Friend Character” (https://cherstinieveen.com)
- “Character relationships: 6 tips for crafting real connections” (http://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-about-relationships-how-to-make-them-real/)
Who are your favorite middle grade best friend pairs/sets? What makes those relationships work? How do they help form the novel as well as the main character?
Danielle Sunshine grew up in Texas and studied English Literature at UC Berkeley. She also holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Danielle has taught ESL, literacy, literature, art history, poetry, and writing to kids and adults. She is the Regional Advisor for the SF/South chapter of SCBWI, and she is the founder of the Middle Grade Lunchbreak. Danielle is currently revising her second historical fiction novel and writes picture book biographies. She lives with her husband, two children, and English Shepherd in the SF Bay Area. Find Danielle online at www.daniellesunshine.com.