― C.S. Lewis
Friends. There are few things more vital in life.
I was left to ruminate on this (among other things) after playing an Xbox game I’d picked up on spec a couple of weeks ago, a game titled Life is Strange. The player becomes the game’s protagonist, Max Caulfield, a female high school senior at a private school in Arcadia Bay, Oregon, who accidentally discovers she has the ability to rewind time and avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune we all encounter, beginning with the shooting death of her best friend, Chloe Price... except, as the game progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that messing with the past can lead to truly awful things instead. In fact, the new reality created by that tinkering can be far worse than the original. At the game’s climax, the player has to make a choice: save Chloe, or save Arcadia Bay. It’s a no-win situation, which was really what I was discussing in my last post, because if you save Chloe, the community is destroyed and its inhabitants die; if you save the community, then Chloe, your best friend, dies.
Now, given that choice for real, I don’t know for sure what I’d do --- it’s one of those life situations you fervently pray you never have to undergo, although writers and film makers love ‘em. (‘Course they do: such gut wrenching scenarios make for great drama in our stories... but they’re a helluva lot less enjoyable when you’re actually, really experiencing them.) However, when faced with the choice in the game, after a brief pause for outraged reflection, I threw my cares for the good of the greater collective out the window --- and saved Chloe.
Well, dammit, because Chloe was a close friend; we’d been through a lot together in the course of the story. (Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my choice, either: the game summarizes the choices other players made, and something like 46% of them also opted to save her.) And friendship can cause us to do all sorts of unusual things --- including ditching the mantra about “the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one.”
Hold on there, you say, Chloe is just a character in a video game. That’s true. But regardless of whether we’re talking about books or films or video games, one of the things I want to emphasize today is that writers succeed with their characters only if we care about them. We need to identify not only with the protagonist, but with their friends and allies. We need to feel their joys and sorrows as our own. So if there’s the possibility they might die, we need to be able to agonize over that. In short, characters need to become --- at the very least, for the duration of our time with them --- real people, every bit as real and realistic as the folks we interact with in “real” life on a daily basis, and we need to feel like they’re our friends.
Friendship is a funny thing, isn’t it? It frequently starts in the manner of the quote at the top of this post: a warm feeling of camaraderie --- Hey, we have something in common! --- be it interest, hobby, mutual friends (or enemies), hopes, fears... whatever it is that makes us want to better know this other person. We don’t have to have everything in common --- many great friendships, literary and real life, involve people who are very different from each other (we call this aspect of the relationship complementary --- one person has characteristics the other lacks, and vice versa). But that only goes so far, because there has to be enough common ground between the two for them to want each other’s fellowship. And as I said earlier, going through common experiences together --- surmounting impossible odds and situations --- tends to strengthen the bonds of friendship. (Or destroy them... but let’s stay optimistic here.)
It annoys me that, in today’s hyper-sexualized world, so many writers seem to think two people cannot be close friends without there being some kind of sexual element to the friendship. Folks, they can, and to try and insist otherwise cheapens the whole concept of friendship. Two guys can be friends, two women can be friends, a man and a woman can be friends... and sex or sexuality doesn’t have to enter into the equation at all. If we’re not more than the sum of our hormones... then, really, what’s the point?
Loyalty, honesty, openness, trust: characteristics that great friendships have to have. There are many others, but I’d say those are among the most important. Think of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. In one sense, it’s not the most equal of relationships --- Sam comes across (more so in the book than in the films) as Frodo’s servant, and doesn’t seem to have quite the same intellectual awareness --- but he’s utterly devoted, to the point of being willing to give his life for Frodo if necessary. That’s friendship.
Let’s give the final words to something else Jack said on the topic in his usual brilliant manner:
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival.”