If you're ever in a mess, SOS,
If you ever feel so happy you land in jail... I'm your bail.
So the immortal Cole Porter wrote.
I've been thinking recently about the social state of my protagonists. It's rather like siblings, isn't it? One of the first pieces of writing advice my brain retained warned me that only children were the best kind to write about, unless it was integral to the plot, of course. Siblings were irritating, a blight on already-hefty plots. For extra brownie points, kill off your protagonist's parents. Well, that might be a bit extreme, but the point still stands.
Your reader encounters your protagonist at a specific point within their life. Although it's a given that life has been proceeding nicely up until this point, you don't want to overload your reader with too many details at once. But what if cutting out those pesky family and friends detrimentally impacts your plot?
In the two novels I'm rewriting at the moment, I've offered family instead of friends. Now, in the first instance, my protagonist, Lily, has family problems which have led her to shut herself off for years. She's steadfastly avoided making true friends, although she does gain a couple in the course of the story. But in the second novel, I don't feel like I have a leg to stand on. Before everything goes wrong, Danni, is a perfectly sensible and healthy human being. She's well-liked at work and seems to have a social life. But I haven't elaborated on the social life. No, I've just incorporated her parents into the mix, along with a few people she's with out of necessity rather than desire.
It's a tricky balance. Where do you draw the line between showing a healthy social circle and just providing lots of characters who do nothing for the plot and help to confuse your reader? I found that Landing by Emma Donoghue (reviewed here) was a good example of how to incorporate social lives into a novel. However, the theme of the book was home and what constituted a home. The analysis of people around the protagonists had to be a factor in that.
Perhaps it is best to cut out friends, siblings and parents. It certainly makes for easier writing, and probably easier reading. However, then you get into the minefield of character amnesia, which can be as dangerous.
It takes a light authorial touch for a book to cover all these points and not feel lacking in some way. I know I keep talking on and on about this novel (and I'll be talking about it for LGBT History Month on Friday at university hopefully) but Fiona Shaw's Tell It To The Bees is a good example of managing to mix friendships with a fantastic central story. In fact, the whole book is an exercise in characterisation I'd love to emulate. For anyone who missed the review, it's here.
How better to finish such a post than with the anthem of friendship?
Yes, I just wanted the excuse to include that... but I'm not apologising!