Common Archetypes: Wallflower MC and Outgoing Best Friend

CommonArchetypes

OK, so this is basically a discussion post, but it’s more specific: these posts will focus on various archetypes in YA books.
What is an archetype, you ask? Well, if you don’t ask, skip this definition from Dictionary.com:
the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
This definition doesn’t necessarily cover what I plan on talking about in these posts, but I liked the title, so archetypes it is. I’m basically focusing on the “model” part of the definition, in that I going to look at various models or types of characters in YA.

As you can see from the title, today’s subject is about main characters that always seem to be wallflowers and attracted to best friends that are really outgoing and whose friendship often doesn’t make sense. This is a problem that can happen in contemporary and paranormal books alike, which means it’s something bugging me in over half of the books I read, no matter what the genre!

Picture a Plain Jane protagonist. She probably has “boring” brown hair, “boring” brown eyes, and is skinny (because you can’t have a protagonist who wears double-digit size jeans) but obviously too skinny, the bad kind of skinny. She is bookish (yet you never really see her read, and her bookish-ness only shows when she’s comparing her instalove with a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte book or something) and doesn’t really have any other personality, other than “shy.” How the hell can you build a story on a girl who basically refuses to do anything interesting?

Simple: you throw in an outrageous and out of control best friend that drags the protagonist kicking and screaming into various plot points.

 

Imagine this is the Outgoing Best Friend pushing the Wallflower MC out of their room, rather than a cop tackling a dude with a gun.

I might be exaggerating slightly about the protagonist, but not so much the best friend. So many books seem to think that protagonists have to be shy and bookish and boring, like we can’t relate to anyone not 100% like us (plus, that’s assuming that all readers are shy, bookish, and boring, which isn’t the kind of assumption you should make if you want people to read your book), so the only way to make sure their protagonist doesn’t sit in their room reading all day is by adding in a wild best friend. It’s very, very, very rare to see it reversed (in fact, I can’t really think of any offhand – feel free to correct me in the comments if you know of one), and I think this is a trope that can extend to male protagonists as well.

Sorry, but you kind of are.

 There are multiple reasons I don’t like this particular trope. For one thing, I’m tired of it. There are so many best friend duos that just follow the same pattern, which means it’s just one more book that focuses more on the romance than exploring a unique and complex friendship. When you have an outgoing BFF that pushes the protagonist to dress up or go to a party or whatever, it’s normally just pushing the protagonist to the love interest, which means the flimsy friendship disappears into the background, only popping up when the love interest is busy.

This isn’t just a tired trope, though – in many cases, it’s just lazy. Rather than creating a complex character, a confidant that the protagonist can depend on and can go to with whatever, including romantic issues, rather than only romantic issues, the character is a simple sketch that can be set aside whenever the love interest shows up. Not all outgoing best friends will be like this, but it seems like lately most of them are, which is a big problem. There just aren’t enough female friendships, let alone strong ones, in YA today, so why are we continuing to use best friends as plot props rather than real people who enhance the story?

You see, these kinds of characters will change everything about their life, even their personality, if it moves the story forward. Unlike the scene this GIF comes from, however, it’s not a funny thing – it’s just sad.

I want characters that are actually people, like you’re really seeing a portrait of them rather than a quick stick figure drawing.

 

And no, I’m not saying that this is an easy way to become extra skinny (because these BFFs are often obsessed with their weight, or are just naturally really skinny and curvy – yeah, because that happens all the time).

These characters act like checklists:

– Does she have some other hair color than brown, which is pretty much always perfect?

– Does she push the protagonist at the love interest or is indirectly responsible for their relationship?

– Is she the only “girly” girl that the protagonist can stand, and barely at that?

– Is she obsessed with material objects and appearance and the like to the point that the protagonist can secretly degrade her for not being the good girl that the protagonist is?

– Does she have a personality that can easily be changed depending on what the story calls for?

If you have a best friend with more than one of these traits, then there’s a good chance that she falls into this category. Sometimes books try to be progressive and different by making the best friend gay, but too often they just seem like the same shallow character, only with a penis. Really not the right message to send about the diverse group that is gay boys and men.

Gay characters don’t just exist as fashion accessories and plot props – they should be real people, with real problem, no matter what their sexuality.

I know that we can be different. We can have a more diverse group of best friends to pick from. We don’t have to fall back on the same boring, lazy trope every time. I know that secondary characters aren’t as important as the main characters (after all, they’re secondary characters and not main characters), but they doesn’t mean we can just ignore them and stick them in the same box every time. I want to rescue them from their boring, restraining box!

I also want best friends who actually seem like they’re best friends! I know that opposites attract, but there are some differences and then there are two characters who seem like they secretly hate each other because they’re so different and literally have nothing in common other than thinking the mysterious new boy is hot or something.

  

See? He’s judging you just like I am.

We can be so different and interesting – why don’t our characters reflect that?

Give me different and interesting best friends, darn it! Otherwise, we’re going to continue to read about best friends that don’t seem to have brains – not because they’re girly and outgoing, but because their books don’t care enough about them to give them any personality.

The GIFs came from here.

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13 thoughts on “Common Archetypes: Wallflower MC and Outgoing Best Friend

  1. I loooooooove this post! So much! Because I 100% agree with you. These archetypes bug the living daylights out of me and I’m getting so tired of them. It reminds me of what Tina Fey and Amy Poehler said at the Golden Globes: “if something kinda works [Hollywood will] just keep doing it until everybody hates it.” The same can be said for authors and publishers. These common character types worked at the start, so lots of authors picked up on it and as a result we have SO MANY books that fit this bill. I just wish authors realized there are more to best friends than this. Maybe one day, if we keep wishing, they’ll change this trend to something a little more realistic. Maybe.

    1. Oh, that’s a great comparison! I’m sure I thought this was an interesting trope the first couple times I saw this best friend relationship, but it has certainly gotten stale, just like so many other tropes in YA.

      And yes, I’ll wish along with you!

  2. Yep, these friend and best friend types totally makes my eyes roll. The worse in my opinion is like you said, they don’t explain why they’re friends. There’s nothing that makes the two stay together besides one simple fact the author bothers to state ‘they were friends since they were little’. Really? That’s all you came up with, is it just me or are MOST kids are all friends.

    1. Yeah, the “best friends since we were little” definitely seems like a common excuse. If more books focused on that kind of friendship, then it might actually be interesting to see a friendship struggling to stay afloat during the difficult high school years, but when the book just focuses on a romance or something else, then it does feel like a boring excuse. I wouldn’t mind these boring tropes and such if the book actually analyzes and focuses on them rather than another bland romance!

  3. Awesome post!!! I totally, totally agree with you about this. You just see this over and over and over again. No, not all books that sort of subscribe to this trope play out exactly the same, some are even good, and some try to add something new and different to it…but there are SO many books like this out there. I can think of like 50 million right off the top of my head. I LOVE secondary characters. There have been tons of instances in which they are my favorite part of a book…so I really appreciate it when authors go and construct REAL people to be in the sidelines. People who are dynamic and interesting to read about. I’m really sick of the same old either super spunky girl best friend or super spunky gay best friend…it needs to end. And I love how you said: “Gay characters don’t just exist as fashion accessories and plot props – they should be real people, with real problems, no matter what their sexuality.” THIS. This is so true.

    1. Exactly – these tropes aren’t necessarily bad, and in the right hands can even be interesting, but you see them over and over again with such shallow characters that it becomes lazy! I want characters that feel real, and if an author can use this trop AND make the characters feel real, then I am beyond happy. And I know I’m not the first one to feel this way about gay characters – I just wish authors would begin to listen to us! Yes, it’s nice to actually see gay characters, but if you don’t flesh them out beyond a stereotype, it might be more damaging than not having them at all!

  4. I’ll agree with you that it is tropey and that it’s overused because it works. Rose and Lissa from Vampire Academy are opposites though. Rose is outgoing and likes to get in trouble. Lissa is reserved. Great post!

    1. It can definitely work in some cases (and I have read the first Vampire Academy book and agree with you that their friendship seems to work, at least in the first book), but too often authors seem to use it as a crutch and that’s my problem, because it becomes lazy and uninteresting writing. You can totally use the trope and make an amazing an complex friendship – just not everyone does, unfortunately.

  5. Well said. I think your main key here is that the best friends are NEVER around except to tackle boy problems. All conversations are focused on Mr. Right and then BFF vanishes because, face it, she was just a prop to get things moving. I have seen some well done shy girl – outgoing girl pairs (including my own best friend), but that only works if the characters feel like people instead of placeholders. And don’t get me started on “gorgeous mysterious boy.” I think the invisible BFF tends to show up more when “gorgeous mysterious boy” is present than otherwise. And god forbid she have MORE THAN ONE friend. That’s just too many extra characters that aren’t Mr. Right. I hope more authors start branching out before YA is just a Twilight double-take.

    1. Exactly – the problem isn’t necessarily the trope, it’s the fact that the trope is so often used for characters that are little more than the paper on which they’re written! It can definitely – and has – be done well, whether in real life or not, but it does take some work. And I didn’t even think about the fact that these duos often have little to no other friends, and if they do have a small group of friends, those friends are even flimsier and easy to forget about, which is pretty difficult!

      And I feel like “gorgeous mysterious boy” is a good future trope for this topic, since that often goes hand in hand with the lack of interesting, fleshed-out best friends…

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