Friendships are nuanced relationships that can last far longer than the most heart-filled love affair or can have deep and destructive effects on a person if they become toxic or embittered.
Thanks to the sage advice from a skilled and critical reader late on in the drafting of A Bagful of Dragon, the friendships detailed in the protagonist's life are far more nuanced and useful, both to her and the story.
Despite appearances, I never set out to write specifically about friendship, but since Inayat, my protagonist, is at that time of life when friends are important for a lot of reasons, it turns out this novel did it anyway.
Friends who disagree and challenge
One of the first issues identified in that earlier draft was that Inayat’s friends did not challenge her. They were extremely understanding, ‘got’ her belief system and supported her motivations. Sounds great, right?
The result was a bunch of nondescript wishy-washy women who seemed to exist only to support Inayat no matter what she did or said.
Still sounds great? It’s not exactly seeking the drama from every angle.
The best drama comes from challenge and adversity. In the final (published) draft, Inayat’s established friends, Indira and Leah, now play much more important roles, simultaneously looking out for her by challenging her ‘weirdnesses’ (as Indira thinks of them), and protecting themselves from what they view as unacceptable or problematic behaviour from her. They create adversity from her inner circle, and because both are motivated mainly by love and practicality, there is no sense that they cut her down for their own gratification (other than a desire to have a quiet life).
Both Indira and Leah are frustrated by Inayat’s headlong rush into territory they recognise as a slippery slope for her. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results … we all know this is fruitless, but when in the middle of everything, it can be hard to recognise what we’re doing.
Inayat’s responses aren’t always the best, but she acknowledges to herself that they could be right and her personal growth does, in part, stem from their insistence that she considers herself and her choices more clearly.
Here’s the thing. Friendships where one challenges the other on fundamental issues of self and behaviour can be tricky to navigate. After all, we all want to feel supported and approved of by the people we love and admire. But sometimes that support comes from an unexpected angle, helping us to re-examine our attitudes, behaviours and the things we expect of ourselves. At that point, the friendships are doing more good than bad. The trick is to do it for ourselves, rather than doing it to seek approval.
The other part to this is that sometimes those friends are wrong. Just flat wrong. But when issues are flagged by others, the process of re-examination is good, even if we ultimately decide we were right in the first place.
Be true to yourself, but you have the choice to accept well-meant advice in the manner in which it was intended. Or not.
Friends who display less than supportive attitudes...but we love them anyway
One slight contradiction to some of the above is the advice that Indira initially imparts to Inayat. She condemns her for her choices prior to the beginning of the story, saying that her troubles are all her own fault. This can be characterised as slut shaming or victim blaming in a mild form.
The problem is that Inayat is stumbling through social interaction, rather than working it to her own advantage. Her self-esteem, self-worth, and need for some kind of social life has created a vicious circle of dating behaviour that doesn’t sit well with her flatmate. ‘Correct’ social behaviour is something of a mystery to Inayat, and she learns it from copying how other people act---though often in a flawed way---to address her own social needs at the same time. She admires Indira, thinks she is generous and kind, and considers her friend to be the much-lauded ‘normal’ that she holds in such high regard, so Indira telling her she’s done it wrong again confuses her when she’s tried so hard to get it right.
Inayat’s painfully aware of the importance of friendships, and often feels that it is she who is at fault—she invests a lot in those friendships she’s managed to maintain and worries about getting them ‘wrong’.
What’s happening here is that Indira’s social constraints are different to Inayat’s. She’s more conservative in general and has some interesting moral attitudes that seem somewhat contradictory and even a little hypocritical in some aspects. This adds to Inayat’s anxieties and she becomes worried about her flatmate’s state of mind—and how much damage she, Inayat, is doing. Despite this, the experiences Indira goes through as a result of Inayat’s dramas result in her development as a more congruent character, and although I glossed over that part of her by the end of the book, I know there will be the opportunity to return to Indira in a later book in the series.
It’s perfectly possible to love a flawed person. Normal, even. No-one is perfect anyway, and the odd hypocrisy or judgey comment can---and probably should---be ignored in the face of kindnesses, generosity, and other positive character traits. Depends on how forgiving you are as a person, which likely depends on your previous experiences of people.
Friends who encourage
If friends that challenge are a good thing, where does that leave friends who encourage?
Molly is Inayat's new friend in the book, and she's as supportive as anyone might wish for in an ally, but as Inayat's flatmate, Indira, points out, she seems to encourage the things that make Inayat a little 'weird'. For someone as easily influenced as Inayat appears to be, this can be a double-edged sword.
The problem Indira recognises is that when someone seems to support everything in you, the parts that you keep getting wrong are also encouraged. At some point most of us need someone to say ‘hey, what’s going on with you?’ A reality check.
On the other hand, Molly plays a role where she expects Inayat to pick herself up and get on with things, whilst being simultaneously supportive of her endeavours. This tough mothering is an essential part of Inayat’s support package as she commits herself to a journey of spiritual development, and the idea behind Molly is that she doesn’t take the supportiveness too far.
What’s more, Molly and Inayat’s ‘weird’ realities are one and the same. Indira’s is somewhat different. Her point does stand, but she’s not entirely right about Molly. In fact, she’s made her point because Molly’s encouragement has thwarted her own advice to Inayat and she’s irritated by this.
Friends that encourage can be the best allies ever, ‘never above you, never below you, always by your side.’ But it’s important to employ some independent common sense at the same time, if only for the sake of self-preservation. Not that we're implying common sense is natural or ... common.
Friends who put up with your shit but reserve the right to call you out on it
Leah and Inayat go way back. They knew each other the last time Inayat’s life melted down and Leah was inevitably the person who picked her up, dusted her down, and set her on her way again. Only to see her ignore the advice and fall down the same hole repeatedly.
Roll on a few years, and Leah is somewhat wiser. She doesn’t have the time nor the space in her career-focused mind to waste on people who don’t learn their own lessons. At the same time, she’s loyal and compassionate.
When Inayat asks her to help, Leah isn’t enthusiastic, and she’s perfectly justified in this. What’s more, she is starting to believe that their friendship only exists so that Inayat can do whatever she likes without dealing with the consequences, so it wouldn’t have been beyond her character’s limitations to have walked out of Inayat’s life without looking back. Compassion brings her back in and compels her to take a personal risk, but this time it’s only going to be the once. Probably.
Leah has drifted away from Inayat over the interceding years and there’s a few good reasons for that. None of that drift has been deliberate; it’s just the natural order of things when one person takes more than they give in a friendship.
The Ruler Principle is a concept that works for friendships as well as relationships. If someone always gives 10 inches, there are only 2 left for the other person. If someone only gives 3, the other must give 9 or there will be a drifting away of that friendship. Sometimes a person isn’t in a place where they can give more than they already do; sometimes they shouldn’t even if they can.
Most friends who put up with a lot of shit will eventually get the hell out unless you give as good as you take.
Image credit: Riya Kumari via Pexels