C.S. Lewis has a fabulous book called “The Four Loves.” It approaches human interactions from a Christian standpoint, but even if you aren’t Christian, I recommend it as character study for fellow authors. Lewis’s insights are deep and touch every kind of human relationship—the kind of relationships we write about.
Lewis defines the four loves as Affection (most classically a family bond, a bond that forms due to proximity and regular contact), Friendship (the most spiritual of the loves, as it lacks the physical bond of mother-child or the sexual bond of romantic love), Eros (romantic love), and Charity (Christian love).
What I found most enlightening as an author is the way Lewis demonstrates not only how each kind of love ideally functions in human life, but where, when, and how each is likely to “go bad.” And left to their own devices, human nature being what it is, they easily can go bad. They don’t have to go TOTALLY bad, but a few traces in our fiction of the first tendencies of the loves to devolve adds a realistic depth to our writing that it’s hard to create any other way.
Eros, Lewis says, goes bad by setting itself up as a god and making martyrs of lovers for doing even awful things, such as neglecting duties to a sick parent or hurting someone else for the sake of the beloved. “Turn anything but God into a god, and it either dies or becomes a devil.” That’s one of his major points.
But this post is really about friendship.
THE MOST SPIRITUAL OF THE LOVES
Again, Lewis calls friendship the most spiritual of the loves. All this means is that does not have a bodily element or physical “symptoms” like the others: something we all understand intuitively but rarely contemplate or try to put into words.
I am doing no justice at all to Lewis’ multi-layered study, but to give a quick summary, he says spoiled friendship can be seen in a group of friends who hold themselves superior to outsiders. Being spiritual, when friendship goes bad, it goes bad in a spiritual manner. Friendship becomes prideful and transforms into a coterie.
A necessary tendency exists in every friendship to discount the opinions of the uninformed masses on the subject of interest which binds the group. For instance, if you and I share a passion for Elizabethan theatre and especially Shakespeare, we will have immersed ourselves in that topic. We will be informed about it and rightfully won’t care what the high school student down the street or our parents think about Shakespeare.
When our friendship goes bad, that need to discount other people’s thoughts about Shakespeare becomes a drive to discount their thoughts about everything and, in worst cases, ignore their basic needs and basic dignity.
GOOD FRIENDSHIP CHANGES US
One of my absolute favorite literary studies of friendship is the friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Lewis holds that friends don’t need much in common, only a shared interest. For Sancho and Don Quixote, that interest is Quixote’s chivalric exploits, which Quixote appreciates for their moral value and symbolism and which Sancho appreciates because Quixote promises to win an island in one of his adventures and make Sancho its governor.
You can’t have two people more different than Sancho and Don Quixote. The almost blasphemously basic description I just gave of two beloved and incredibly developed characters does serve to highlight the biggest contrast between them, though.
Don Quixote is all about the spiritual, the moral, the inner meaning and depth of human life.
Sancho is all about the material. He is constantly wanting to eat more food (though in his defense, Don Quixote nearly starves him. I’d complain about food too.) He wants worldly success. He wants that island, and he warns Don Quixote about the possibility of arrest by what passed in their time as the Spanish police. That’s not something Don Quixote would ever have considered.
What makes me love Don Quixote and Sancho so much, despite the degree to which they begin as deliberate caricatures, is how their friendship changes them. I even had a professor talk about the “Quixotification” of Sancho and the “Sanchification” of Don Quixote.
And that’s my key point. We all know that interesting characters change. But they have to change in realistic ways due to realistic causes. Friendship is a wonderful catalyst for genuine character development.
As Don Quixote and Sancho begin to share more and more adventures together, Don Quixote becomes more grounded in reality. He starts to view the world in a slightly different way. And Sancho, well…
Sancho begins to consider the higher plane of human life and experience. He learns there is more to existence than food to eat and an inn to sleep in. His true humanity, which at the start is only demonstrated by his fondness for his donkey, “el rucio,” comes out more and more.
This novel is one of the earliest, and best, accounts of a genuine and incredibly human friendship ever written. That’s why “Don Quixote” has stood the test of time as a classic known and loved the whole world over.
GOOD FRIENDSHIP HAS AN INTERESTING START.
Don Quixote and Sancho are neighbors. They don’t know each other well. Sancho’s worldly aspirations, coupled with his ignorance, bring him to accept work as Quixote’s squire when the knight promises him an island.
Their friendship develops slowly and organically. But the other great way true and deep friendships start, for me, is beautifully illustrated in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Harry and Ron Weasley are friends from the moment they meet, but no one is really friends with Hermione Granger. She is pedantic, a bit too intellectual, and not outgoing enough to make friends.
But when a troll attacks the school after Ron has lashed out at her, Ron and Harry save her; she was crying in the bathroom, didn’t know about the troll, and it almost kills her. Out of gratitude, she takes the blame for the situation when the teachers get involved, getting Ron and Harry off the hook for their, to be honestly, incredibly stupid actions in fighting the troll.
Instant friendship. And it feels so REAL. It just makes sense. You go through that kind of trouble and fear and danger with someone, and there is no way, being human, that you won’t feel a fondness for them afterward.
The adventure crafts a bond. Like J.K. Rowling wrote…. And this isn’t an exact quote, but the line is similar… “There are some things you just can’t experience with someone else without becoming friends. Taking down a mountain troll is one of them.”
I first read that book when I was fourteen, and that scene, and those lines, have always stuck with me as just organically human.
As an author, friendship is a powerful tool to give a story depth and make it credible. So give some thought to the basis of your characters’ friendships and how those friendships can change your characters. Your writing will be better for it.