Archetypes and the Best Friend

One neglected and misused archetype is what the book The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines calls the Best Friend. This is also sometimes called the beta male, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. This character is driven by loyalty and a need for harmony. He’s the mediator and peacemaker, and he’s the person you can count on, always. In romance novels, he’s usually the heroine’s brother figure or gay best buddy, or he’s the hero’s sidekick. Quite often when I’m reading romance novels, I find myself wanting the heroine to end up with the best friend rather than the hero himself, and if it’s a series where the best friend later ends up being the hero of his own story, he’s somehow managed to switch archetypes between books because, it seems, the Best Friend isn’t seen as being very sexy. One reason I love chick lit books is that the Best Friend is often the guy the heroine ends up with, while the guy who would be the hero in a romance novel is the jerk who breaks her heart. In action-oriented stories, the Best Friend is often the wisecracking sidekick, like Xander on Buffy or Wash on Firefly.

Best Friends are more likely to get to be heroes in comedies. The current best example of a Best Friend I can think of is Jim on The Office. He’s not overly ambitious in his job. It’s just something he does to earn a living. He’s the one who can bring the whole office together in unity and make each person feel special and needed. He may find Dwight and Michael annoying, but when they need him, he’s there for them. He’ll get up and sing karaoke with Michael even when Michael’s an unwelcome guest at his party rather than letting him make a fool of himself, or he’ll show up at Michael’s pathetic attempt at a room party at a convention out of sympathy and loyalty. He woos Pam just by being her friend, being there for her and being supportive.

But I think writers are missing out by not looking at this guy as a potential hero more often in other kinds of stories. After all, where’s the dramatic tension in putting someone who’s up for a fight into an action setting? There’s far more conflict in making a quieter guy stand up and fight. It can be tricky to send the Best Friend into action because, unlike other archetypes like the Chief or the Warrior, he really isn’t out to change the world. He wants to keep the status quo — unless the status quo is wrong or abnormal. And then he will fight to get things back to normal. This guy is intensely loyal to friends and family, and if you put them at risk, he’ll do anything to protect them. Liking peace and harmony doesn’t mean he’s weak or wimpy, which is, sadly, the way the Best Friend is often portrayed. As a romantic partner, he can be intense and passionate behind that friendly surface (Jim in “Casino Night,” need I say more?) even if he’s not overtly sexy in the way we’re used to seeing romantic heroes. Unfortunately, he’s too often the kind of guy who gets the “you’re such a good friend, like a brother” speech.

I see Owen in my books as primarily a Best Friend. He does have some Professor traits, since he does like books and knowledge and gets excited about how things work, but that’s not what really drives him in life. He may look at times like a Lost Soul, since he doesn’t have much connection to who he really is, but he’s actually quite content with his life. He’s never worried much about who his birth parents were, and while he’d like a better relationship with his foster parents, he’s not really driven by a need for their approval. As a Best Friend, he doesn’t like conflict and he doesn’t really like change. He’s drawn into the fight against Idris out of loyalty to his company and the desire to keep the peace. It’s not so much about winning as it is about getting things back to normal. But threaten someone close to him, and that’s when he gets dangerous.

For a good pop culture Best Friend action hero, I think Sam Winchester on Supernatural is one. From a mythic, structural standpoint, he’s essentially the “hero” of the piece, as his joining the mission was the point of change that set off the story, and he’s the one who went through the whole call to adventure/refusal of the call thing. At first, he was dragged unwillingly into the life of a Hunter, then when he was old enough to make his own choices, he walked away to live a normal life. He got his next call to adventure when his brother showed up asking for help tracking their missing father. Out of family loyalty, he helped just that once, but then wanted to return to his normal life as a college student and law school applicant. Only when that life was destroyed did he cross the threshold and take up the mission. He does what he does out of family loyalty — to find his missing father and watch his brother’s back — and to restore what he sees as a skewed status quo so he can maybe have a chance at a normal life in the future. As a Best Friend, he’s often “captain empathy” who can comfort and reassure victims (and get information out of them), but he can fight fiercely to protect his brother or an innocent. And there’s the internal conflict of him hating this life, while his brother, the Swashbuckler, loves the action and risk. I think that different approach between the two brothers is what makes the dynamic of the show interesting. If it were just about a couple of guys who love action and risk running around and looking for ghosts and demons to hunt, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is with one of the guys hating it and wanting something different for himself, even as he realizes it’s necessary. There’s also that element of self-sacrifice that gives another facet to the character — he’s a hero because he feels it’s his duty, not because he wants to be.