Old Friends or New

February 1, 2010 at 5:33 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , )

As many protagonists run through the drama of whatever plot they are trapped in they get help from friends. Mostly because they need it and without those friends the story would come to a screeching halt as the protagonist curls up into a little ball on the floor and cries for three chapters.

I was wondering the other day whether it was more interesting when the protagonist meets new people and becomes friends with them or when the protagonist hooks up with an old friend who helps them.

New friends can certainly be interesting. We get to know this new character with our protagonist and it makes sense when the protagonist asks them questions about them and so we get to find out all sorts of interesting things about the character. We also don’t know if this character is going to betray the protagonist later because they’ve only just met and the protagonist doesn’t know whether they are being lied to or not, they have no earlier encounters to judge them by.

However, that is also the downfall of new friends. There is no natural rapport between the protagonist and this new person and you have to get them to know each other fast if you want to move the story forward. If the protagonist doesn’t ask them certain questions it leaves the reader wondering why not. If you ran into someone in a dungeon you would ask them why they were there even if they were helping you. If that person avoided the question you should certainly have some doubts about them. The other problem with introducing new friends is that some times it just feels too convenient. Oh, the protagonist got themselves caught in a trap. Along comes a helpful person who just wants to see them get on their way. Oh, and they’ll travel with the protagonist because they don’t have any kind of life of their own that is being interrupted by this.

So we look at old friends. Someone the protagonist has known forever. They have a reason to stand by the protagonist and help them out. They have a natural rapport with the protagonist and they can be helpful in revealing past exploits that we may not have otherwise found out about. Old friends can help fill in back story we may not be able to include otherwise and they allow us to see a fuller picture of the protagonist.

Yet old friends come with baggage and issues and they may distract from where you want to the story to go. They may not have the skills needed to actually help the protagonist out. The protagonist may be somewhere they’ve never gone before and running into someone they know would be slightly suspicious. Plus, it is harder to naturally slip in facts about the old friend because the protagonist would feel the need to ask them what they’ve been up to if they spoke to them the day before.

Which do you prefer? Introducing someone new to your protagonist or drawing someone from their past to help them out?



  1. Jodi Cleghorn said,

    Hmmm – something really interesting to consider (I’ve never thought of it that way.)

    My novella in progress has my protag befriened by a new character. And as you point out, I’m not sure yet if he’s going to betray her – it certainly looks as though he’s been set up to betray her – but there is a syngery between the two of them so anything is possible.

    I’m going to be mindful of this when I’m reading now, to see how others do it.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It would be interesting to make a note of how this is dealt with in other books. I think a lot of the epics I’ve read have a continuous flow of new people and there is a lot of backstory being filled in and forging of new bonds but in such a long story it doesn’t really feel like there is a lot.

      • Jodi Cleghorn said,

        After I left my comment, pondered how it works in short fiction – because while there might be an ‘old friend’ (to the character) they all tend to be new characters given the space.

  2. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Good points here. I can see how both would be useful with plotting.

    I’ve tweeted this post. 🙂

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. AlexJ said,

    My main characters makes almost all new friends. Mostly because he really didn’t have any old friends, but ultimately none follow him on his journey. I like introducing new people. Maybe for male characters it’s easier, as in real life we can fall into a pattern rather easily.

  4. Carol Kilgore said,

    Good question. In the manuscript I’m querying, my protagonist has one old friend. The rest are new. In manuscripts prior to that one, there’s also been a mix of old and new. In my WIP, everyone is new because the protagonist is visiting the town where her uncle was killed. Interesting.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      There are a lot of stories like that where the protagonist is the new person in town or wherever they may be and so they have to get to know everyone from the ground up.

  5. barbaraannwright said,

    I like introducing new friends during tense situations. That way, there isn’t much time for questions, and I feel like I can introduce new friend back story in small snippets as needed.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      But surely after the immediate crisis is over the protagonist is going to ask them questions?

      • barbaraannwright said,

        Of course. And they can answer as needed, but if there’s still tension, I don’t thing the protag would be asking that many questions. It could make for some tension between characters too if the protag is asking the guy she met in the dungeon, “What are you doing here?” and the guy doesn’t really want to tell and says, “Shouldn’t we focus on getting out before we tell stories?” There would be some nice trust issues, and the protag wouldn’t know whether she could turn her back on the guy until the guy had proved himself.

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        It definitely could lead to some interesting situations.

  6. Jemi Fraser said,

    Good question!

    In my current ms, there are very few old friends – a few disasters and moves leave my 2 mcs alone and only able to rely on each other. And they’ve just met. Keeps it interesting 🙂

  7. Corra McFeydon said,

    I prefer a new friend. But couldn’t the protanew friend and an old friend?


    from the desk of a writer

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      A couple of both could work but then you have a lot of relationship links to work out as the old friends and new friends face off.

  8. Corra McFeydon said,

    couldn’t the protanew = couldn’t the protagonist have a new

    (Sorry! This always happens on your blog!!)

  9. Tooty Nolan said,

    It’s about 50/50 for me. But when my character – Horatio Horseblanket – made a two page ‘cameo’ in Fanfare for the Common Hamster I was overjoyed at writing him again. So much so that I brought him back as a link between tales in The Psychic Historian. so I guess it depends on how much the writer likes the old friend.

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