Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Best Friend Sneak Attack

Recently on my blog, I wrote about how blond vampires have more fun and wondered why these guys didn't ever pop up as the love interests in YA vampire novels. That got me thinking about a well-known phenomenon in television aimed at teens: The Best Friend Sneak Attack.

The Best Friend Sneak Attack occurs on shows that are built around the relationship of the central destined! soulmate! couple. Buffy and Angel, Dawson and Joey, Veronica and Duncan, Elena and Stefan, I could go on and on. Almost invariably the hero on these shows is a Good Guy, often one who has risen above his surroundings in some way. He's solid and kind and noble.

His best friend is not. He's mischievous, volatile, maybe even dangerous. He's funnier and more troubled, usually at the same time. He's even *gasp* less conventionally attractive!



Things are rolling merrily along with our soulmate couple until everyone begins to notice that Best Friend is waaaay more interesting. His chemistry with Heroine is more exciting, their interactions more dynamic.



Fans soon jump the Soulmate Ship for HMS Best Friend, and the Sneak Attach is complete.

I've always wondered why this is so prevalent on television. Is it just a fluke of actors chemistry that somehow keeps happening over and over? Are best friends more likely to be interesting because there's less narrative weight on their shoulders? I suspect this has something to do with it. When you're the screw-up best friend, you can have more flaws and quirks than a lot of writers would be comfortable giving their leading man.

Or maybe the open-endedness of television as a medium just means that we, as viewers, get bored of the same old couple. And maybe the characters get bored too. This is a much more common trope in teen television than it is in TV aimed at adults, and maybe that's because it mirrors teen life so well. Sixteen-year-olds aren't looking for a husband. Their soulmate (!!) in tenth grade may be a distant memory by eleventh while they've moved on to someone else in their social circle.

This doesn't happen in books, though. Rarely does a book -- or, more comparably, a series -- end with a couple other than the One True Pairing we were led to expect from the get-go. (Ironically, the epic, if ultimately unsuccessful, couple of Nate and Blair from the Gossip Girl books suffered a swift Best Friend Sneak Attack by Chuck when the books were made into a TV series.) Authors don't have to deal with unexpected chemistry between actors, they get to plan their full story arc from the beginning, and there are fewer cooks in the kitchen to interfere with their vision. TV show-runners have to contend with a room full of writers, network execs, and studio execs who all have their own opinions and some degree (sometimes a large one) of creative control.

The rumor has long been that this is what cost Kevin Williamson his job. From the beginning of Dawson's Creek, it was his vision that Dawson and Joey were the OTP, the destined couple. Despite the network, studio, and fans screaming at him to get Joey together with Dawson's far more interesting best friend, Williamson stuck to his vision. No one was happy. Soon Kevin was out, Greg Berlanti was in, and everyone (but Kevin) got what they wanted: Joey and Pacey together.

Interestingly, Kevin Williamson is now working on The Vampire Diaries. And although the fans have been clamouring for nothing but Elena/Damon interaction for months, he insists that Elena and Stefan are soulmates and the raison d'etre of the show. Hmm.



So, what can we take from this as writers?

  • Don't get married to the idea you started with. Characters and relationships may evolve, and you should let them.
  • Try to write your Hero as if he was a Best Friend. Let him have faults and layers, even if they aren't all nice and heroic. Don't worry, readers will still like him, and they'll probably like him better.

And as consumers of teen media?

  • Spike is waaaay more interesting than Angel.
  • Duncan sucks, and Veronica obviously belongs with Logan.
  • Seriously! Elena/Damon! COME ON!

Best Friends forever!



So, it's obvious where my loyalties lie. I'll take snarky over noble almost every time, but I'm willing to be persuaded. What do you think makes a good love interest?

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