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Chick Lit: Delight in Glorious Girl Power

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Average Everygirl #60, Average Genres: Everygirl Chick Lit | Panel 1: Average, Special, MarySue, and Prissy stand in a row. The Narrator says, "When four friends from four walks of life…" Average says, "I see one friend." Special smiles at her, MarySue sparkles toward the reader, and Prissy, hands on hips and a scowl on her face, says, "Why am I even here?" | Panel 2: The Narrator continues, "…come together for one fun-filled summer…" Average suggests, "…they spend it working?" Special says, "…reading?" MarySue says, "…sparkling?" Prissy gestures to the other three and cries, "Fun?! With these losers?!" | Panel 3: The Narrator, still oblivious, goes on, saying, "…will their friendship survive the unexpected challenges…" Average says, "Only if it existed beforehand," and Prissy adds, "Which it didn't." | Panel 4: The Narrator concludes, "…or will they forever go their separate ways?" Average says to the others, "I'm gonna vote for separate ways." Special says, "Second." MarySue, frowning, says, "Aww, Sad." Prissy says, Motion carries. Meeting adjourned."
Prissy is having none of your shenanigans today, Narrator. None.

Chick lit comes in several flavors. One of the tried-and-true staples of this genre is the ensemble cast of Interesting People. They are Just Like You™, only they’re out having grand adventures in the world while you’re sitting upside-down on your couch reading. (A minor difference.)

But you too can have grand adventures if you can collect at least three friends to go with you!

Of course, it can’t be just any three friends. There are categories.

Chick Lit Ensembles

We have the Ringleader, the Sober One, the Free-Spirit/Artist, and the Outlier. Add a fifth body, and the Free-Spirit/Artist can split into two separate personifications. Sometimes the Ringleader doubles as one of the others, and an alternate category enters the fray. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes.

(Never mind that using templates like this will suck out all the real variety from a story and replace it with manufactured schlock.)

The Friendly Foursome appears across the chick lit spectrum. Notable examples include Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya SisterhoodThe Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and pretty much any other book with the word “sisterhood” in its title.

(I joke, I joke. Mostly.)

Some examples from my sordid reading past:

  • The Baby-Sitters Club: This series starts with Ringleader Kristy and her friends Mary Anne (Sober), Claudia (Free-Spirit/Artist), and Stacey (Outlier, because she’s new to the neighborhood and has secret diabetes!) playing the core Friendly Foursome. As the books progress and more characters enter the fray, the categories reduplicate: Dawn is a Free Spirit, Mallory is a Ringleader Jr., Jessi is an Outlier, and so forth. And why I can remember any of this when it’s been a quarter of a century since I picked up one of these books is beyond me.
  • Anne of Green Gables: Diana Barry, Ruby Gillis, and Jane Andrews fill out Ringleader Anne Shirley’s foursome. Diana, oddly enough, is the Outlier of the group, because she marries young while the others go off into the world for further education/life experiences. Ruby is the Free Spirit (as attested by her dramatic consumptive death), which leaves Jane as the Sober One.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Stay with me here. Elizabeth takes the Ringleader position. Jane is the Sober One, Mary is the Outlier, and Kitty and Lydia share the Free-Spirit/Artist designation, though Kitty has more sense once she’s away from her younger sister’s influence. Even though this novel hardly qualifies as an “ensemble cast” (because Elizabeth is clearly the focal character), the pattern emerges.
  • The “Teen Girl Squad” from Homestar Runner: Not a book, but I couldn’t leave it out. This cartoon-within-a-cartoon is a parody of the Friendly Foursome. Cheerleader takes the Ringleader position, So-and-So is the Sober One (because she’s obsessed with studying, not because she’s actually sober), What’s-her-Face is the Free Spirit, and The Ugly One is the Outlier, and all to random comedic effect.

Ensemble casts only work when each character is separate and distinct from everyone else. At the same time, too many differences can come across as contrived rather than organic characterization. So, too, with too much detail in tiny personal foibles. The author using this formula, then, must walk that fine line between clever and cliché.

But when it’s done right, it’s ever so much fun.