Prissy is having none of your shenanigans today, Narrator. None.
Chick lit comes in several flavors, but 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.
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, with such notable examples as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The 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 gets married 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 is hardly 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 (or too much detail in tiny personal foibles) can come across as contrived rather than organic characterization. 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.