On Friendship as a Source of Intrigue in Fiction

By: Alanna Schubach

One of the more intriguing aspects of making a new friend, as a child, was going to their house for the first time. I remember it as a revelatory experience: finally I would see what had been hidden during our interactions in the classroom or schoolyard. The furniture and knickknacks, the sort of food they ate, the set of rules they had to abide by, the tenor of their interactions with parents and siblings, even the particular smell of their house: all helped to fill in blanks about this new person in my life. Now certain behaviors or habits of theirs might click into place, but so too would new questions arise.

New facts and questions are always coming up, it turns out, no matter how long I’ve known a person. I recently learned, for instance, that my husband made stop-motion animation films as a teenager, that one of my best friends is a huge train geek and participates in online transit forums, that another, in her childhood, had an imaginary friend, an elderly man named Sherman.

These discoveries suggest to me that there’s no getting to the bottom of someone—again and again, the people you’re closest to will divulge something surprising. I had this in mind while working on my debut novel, The Nobodies, which centers on a twenty-year friendship between two girl friends. What’s unusual about this friendship is that the friends, Nina and Jess, discover when they’re young that by simply touching their foreheads together, they can swap bodies.

This fantastical premise was one of the engines that powered the story, but their friendship, too, was a major source of intrigue for me as I wrote. By literally being able to walk around in each other’s shoes, both Nina and Jess have a level of access to the other girl’s private life that allows them to investigate, uncover secrets, and make alterations to what they find. On one occasion, for instance, the girls switch, and, in Jess’s body, Nina reads goes to her friend’s home, reads her diary, and learns about her secret yearning to reconnect with her absent father; on another occasion, as Nina, Jess has a heart-to-heart with her friend’s mother, and discovers things about her mom’s private life that Nina herself does not know.

The implications of their power, and their ability to unearth secrets and disrupt each other’s privacy, grow more complicated as Nina and Jess age and pursue romance, professional success, and deeper meaning in their lives. Through their story, I explored questions like: what would you do if you could pursue your curiosity about another person to an extreme (and perhaps unethical) degree? Is it possible–or desirable–to become so close to someone the boundaries between you blur? What are the consequences of trying to possess someone in this way, of attempting to shape them to your liking or take what they have for yourself?

What I found was that even after decades of stepping into each other’s private worlds, Nina and Jess, by the end of the novel, remain capable of shocking one another. Each possesses hidden thoughts and feelings and impulses that neither has been able to unearth for themselves. I found that I believe there are strict limitations on the extent to which it’s possible to know someone—which can be unsettling, but also, I think, is what makes people endlessly fascinating and worth continuing to learn from. And in fiction, this means that it’s the relationships between characters that can power the deepest mysteries.