No two friendships are alike. They’re as diverse as the individuals involved. The finest friendships are with people we trust explicitly, those we call without hesitation under any circumstances. Other friendships are more tenuous. We share interests and values and enjoy one another’s company, but there’s a limit, as tiny as it might be, to what we tell and ask of them. Relationships are as complicated as we are and, at the far side of our spectrum of friends, where the water is a little muddy, we might find our frenemies.
(4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies.)
There’s no categorical definition of frenemies. Some sources insist they’re the opposite of friends. However, most lean toward characterizing frenemies as people who behave like friends for the most part but are, in other ways, rivals. For whatever reason, it’s in their best interest to appear to be your friend. But they’re contrary and adversarial, even as they smile at you.
In my experience, frenemies are motivated by envy and competitiveness. Friendships sour when one party resents the other’s achievements and/or happiness. Sometimes, where the advantages of maintaining the bond seem to outweigh the shortcomings, you try to bear the tension. However, it’s an exhausting exercise in tightrope walking and most frenemy dynamics are unsustainable. Bitterness, jealousy, and mistrust proliferates like mold on cheese. No matter how close you might once have been, it’s impossible to edit the outcome and the bond breaks.
History is full of frenemies. Among the most prominent is Caesar’s friend and ally, Brutus, who made a 360-degree turn, sided with Cassius, and assassinated the Roman general. In the 1500s, Mary, Queen of Scots, experienced frenemy toxicity (or should that be “knoxicity”?) from the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, John Knox. It suited Knox to assume the role of the queen’s esteemed hunting, riding, archery, and falconry companion. However, he was a misogynist who couldn’t abide the idea of a female sovereign. Knox ultimately celebrated Mary’s downfall and death.
It’s no surprise that frenemies feature in literature. Not only are we familiar with friend-foe relationships in life, which makes them relatable, but they’re also great mediums to advance intrigue and build tension. Among the prevalent traits of frenemies is their ability to wield power using their intimate knowledge of their quarry, as is demonstrated by the rivalry of former besties, Helena and Hermia, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It goes further in other books. Friend turns frenzied frenemy in Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley when Tom Ripley’s fondness for Dickie Greenleaf turns to deadly obsession.
Other authors handle friend-foe relationships with more ambiguity, sometimes compelling readers to ask wonder whether the frenemy dynamic isn’t an ordinary component of some friendships? In her account of Elena and Lila’s relationship in My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante demonstrates how different and ever shifting friendships are and how it might be natural to compare and compete with friends.
However, while “frenemiship” doesn’t always destroy relationships, it typically damages them. In her biographical fiction, Another Woman’s Husband, Gill Paul reimagines the long friendship of Wallis Simpson and Mary Kirk. They’re teenagers when they meet, and Mary is immediately awed by fearless, ambitious, and glamorous Wallis. This characterizes their relationship over several decades during which Mary’s unfailing loyalty is put to the test time and again while Wallis wields the power. Another Woman’s Husband is a compelling study of the frenemy dynamic.
The frenemy dynamic is central to Rebecca F. Kuang’s Yellowface, where Juniper makes no bones about how she feels about Athena. On page two, she writes how “unbearable” she finds the other woman. “It’s hard, after all, to be friends with someone who outshines you at every turn. Probably no one else can stand Athena because they can’t stand constantly failing to measure up to her.” Despite the loathing, Juniper and Athena are “friends” who party and end up at Athena’s apartment, where an inciting incident occurs.
My historical fiction The Woman at the Wheel is based on the life of Bertha Benz and describes the integral role she played in the development of the world’s first commercially viable automobile with her husband, Carl. At a time when people are barely at ease with the steam train, Bertha and Carl’s vision of creating a horseless-carriage is considered outlandish and even blasphemous. They persevere with Bertha not only working alongside Carl but also raising their children. She misses her sisters who leave Germany to live in the USA and is pleased by her new friendship with Ava, which becomes as close as any sisterhood. However, as matters begin looking up for the Benz family, so cracks appear in Bertha and Ava’s relationship. While The Woman at the Wheel is inspired by Bertha’s life, I drew on my own experience to explore what might’ve happened to severe the bond between Bertha and Ava. I’ll leave to readers to decide whether they were ultimately frenemies or not.
Check out Penny Haw’s The Woman at the Wheel here:
(WD uses affiliate links)
One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the companionship we find with stories and characters. Their relationships, emotions, and thoughts show us that others experience the same things we do. Fiction gives us perspective, builds empathy, and helps us understand others better. Because life is complicated and frenemies exist in many guises and circumstances, their inclusion in literature is arguably inevitable, bringing characters and stories to life.
Who are your standout frenemies in history and literature, and what have you learned from them?