So far, my character guides (see Augustine, George, Fea) have focussed on some of the more dramatic and powerful characters in the series. But today, I’m bringing the human element back with a quick run-through the principles and inspirations behind a selection of Harriet’s closest friends.
One of the first lines in Oxford Blood is: “She’d applied to Oxford University not only for the intellectual challenge and the doors it could eventually open, but also in the hope of meeting the man of her overheated teenage dreams.”
Like so much in the series (and the first book in particular) this was based on my own experiences. Sitting at home in the Summer of 05 desperately waiting for October and the first day of term, I did allow my mind to wander more than once to the charming, handsome men who were inevitably lying in wait at Oxford, just waiting to seduce or be seduced by a nice northern girl.
What I don’t remember consciously thinking about was the friends I’d make – all those guys and girls who wouldn’t capture my heart but would capture my imagination. But in reality, despite the fact that I did meet the man of my teenage dreams (and married him), one of the best things about Oxford was the friends I made. Nothing bonds people like living and working together under situations of extreme academic pressure and even more extreme beauty, and the majority of my close friends today are ones I met at university. Despite the fact that there’s no mention of a pre-Oxford Harriet daydreaming about her potential pals, based on the “five years later” epilogue to Ivory Terrors, I suspect she’d say the same thing.
When I was plotting Oxford Blood, however, I have to admit that I sketched out the heroine and the love interests and the villains long before I started thinking properly about the friends. When I think of the books I love, it tends to be these sorts of characters that jump to mind. But when I think about it more closely, I’d say that most of the books and films I really love have a strong supporting cast too. The best example of a well-developed friendship group in a paranormal context has to be Buffy, and I think it sums up everything that’s wrong with Twilight that the heroine seems to abandon her already fairly tenuous friendships the moment she gets a nice vampire boyfriend, and never bothers to discuss the situations she finds herself in with them.
Josh grew out of a dual frustration. The fact that so many paranormal heroines seem utterly irresistible to every man, and the fact that it seems surprisingly rare in fiction for women to have platonic, straight male friends. People talk of the Bechdel test – does a book or film contain a scene where two named women talk to each other about something other than a man. But actually, particularly in the romance genre, I suspect that books where a man and a woman talk to each other with no sexual tension or romantic undercurrent are even rarer.
I play with this in the scene in OB where Harriet accuses Josh of having a crush on her and is immediately (and honestly) corrected:
“Come on, one more dance. I hardly see you nowadays.”
Harriet frowned. “Josh, no. We’re having fun. I liked dancing with you, but I can’t cope with the way you’ve got to either hit on me or cause a scene every time we spend time together.”
Josh turned red. “Bloody hell Harriet, I think all the attention you’ve been getting has gone to your head. You don’t have to worry. I don’t fancy you, okay.”
Harriet took a step back. “But you’re always trying to spend time with me alone. And you’re so hostile towards Tom and so ridiculously over-protective of me.”
“It’s called being a good friend,” Josh said, shaking his head. “I’m worried about those posh bastards you insist on hanging around with, and maybe it does make me a bit over-protective, but you’re just not my type. If you really want to know, there’s someone else I’ve got my eye on.”
Later, in Ivory Terrors, Harriet refers to Josh as, “her gay best friend who just happens to be attracted to women.”
I have loads of male friends, and I find it odd, in fiction and reality, when people don’t. Josh is based heavily around a strange combination of three of the ones I was closest to at Oxford, (although his physical description is actually based on a fourth person, who was more of an acquaintance). Several of his scenes – from the one in which he comes round to check that his piano-playing wasn’t disturbing Harriet only to be offended when she claims to have found it soothing, to the one where he lectures her on the evils of “posh boys” – are almost word for word based on real Oxford conversations with one inspiration or the other that I noted down in my diary at the time.
The other important aspect of Josh is his (relative) ordinariness, compared to the members of the Cavaliers. Mostly, readers see things through Harriet’s eyes, and she’s utterly fascinated with the Society and more than a little in love with at least two of the Members. She’s by no means utterly blinded to the problems with the society, buts she has a tendency to excuse their worst excesses and glorify some of their more morally ambiguous ones. Sometimes, Josh goes too far in the opposite direction, but he at least provides a counter-balance to this – long before he knows the Cavaliers are vampires or murderers, he hates them on principle for their clothes, their accent and their attitude to life. I think my most liked quotation on Goodreads is Josh’s response to Harriet, after that crazy night when she’s gone to the Cavaliers Winter Party with George, found out they are all vampires, and then slept with Tom for the first time. Harriet (and I’d hope the reader) is in a frenzy of lust and excitement and drama, and it’s easy for her and us to forget about the problems with the society. At least until Josh brings everything back down to earth: “So, did you spend the night with the blond rich wanker or the dark haired posh twat?” That one’s not an exact quote from any of my male friends, but given the right circumstances, I can just about imagine it being.
Caroline and Olamide
Harriet’s other two closest friends can’t really be discussed in isolation from each other. They were deliberately written to reflect the two sides of friendship – the friend that wants to party and the friend that wants to talk (or the fun one and the sympathetic one) – and the two sides of Oxford: the work and the play.
Harriet’s been torn between two women her whole life – between the dangerous glamour of the mother who abandoned her and the loving dullness of the aunt who brought her up. Caroline and Ola continue this dynamic, though unlike the older generation, these two very different girls end up getting on just as well with each other as with Harriet, despite the way that on almost every issues – from class to sociability to glamour to work ethic – she sits somewhere between the two of them.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Josh was so heavily compiled from various friends, the two female friends are some of the characters that owe the least to anyone I know in real life. I did have two quite different best female friends at university, but I didn’t consciously bring any of their traits to bear on Ola and Caroline. They were much more “types” – but I wanted to show that the rich, hot girl can be a good friend not just a bitch and a rival, and that the dowdy, quiet girl can both be fun and have her own life.
As the first book progress – and even more so as the series goes on – the friendships evolve and the two girls develop. Clearly, Harriet is my main protagonist, but to some degree, I wanted the books to be the story of a group of friends and the effect that both Oxford and the Cavaliers have on them. I didn’t want a situation where the main character was off growing and having adventures, while her friends stay frozen in a fixed situation and personality. One of my favourite scenes in the series (even if it killed me to write it – however much I mock her and some of her attitudes, I’m basically always rooting for Harriet!) is the one where Caroline sleeps with George and Harriet pretty much goes into shock at the idea that anyone could interfere in her special little love triangle. If Josh aims to remind the reader that the Cavaliers are problematic, Caroline and Ola aim to remind us that Harriet isn’t actually at the centre of the universe. And the companion piece to Josh’s quote above is Caroline’s, “When you say he’s your soulmate, I think what you actually mean is that he’s utterly gorgeous and you’d really like to get him naked. Let’s not get too melodramatic here.”
I don’t want to linger too long on Katie, as there’s not that much to say. Fundamentally, if Caroline was intended to show that the heroine can become genuine friends with the sort of rich, glamorous female characters who so often belittle them in books like this, Katie twisted this in a slightly more complex way. She can be a bit arrogant and bitchy and competitive, but she’s basically a decent person. But we’re mostly seeing her through Harriet’s eyes – and Harriet is seeing her as a rival for Tom’s affections and mistaking her self-confidence for snobbery and disdain. As a result, for most of Oxford Blood, she’s portrayed as a mean girl, whereas in reality, Harriet is pretty much in the wrong on all counts, from dismissing her warnings about George as being based on jealousy, to going home with Tom when he’d taken Katie as his date for the Winter Party. I genuinely like the way they start to become friends in Book Two, and how in Three, we finally get a chapter or two from Katie’s perfectly pleasant POV.