My daughter just finished first grade—a year of filled with holiday parties, cutesy art projects, and learning to read. It would’ve been altogether wonderful if it wasn’t for the mean girl. Yes, the 6-year-old mean girl. It wasn’t anything major, just your typical using-guilt-to-manipulate, ruling-the-first-grade-roost-with-a-pink-clad-fist kind of thing. It ended up being a great learning experience for my daughter, as we were able to teach her some valuable life lessons and give her the tools necessary for dealing with not-nice people. But honestly, in the beginning, I was totally at a loss.
Growing up, I didn’t understand girls; girl relationships were complicated with way too much subtext for me to figure out. So I hung out with boys. Boys were straightforward. I didn’t have to play games or curry favor in order to be friends with them. But my daughter’s a social BEAST. She wants to be friends with everyone and play with everyone and my advice to avoid the little Napoleon just didn’t fly with her. Then one of my friends told me about this book she had read. So I checked out Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. And oh boy did I get an education.
This book, to put it simply, is AWESOME. Written by a former educator who has spent most of her life studying teens and their group dynamics, it pulls back the curtain to reveal the intricacies of the typical girl clique: the players and their roles, currency within the group, what motivates them, and a ton of other stuff. This book has been incredibly useful because it’s TRUE; as I’ve looked back over my experiences with other girls, I’ve seen it played out at all different ages and in different groups. When I shared what I’d learned with my neighbor, she said that she’s unfortunately seeing this among the women at the nursing home when she goes to visit her 80-year-old grandmother.
So as the mother of even a six-year-old girl, I’ve found this information to be really helpful. As someone who would like to relentlessly stamp out bullying, it’s invaluable. But I’m blogging about it today because of its practical use for writers—because if you’re writing about girls (or even women), the information can come in really handy.
As I say in most of my webinars and workshops, one of our most important jobs as authors is to make readers care about our characters. And one way to do that is to write characters who are believable. If your writing involves girls and the popular girl clique, it’s important to understand the way these groups typically operate, so you can write their dynamics in a way that rings true with readers.
Now, I’m just getting started and I know that some of you are already bristling, so please allow me to disclaim. The information from Wiseman’s book is applied mostly to the popular girl clique, not to every group of girls; girl groups do exist that are healthy and positive. Dynamics within these popular cliques are often (but not always) similar. While I’ll be sharing these commonalities, I understand that every human being is intrinsically different and not all girls fit this mold. But by understanding how the dynamics typically work, we will hopefully be able to 1) write girl groups realistically, according to the way they tend to exist, or 2) turn the cliché on its ear by using the information to write girls in a new and fresh way.
Enough posturing ;). Let’s get to it…
According to Wiseman, most girl cliques have an established social structure, with each person playing a clearly-defined position. Today I’d like to focus on those roles within the popular girl group, and what they typically look like.
The Queen Bee
- Reigns through a combination of charisma, force, money, looks, and social intelligence
- Strengthens her power and influence by weakening girls’ relationships with each other
- Is usually at the center of the group
- Transfers affections from one girl to another as she deems strategically appropriate
- Seeks revenge when someone has “wronged” her
- Uses subversive means to maintain control or subdue a perceived threat
- Is always in control
- Can manipulate girls, boys, and even adults to get them to do what she wants
- Gains power by being in close proximity to the Queen Bee
- Is closest to the Queen Bee
- Unquestioningly backs the Queen Bee
- Works with the Queen Bee to intimidate and bully other girls to get them back in line
- Becomes jealous if the Queen Bee warms to other girls
- Often loses her sense of identity as she adopts the Queen Bee’s attitudes, likes, and dislikes as her own
- Gains power by being the one who always knows what’s going on
- Is the confidant of the group; can easily get information out of other girls
- Uses learned information strategically against other girls
- Causes conflict through the sharing of information
- Gains power out of her ability to “save” relationships and resolve conflict
- Delivers information about others, but does so out of a desire to act as mediator
- Appears to be a peacemaker, as she’s always trying to fix people’s problems
- Loves to create drama
- Is always involving herself in other people’s conflicts
- Gains power by feeling that she belongs in the group
- Will do anything to keep her spot in the group
- Imitates the behavior of the others in the group
- Is always currying favor from those in a position of power
- Has no sense of personal identity as she takes on the likes, dislikes, and opinions of the powerful girls in the group
The Torn Bystander
- Gains power through her silence, which she utilizes so she can stay in the group
- Often disagrees with how the group treats people but is afraid to act on those beliefs
- Rationalizes her decisions to not oppose the group
- Often has to choose between friends in the group
- Tries to accommodate everyone
- Toes the line when she’s with the powerful girls but is often a truer version of herself when she’s not with them
- Has no power within the group
- Is at the bottom of the pecking order within the group
- Is often made fun of or humiliated by the other girls
- Doesn’t truly feel part of the group
- Will change herself in an effort to fit in
- Gains power by knowing she’s liked for who she is as a person rather than who she is within the group
- Belongs to different groups and can move freely between them
- Is able to take criticism
- Doesn’t view or treat people as commodities in the social game
- Stands up to the Queen Bee when she feels it’s necessary
- Treats people with dignity and respect
So there you have it. In most popular girl cliques, these are the players. Depending on the size of the group, some of these can be missing, or numerous roles may be combined and taken on by one member. What’s interesting is that while most parents would say that their daughter is The Champion of her group, most parents would be fooling themselves. But the fact is that every girl can have champion moments; it’s these moments of growth that give girls the strength and confidence to rise above their roles, move out of these relationships—which are sometimes abusive—and become better versions of themselves. In books, it’s these champion moments that provide important crossroads scenarios that can propel our heroes along their character arcs and help them become happier and healthier characters.
So when you’re writing a story where your main character is part of a group like this, consider this information and ask yourself the following questions:
- Which role does my hero play?
- Is she satisfied or conflicted about the role she plays?
- At the end of the story, will she be in the same position?
- At the end of the story, will she be in the same group?
- What will she gain by changing her role?
- What will she lose by staying the same?
- Who is speaking truth into her life? Who is challenging her?
- What circumstance would make her rise above her role?
Here are some questions to consider if you’re looking to switch things up:
- How can I make my girl group different?
- How does the dynamic change if I remove one or more of the players?
- What new roles can I add?
- Does any one character play more than one role?
- What other ways can a girl gain power within the group? What role might emerge out of a desire to gain power in that way?
- What character could I add that would throw the group into disarray?
- If the Queen Bee abruptly disappeared, what would happen to the group? Would it fall apart? Would someone new rise to take her place? Would that person come from within or outside of the group?
I hope I’ve given you some helpful information today, or at least some food for thought—either for a writing project or your own personal introspection. If you’re interested in learning more about girl dynamics, do check out Queen Bees and Wannabes. And because I’m just figuring all of this girl stuff out, I’d love to hear any comments, opinions, or girl-group stories that you’d be willing to share.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.