Two of the MCs in the novel I'm working on are half-sisters, and also great friends. Currently, when referring to them, I alternate between using "sisters" and "friends". A Beta-Reader pointed out that it doesn't seem clear whether they are siblings or friends. I want to make sure that the average reader understands that both are true.

It's not about me trying to tell their friendship instead of showing it, but it's about variety of words.

Note: I'm writing in German and I often have to use the word "sie", which translates to both "she" and "they" and can also be applied to objects. It is used very often by necessity, but I still want to keep the count down.

ADDITIONAL INFO: The fictional girls share a biological father, but not a mother. Girl B was adopted by another man, but she grew up closely to Girl A, and was effectively raised by Father A, too. So for all intents and purposes, they are like full-sisters. Being half-sisters is more a technicality than something to be focused on.

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    But won't "sie" be clearly singular or plural? Z.b "sie ist" ... "sie sind"
    – Mawg
    Jan 8, 2020 at 6:06
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    Al.so, I think that we can automatically assume that siblings are friends unless proven otherwise. I.e no need to stress this; I will assume that they are friends unless you write that they are not.
    – Mawg
    Jan 8, 2020 at 6:08
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    @Mawg (single child here) From what I've seen, I wouldn't assume siblings are friends. Many are friendly to each other but not always. And some alternate between bitter fights and friendship. Or just go for tolerance. I'd much more assume siblings have more of "flatmate" relationship than friendship. It's people who are able to share their life with one another without killing the other.
    – VLAZ
    Jan 8, 2020 at 14:39
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    @VLAZ: Oldest of Three... and yeah, sibling relationships are weird and there are some siblings that for reasons do not even speak to each other anymore, while others tend to "fight" but it's more bravado than actual offense. My brother and I both put each other down constantly, but we're close enough to know the difference between a playful insult and an actual emotional outburst. It also depends on the closeness of age.
    – hszmv
    Jan 8, 2020 at 19:57
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    I would refer to my sister as "my sister" and never my friend unless I am specifically pointing out the relationship is friendly despite apperances to the contrary (My family motto is practically "we pick on you because we love you", and it's really ingrained in my siblings.).
    – hszmv
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:01

5 Answers 5


You’re using unequal terms interchangeably.

Imagine Alice is Bob’s sister and also does his taxes. The former is a personal relationship and the latter is professional; for most people those belong in distinct hierarchical levels, with family at the top.

While referring to Alice, if you kept switching between calling her Bob’s sister or Bob’s accountant, it would seem you were downgrading and upgrading their relationship all the time, making it unclear what they mean to each other. That would be even more problematic if the description were to not match the action. For example, Bob sacrificing his life for his accountant Alice is far less relatable than him sacrificing himself for his sister.

While two people being both siblings and friends is neither confusing nor uncommon, it is common to consider those as different levels of personal relationships. Whatever you feel is the most important (friendship or family) to your story and characters, stick with it once it’s established. If you change the term again, that should reflect a change in the characters’ relationship (i.e. be meaningful to the narrative).

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    I'm not sure the accountant comparison is appropriate. I happen to be a lawyer and when I do work for my family they introduce me as their lawyer in the relevent contexts because at that moment the lawyer relationship predominates. We do switch, but due to context rather than because the relationship is changing. Jan 7, 2020 at 18:26
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    Great point about the sense of upgrading/downgrading the relationship. It's not unheard of for really good friends to refer to one another as their brother/sister, as it is generally viewed as a deeper, more longstanding relationship than just friendship. It's also why a significant other might be miffed if you introduce them as a "friend" - you're glossing over the deeper layers of the relationship, making it seem more simple or less important than it is. Jan 7, 2020 at 21:07
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    @TimothyAWiseman: They introduce you as a lawyer, but do they change the way they think about you? Jan 8, 2020 at 9:21
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    There's a reason why phrases like "band of brothers" or "like a brother/family to me" exist; they highlight that people are not blood related; but act as though they were.
    – UKMonkey
    Jan 8, 2020 at 15:04
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    @TimothyAWiseman but that's a prefect example: when they introduce you as their lawyer, they are indeed putting that relationship (lawyer/client) front and center, so they are "downgrading" the familial relationship and "upgrading" the professional one since the latter is far more relevant in that context.
    – terdon
    Jan 8, 2020 at 17:45

For many people "friendship" is subsumed into being "siblings"

Different people and different cultures will view this differently, but for most people "sibling" and "friend" are are at odds with each other. This doesn't mean siblings cannot be friends or friendly, but that it is a different type of relationship into which friendship is subsumed. My sister and I are now on friendly terms, but I would never introduce her as my friend. Our friendship is subsumed into the fact we are siblings. My acquaintances would find it bizarre if I ever introduced her as "my friend" instead of my sister.

At least in the circles I run in, it is normally assumed that siblings are at least somewhat friendly and that does not need to be specifically called out. You differentiate siblings you are not friendly with by saying something like they are "estranged" or "distant". If you want to emphasize a deep friendship along with the sibling bond you would say that they are "close" or imply it by pointing out how much they do together.

I am obviously partially agreeing with user137369. By switching back and forth, you are conflating different hierarchies of relationship, but I'm going farther. At least in the regions I mostly deal with, friendship is completely subsumed into a sibling relationship and it would seem odd to ever refer to your sibling as a friend except perhaps in the context of also mentioning that they are your sibling and your friend, and even then it would be probably be in an informal and "cutesie" way like "this is my sister and BFF" rather than a bland statement to be taken literally.

I think this is distinct from other types of relationship where one is not subsumed into the other. It so happens I am a lawyer and on occasion I have done work for my family. Under certain circumstances my family members introduce me as their lawyer specifically rather than by the family relationship. This has yet to strike anyone as weird because the lawyer-client relationship is distinct from the familial relationship. The lawyer-client relationship is not subsumed by the familial relationship. But friendship normally is and at least in some regions it would be weird to refer to a family member as a friend without at least also mentioning the family relationship.

How to handle this in writing

Again, this may be cultural or regional, but in writing, I would let the family relationship predominate. I would show that they are also friends by showing it through shared activities and other friendly relationships that you might not have in siblings that have grown apart. If you really want to establish it quickly and directly instead of saying they are also friends I would say something like "they were sisters and very close".

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    Note that the question is about describing the relationship to the reader, not between characters. When your family introduces you in different ways, they’re presumably doing so to different people and keep the same descriptor for each, they don’t switch between calling you a sibling and a lawyer to the same person. When reading a book, the author is talking to a single reader at a time.
    – user137369
    Jan 7, 2020 at 21:47
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    @user137369 But they do, to a limited extent. Once I'm introduced they rarely keep bringing up the relationship unless it is directly relevant. But if they do need to bring up the relationship, but if it comes up again or if the other relationship comes up they will refer to whichever relationship is proper. My wife has more than once "re-introduced" me to someone if they knew me as her husband and the fact I'm her lawyer comes up or vice versa. In the context of narration specifically, I would emphasize whichever relationship was important at the moment. Jan 7, 2020 at 22:24
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    “For many people ‘friendship’ is subsumed into being ‘siblings.’” I’m not sure about the extent of “many,” but I know I personally never assume that relatives have good (or bad) relationships. Jan 8, 2020 at 15:51

The answer you have accepted is incomplete.

Take three people: Dan - Captain of a ship. Adele - Communications officer on Dan's ship, and a very good friend of Dan. Bob - Captain of another ship.

When Dan and Adele interact, you might want to emphasize their friendship and refer to Adele's friend Dan. When they are on the bridge of the ship working, then it would be appropriate to refer to Dan's communications officer Adele. When Dan talks to Bob in their official capacities, it would be appropriate for Dan to refer to Adele as his communications officer. When Dan talks to Bob over a beer in a bar somewhere, he might discuss his friend Adele.

Randomly switching will confuse and irritate your readers. Switching to appropriate words in different contexts can help your reader understand the relationships.

In your example, you would refer to them as siblings when they interact with other family members. When outsiders refer to them, then those siblings could be discussed as though they are friends - that underscores that the outsiders know the two siblings, but not well enough to know that they are siblings.

  • You make a fair point, but my concern was how to refer to the characters when writing descriptively. When a third party talks about their father, the girls will be daughters. When a third talks about their work and accomplishments, the girls will be workmates. But when only describing situations, I will refer to them in the fixed way I see fit, as of @user137369's answer. Thank you for your additional input, though. Jan 7, 2020 at 15:30
  • Dan and Adele of David Drake's RCN series (Republic of Cinnabar Navy). Excellent example of multiple different relationships between the same characters and the different roles they take in various situations. David Drake captures the multiple roles and relationships well in RCN but also in Lord of the Isles Jan 8, 2020 at 13:39
  • @wolfsshield: Yeah. Strictly speaking, Daniel and Adele.
    – JRE
    Jan 8, 2020 at 14:02

Two of the MCs in the novel I'm working on are half-sisters, and also great friends.

One is an objective fact, the other is an interpretation of their relationship. As an omniscient narrator, you should stick to the former and let the characters and their actions convince the reader of the latter.

In general, if you introduce someone as your friend, people are going to assume you're acquainted but not related or romantically involved. Calling your wife or sister a friend is more than just defining your relationship in absolute terms - it's making a statement on it and letting the other person know your thoughts on it. That's not the job of the narrator, that's the job of the characters.


Family relationship takes precedence.

To emphasise that they get along well, mention early on that they are 'close'. That will set the expectation of their relationship in future and 'friendship' need never be specifically mentioned.

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