On The Outside: My Characters

The recent debacle over Entanglements has helped me realize that I don’t know how to write normal healthy people. Seriously. I mean, while I myself may now be kind of a recovered whatever-I-was and feel somewhat normal and healthy, I will probably never have the first clue of the perspective of someone who was raised by a normal healthy family. That’s not to condemn my own family; we did the best we can and I love my parents. It’s just difficult for me to understand and relate to someone who had a completely healthy upbringing.

That’s where I run into this overwhelming problem with getting bored and having trouble really getting hold of the emotions of somewhat healthy characters. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to write people who have had similar experiences as me, who haven’t walked the “conventional” life, and came from a slightly less advantaged background. They may have worked their way up or gotten a lucky break, but they still have that in common.

Despite coming from an upper middle class life, Mattie from Corridors of the Dead had an extremely dysfunctional family and on top of that is a lesbian, so her outsider status was pretty much cemented from an early age. The fact that she embraced an outsider subculture was just a natural outgrowth of who she was, and the same applies to the new narrator of Entanglements, growing up as an impoverished black woman who aspires to be a songwriter in rural Texas. I think that’s part of why she became so interesting and why she spoke so much in my head as opposed to the other main character, Carla, who had somewhat cold parents but a fairly stable life as a child.

I think outsiders have an especially strong and vivid history in literature and film. Luke Skywaker is a hick farm boy who had the most dysfunctional possible parents and guardians. Jack Kerouac and the Beat movement were all about looking at society from the outside in. I think at their cores fantasy and sci-fi are all about being outside of consensus reality. That’s kind of the point of the genres and, to me, one of the problems of presenting a “normal”, white-bread character in a crazy environment is that character might have a lot of trouble adjusting to that altered reality, whereas someone who came from a more unstable background is used to having things change at a rapid pace and trying to stay ahead just to survive.

For me, it’s more compelling to take someone who hasn’t had all the advantages and has had to learn to survive on their own wits, not to mention that a lot of innovative approaches have come from people who have stood on the outside. Look at the stereotype of the once-nerd who becomes a titan of software development; it’s a stereotype for a reason – because it happened to so many.

I’m not downing modern mainstream society. While it has its flaws (as does everything), there are a lot of advantages to it; one of its prime advantages is the comfort to be taken from its predictability, as well as its definition of roles for its members. What I write is all about removing that comfort and that role definition, about rewriting who people think they are. That’s one of my primary interests, and it’s a lot harder to do with someone who’s heavily steeped in the modern mainstream – they can just go catatonic, like Carla was. Add to that the fact that I just don’t know how to get inside their heads, and the answer becomes clear.

In retrospect you know it’s kind of always been my thing. Take video games, for instance. Most video game heroes are white males, in order to, I suppose, apply to the broadest demographic, but I’m bored of it, and it says nothing to me despite the fact that I am a white male. I just can’t identify, but give me a chance to create an African-American female and put her in the lead? Now you’re talking about something interesting. It’s been that way forever for me, so I need to embrace this fact about myself, that I want to see people who aren’t your “traditional” heroes and protagonists doing the things that those characters would do. It just makes for fresher storytelling.

So I solemnly swear to apply this approach to all of my stories from now on. All of my narrators, at the very least, will have some sort of outsider status, something that sets them apart from normal society, even while retaining their essential humanity. That’s not a challenge – that’s just plain fun.

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  1. I enjoy a hero outside the norm. I think we all write from our perspectives. There’s no escaping it. Although, I try hard to escape my own. I’ve been putting diversity into my stories, just because I get tired of blonde-haired, blue-eyed heroines.

  2. Normal people are boring. I’m not even sure they exist. I’m not being metaphorical. Everyone has some kind of skeleton in their closet.

    Embracing the outsider as your protagonist gives you built in conflict and an underdog for the reader to cheer for. In some kinds of fiction (YA, for example), the outsider protagonist is almost essential.

    If I chose to use a “normal” protagonist, at least in a novel-length work, it would only be so I could tear her life down and make her an outsider. 🙂

    • True, I mean, by that definition, there is no real “normal” person. I was working with a definition of someone who grew up with a relatively healthy family and learned self-confidence and self-esteem at a fairly young age within the structure of that family. Those people, while they may have their own issues as well, definitely exist. I know a few. Perhaps “from a healthy background” is a better definition.

      Great point on giving you the chance to build in conflict and a pre-set underdog. Maybe that’s what I value the most. Going to give that some thought.

  3. Would you want to write a normal, healthy character? Where is the conflict in such a person? What IS a normal, healthy person anyway? Where would even begin to define it?

    My protagonist was a child slave and sexually abused. I have no personal experience with that, but it’s where a lot of the conflict in her character comes from. Normal and healthy? She doesn’t even know what that means.

    You’re probably on a better bet if you are writing characters who are a bit screwy. It makes them interesting.

    • See my reply to Marie – I think that’s a fairly standard definition for a healthy background, at least from a psychology standpoint (years of therapy leaking out here). GREAT point on how some characters can’t even see or define what that might mean, though, and how that drastically alters their emotional and even intellectual landscape, to the point of where they don’t know what healthy even looks like. That’s definitely built-in drama.

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