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07 February 2007 @ 08:56 pm
Normal characters  
There's been some discussion online of the problems of glorifying characters who live on the fringes in genre fiction, to the exclusion of other parts of the population. While I actually mostly like the specific books being discussed (those I've read, at least), I did find myself thinking about one of my own writerly pet peeves: the marginalizing or punishing of "normal" characters.

This is probably a pet peeve because I used to be guilty of it myself. In much of my early writing, having a character be popular and concerned with boys and makeup (one of the YA default versions of "normal") was a shorthand way in my work of indicating that character was in some way awful, not to be liked or trusted. At some point, though, I realized that not only was this hugely cliched, it was also not an accurate reflection of how the larger world works.

I'm not sure how exactly I realized this, though I can think of several influences. One was writing a short story called "Alien Promises," in which two very different girls discover they're both waiting for the aliens to come and take them away. While one of those girls is the sort of reading-obsessed loner you'd expect to be waiting for aliens, the other turns out to be a more normal sort of kid. Except that she never thought of herself as normal; she had her own story, which made her as unique in her mind as the bookish kid was in hers.

Another, earlier influence: there was a kid I knew in college, who was likeable enough, but who also seemed terribly normal to me. He clearly wasn't one of "my" people--not a bit of bookishness or fannishness about him. Yet one day he surprised me; he started telling me about this story he'd been writing. It was a boring story, it wasn't my sort of story, but that didn't impress me so much as realizing that he told himself stories just like I did. And that those stories clearly meant as much to him as mine did to me. I used to think only a select few quirky people actually had stories inside them. But listening to this guy, I began to understand that in fact I had no idea who had stories or art inside them and who didn't; that wasn't something you could tell just by looking at a person and their life, just by looking at the surface details.

And then there was this fantasy novel that I read, also in college, that I might otherwise have liked, except for this: everyone gave the one normal character in the book's group of friends a hard time--even though she was perfectly nice, perfectly kind--for no other reason than that she was normal. She was scorned for surface things, like being fond of tennis, or not having read the right books. And the worst part was, she kept hanging around with the people who scorned her, even though she clearly deserved better, because somehow hanging out with the cool quirky artsy folks was better than finding her own tribe, a place where she might have actually fit. Even though I had read the right books (and was not fond of tennis), the injustice of it angered me.

I understand the appeal of wanting to believe that those of us who are outsiders, or somehow on the fringes, will one day be rewarded; I spent enough of my own childhood and adolescence waiting for that to happen. But if all we do once we find our tribe is exclude and scorn those outside of it in turn, then what have we learned? What was the point of our spending all those years struggling with being outsiders in the first place?

Anyway, the point is--for me at least--that everyone has their own story, and that even people who seem normal and mundane mostly believe themselves worthy of magic, in one way or another. And if a story limits magic--or any other marker of specialness--to only a certain group of people, there ought to at least be some good reason for it.
 
 
 
svetaketusvetaketu on February 8th, 2007 04:50 am (UTC)
Everyone is capable of magic. But not everyone knows that, and stories that limit that are terrifying. But what happens when you block a magical spell from someone who thought they could cast? What if he gave you his most potent edge and you looked at that and giggled. Man offers a cigar and you laugh, his ego usually deflates. It's not too freudian, it's just how everybody is. Nobody likes to bear their lives and get a chuckle. A tear maybe, a sacrifice, maybe even a peck on the cheek, but a chuckle kills something in a man, and the only way to revive it is to kill something in turn. And when a man is deflated he thinks hard, and if he thinks hard enough he realizes that the only people he loves are the ones who challenge him, but he finds it unforgivable to be challenged because he never challenged you. He wanted your acceptance, when you failed him maybe he thought there was no place left to go, nothing to lose, nothing to do and nothing to have. Perhaps when a man is marginalized for long enough (no matter how trivial his ideas) he gets angry, and the anger runs up his sleeves and into his heart and starts turning it black and a good man sees that and cries out into bottles of whisky and stands straight up and lets nobody see his mourning face. Sometimes there are things that (at least to some people) are too kind or loving to marginalize and when one violates them one has taken everything the person has. A man with nothing to lose is either a saint or a killer.

Or maybe he's both.

But maybe he's out for blood because he can taste it every night rising quick on his tongue, eating the back of his eyes and turning him blind to the other things he loves. And a man can fight only so much, and whiskey can do only so much to mend a heart and sometimes a man gets so mad he claws and scrapes at what he loves most because he believes

nothing could really ever love him as he is.

And when a man learns nothing ever happened. That he cast and was heard and abandoned the pain seems fruitless and unenviable and even three days can drag out endlessly to that man who staggers around with brown paper bags trying to desperately to be kind and finding arms everywhere that aren't the ones he lost. So what does he do? He hides in them, lets them hold and caress them, and he clamps down on the bottle and waits and waits and waits for the pain to subside.

And he decides "I'll never do that again, I'll never make the mistake of thinking I could be loved."

And when someone says "Just foolin. I love ya." The man's tears well up so hard and the blackness in his heart fights to take over and kill that thing and he bites down on the whiskey and acts tough and throws up because its all he knows how to do when he sees little china dolls

little china dolls with white skin and blue eyes that have pursued him everywhere like firebrands. A man gets so bitter he doesn't want to believe love is possible. He gets to used to a world without any of it, too strong to be that weak ever again.

But if he sees through it how could you not give him a hand?
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)
It's funny -- I think everyone responds differently to being laughed at. Some are crushed, some are angry and bitter, some manage to ignore it ... a few manage to laugh back and go on with what they're doing, unflustered. Working on that last one, myself. Don't have it down yet. Maybe that's why laughter is my word for 2007.

Then there's always removing oneself from those who laugh, too. Finding one's own tribe. That can have power, too.
Jamjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:03 am (UTC)
Deep down inside and in spite plenty of evidence to the contrary, including the example of my own husband, deep down I suspect everyone I meet of having clandestine spiral ring notebooks hidden under their beds, full of crappy prose.

It's kind of funny that I have such a hard time with the idea that not everyone does have made-up stories inside them, now that I'm an adult; when I was a child, I did think it was something rather special and unique to me. I knew that people like C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle had to have them, but I didn't think my classmates did.

And now it's a mind-boggling leap of imagination to think that they don't.

(Somehow, I'm pretty sure it all reduces to self-centeredness. But how funny is it that my adulthood solipcism produces such different results in my expectations from my childhood solipcism?)
danimadanima on February 8th, 2007 04:57 pm (UTC)
Sadly, I have to say that I have people like C. S. Lewis and Madeliene L'Engle[*] for nurturing, through their fiction, the perspective that the beautiful or strange or meaningful can only be approached by a select few -- Calvinists of personhood, if you will, and the tradition certainly lives on (*cough*Rowling*cough*). I say this out of love for writers whose works I will always value having read, but which I have to admit encouraged the habit of thinking in terms of "normals" or undifferentiated masses.

(thanks, jamiam, for pointing me over here, and thanks, janni, for writing it.)


[*]: and Susan Cooper and Patricia McKillip and Anne McCaffery and Zylpha Keatly Snyder and (not to pick on the women) J. R. R. Tolkien and Piers Anthony and (not to pick on the fantasists) Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card and Robert Heinlein and quite a few others...
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - danima on February 8th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - danima on February 8th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - danima on February 8th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on February 8th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lenora_rose on February 15th, 2007 06:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on February 8th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on February 8th, 2007 05:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
~twilight~_twilight_ on February 8th, 2007 06:16 am (UTC)
I still found Jessica Day a bit bland
"But if all we do once we find our tribe is exclude and scorn those outside of it in turn, then what have we learned?"

Right on! It's one of the things I find uncomfortable about the goth scene, art scene, etc... Not everyone has enough in common (or different) to be friends, but that doesn't make others the bad guys.

I find it fascinating when someone seems very normal -- perhaps brighter than average, but otherwise very cookie-cutter suburbanite... then turns out to have all kinds of odd interests, hobbies, responsibilities, and perhaps a very unique background. You know, when someone has a generic office job, drives a Saturn, lives in the suburbs, wears non-descript clothing, speaks in a common way, and it turns out that s/he tutors underprivledged children, cares for the close friend of a deceased elderly relative, travels to India every other year, plays three woodwind instruments, speaks four languages, and builds model wagons out of toothpicks.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC)
Re: I still found Jessica Day a bit bland
Yes, on all of it!

The other day, I was in the bank, listening to two older ladies in nice clothes talk about playing golf, and I'd begin putting them into a sort of compartment without realizing it, and then one said, "I'm sorry I couldn't make it over last night, I know your husband had the telescope out." And suddenly I was reminded that even golf-playing snowbirds can be interested in really cool stuff.

You never know what's beneath the surface. Many of us probably look terribly ordinary at first glance.

(And we all have many aspects to our personas, too. I suspect those who know me as Janni-the-fantasy-writer-and-congoer have a different impression of me than those who know me as Janni-the-children's-writer-and-Scout-leader, even though they really are all part of the same person.)
Re: I still found Jessica Day a bit bland - janni on February 8th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Kasey Mackenziekaitiana on February 8th, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC)
Great post! I actually get annoyed sometimes when so many of the main characters I read about sound--except for a few tiny differences--almost exactly the same. Sure, I LOVE this particular character (maybe I could even call it an archetype), but come on...our jobs as writers is (or maybe should be) to tell a multitude of stories and bring a variety of characters to life. Not the same one just in slightly different window dressing. That's a big reason why, when I re-wrote the first 2/3 of my urban fantasy/paranormal romance recently, I added a strong female friend for my heroine. I get SOOOO tired of the uber tough tomboyish female MC who detests all (or nearly all) women and doesn't form friendships with any. If you look hard enough, you can find women that AREN'T overly catty and ARE into the same things as you...

Wow...that turned into a rant. Pet peeve of mine, I guess you could say. And this isn't meant as a dig to anyone in particular. Taken in ones or twos, these characters don't sound bad at all. It just gets old when 2/3 of the one you read about are so similar to this...archetype? (And yes, I've done the same thing in the past, even with this WIP, which is why I've consciously "fixed" it! =) )

Thanks for giving me such great food for thought!
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:44 pm (UTC)
And it's a fascinating challenge to write characters you're not totally in sympathy or in sync with, too. Dealt with that writing Bones of Faerie--it took a long time to find the spark of common ground that would give me enough in common with the main character to write her well. (Though by the end, I was much more in sympathy with her than when I started.)

It's tricky, too--sometimes I think we write characters because there is that spark of common ground, even if I don't see it at first; but I don't want to write the same character over and over, either. (For all that I joke about Janni Character Type 1 and Janni Character Type 2 ... :-))
Hannahbuymeaclue on February 8th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC)
>But if all we do once we find our tribe is exclude and scorn those outside of it in turn, then what have we learned? What was the point of our spending all those years struggling with being outsiders in the first place?

I think that for me, that's pretty much exactly it. I do, I guess, think that there is some moral imperative to writing fiction (to doing pretty much anything, really). And it makes me--really and truly _angry_ to see stories that dehumanize anyone.

I feel, I guess, all the way to the bone, that the job of a story is to broaden the reader's experience. Not the only job, but one of, if not _the_, most important. And this is such a narrowing thing, that some of these writers do, and such an attractive one to so many readers (and I understand, do I ever understand, why)...it makes me furious. Because it's the absolute enemy to what I guess, however foolish of me this is, I feel like we're supposed to do.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah. And stories can give comfort, of the "you're not alone" type, but they can do that without saying, "and the people you're not happy around are all unworthy and mundane anyhow."
M. C. A. Hogarthhaikujaguar on February 8th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
Is this not the story of the cliquishness of fandom? I'm sure you have heard all the derisive talk about "mundanes", same as I have.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC)
I have, and while I used to find it kind of funny, these days it does make me more and more uncomfortable all the time.

Maybe I'd feel differently if I felt like I was still mostly surrounded by people I wasn't in sympathy with; I don't know.
(no subject) - haikujaguar on February 9th, 2007 01:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on February 12th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC)
Tam Lin
>>And then there was this fantasy novel that I read, also in college, that I might otherwise have liked, except for this: everyone gave the one normal character in the book's group of friends a hard time.<<

TAM LIN by Pamela Dean. Yes. I love that book, but at the same time you are correct, it's insufferably smug about that character.

Nancy W.
Hannahbuymeaclue on February 13th, 2007 02:05 am (UTC)
Re: Tam Lin
They did realize they were doing it eventually, though, didn't they? And try to do better? I thought I remembered liking that.
ex_benpayne119 on February 13th, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC)
I think it's interesting... and a fine line... I think dealing with the marginal and repressed is totally worthy... of course it's boring to stereotype characters outside that frame... it's boring to draw stereotyped characters full-stop.

Of course, you need to distinguish, I think, between "normal" characters who are genuinely ciphers, and "normal" characters who are drawn that way through the protagonist's POV.
silver splits the blue: OutOfTheDarkashbet on February 14th, 2007 01:17 am (UTC)
>>>I understand the appeal of wanting to believe that those of us who are outsiders, or somehow on the fringes, will one day be rewarded; I spent enough of my own childhood and adolescence waiting for that to happen. But if all we do once we find our tribe is exclude and scorn those outside of it in turn, then what have we learned? What was the point of our spending all those years struggling with being outsiders in the first place?

I have explained that to several in-need-of-a-clue Goths/punks/self-proclaimed freaks in my time (and this isn't being snarky, I *am* one!) . . . if part of your identity is formed by being outside the mainstream and rejecting people who try to force you to conform, you don't get to try to force OTHER people to conform to your mores/folkways/traditions (i.e., calling someone a "poseur" or a "daytripper" because they they have a weekday job which requires them to look a certain way.)

I love de Lint's books, but I do agree that the later ones don't seem as strong, and I can see where you're coming from about the tendency to marginalize "everyday" people . . . anyone with money is automatically bad (or has a mysterious source of invisible income), and struggling artists are generally always the "good guys". I've known plenty of asshole starving artists and fantastic wealthy people . . . and vice versa.

Money and respectability don't equal "goodness" the way a lot of people (like my very hidebound parents) assume they do -- but giving the finger to the system doesn't automatically give you "cred" or turn you into a better person.

Very thought-provoking post -- read this, the post you linked to, and blackholly's post (I'm here via her journal), and I'm enjoying the discussion :)

-- Andi <3