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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.