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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.
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...
Jam: iridiumjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
tsk! I was raised Catholic; back then I didn't even know what a Calvinist was.

Having found out, I've always appreciated these folks' attempts at wiggling their beliefs into being completely inclusive. And when they fail, I feel that is more a reflection of their religion's ultimate failings, not theirs.
danima: page of cupsdanima on February 8th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Whoops, that's what I get for attempting a light turn of phrase while wearing clodhoppers:

By "Calvinists of personhood", I was trying to refer specifically to the Calvinist idea of the "elect" -- in a nutshell, that some people are predistined to go to heaven and some are not. So Calvinists of personhood (rather than of Christianity, which is where I know I got fuzzy above) operate from a perspective that some people live full internal lives, and some people are just filler. As an example, I'd include the atheist who wrote, "95% of people lack the capability for self-determination" in that category.

And, sadly, most of the writers I mentioned above created plots that operate from that perspective: access to the wonders and meaningful lives they write about is limited to the select few who are innately smart and unconventional enough (in science fiction) or innately talented or chosen (in fantasy).
Jamjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC)
Ah. Again, I did not know about the "elect" when I was 4th and 5th grade, so I missed it completely.

But your point does tie in nicely with Janni's post!
danima: justicedanima on February 8th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
Glad to know that I finally managed to communicate.

The point is, I didn't know really about the "elect" in 4th and 5th grade, either, but all that F/SF I was sucking down was teaching me the underlying attitude, subtextually.
Jam: iridiumjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:44 pm (UTC)
I think... I already had the attitude. 4th and 5th graders aren't really the most empathetic beasts. At worst, the books merely reinforced the attitude; at best, they made me feel better about being the outsider.
danima: The Hanged Mandanima on February 8th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
And that, I think, is why I love those stories so much even as I criticise them -- they helped me get through a very difficult time of being essentially alone by telling me that being a misfit is not just okay, it's actually better. I wince a bit at the troubles this caused me later, but on the whole, I'm glad they were there.

(yes, I am having fun with icons today)
Jamjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)
Also, dorky geeky misfits = "the elect"? How funny is that?

(Is this how you got to be so dead inside?)
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on February 8th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC)
I've always especially liked L'Engle's attempts at inclusiveness. I'm not a Christian, but it was good to see, through her books, what being a Christian can mean.

On the other hand, I still have issues with Lewis for essentially excluding Susan from heaven for liking shoes and makeup.
Jamjamiam on February 8th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
He hadn't read your post!
Lenora Roselenora_rose on February 15th, 2007 06:42 am (UTC)
Replying late, but this is a point I see come up too often.

Lewis didn't condemn Susan for liking shoes and makeup; he comdemned her for likeing shoes and make-up and other surface trappings to the exclusion of all else. Someone else pointed out; she rode on Aslan's back and watched him, in person, die and come back... then later tossed it aside as "those childish stories".

It's not quite the same thing, though it doesn't read much differently to a child.