Monday, July 23, 2012

The Unconventional

by Kathleen Bradean

When I meet eager young writers, one of the comments that frequently pops up is, "I don't want to write about these unrealistic people. I want to write about normal."

This is usually followed by a wince on my part.

Yes, the stereotypes can seem rather lazy. Just add hair color (raven, auburn) and eye color (sapphire, emerald) and viola! Instant characterization. That's what those writers want to rebel against, and I'm all for it, except that no one wants to read about the most mundane person on the planet doing laundry. Unless you can write such an ubermundane person that your work becomes a literary sensation (such banality! trite is the new black!) your characters are going to have to do something, anything, that makes them worth reading about. People might not want square-jawed heroes who do everything right (snore) but we don't want to see the version of us that runs out of a burning building in a screaming panic. We want to see the version of us that would dash into the flames. It sure beats getting smoke inhalation injuries in real life.

The way around that is to create characters that are unconventional yet fascinating. I'm a huge fan of the new Sherlock series on TV. It's enough to put an armchair psychologist into raptures of delight and frantic speculation on fan lists. Why does Sherlock, who is asexual, provoke such a strong sexual reaction from other characters and fans? In one show, John Watson calls him Spock. The similarities are there in our reactions to Sherlock, certainly. But there's so much more to obsess on. There's the extremely fucked up, and yet utterly believable, relationship between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft. But what fascinates me the most isn't watching the unbelievably delicious Benedict Cumberbatch get away with being horrid to everyone. (that's more of a guilty pleasure) It's Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. A very ordinary looking man (sorry Martin, but that's your stock in trade, isn't it?) but not so ordinary after all. He's a doctor, so he's no idiot no matter how poorly he compares to Sherlock. And he's incredibly brave, doing what needs to be done with little fear of death or harm and with a sense of calm that's a bit chilling if you take time to notice him. Average guy? Not on your life. He may be the stand-in for the audience in the show, but if he's us, we're far cooler than we ever imagined we were. This Watson is the version of us who would run into the burning building, save the kittens, put out the fire, and leave before anyone got our name. And of course there's the mysterious bond between Watson and Sherlock. We get why Sherlock needs Watson even if Sherlock can't puzzle that one out, but why on earth does Watson continue to put up with Sherlock once he's on his feet again? The show plays all its gay cards on the table, so of course that can't be it. (unless it is and they're oh so crafty hiding it in plain sight). You know I'll keep watching to find out.

No writer can make me laugh like Christopher Moore. In his book A Dirty Job, he goes to great lengths (sometimes a bit too far, but who cares when you're laughing so hard?) to point out that his main character Charlie Asher is a beta male. The guy knows he's a beta. He accepts that he's a beta. He's so beta that his blood type is B+. And I'm pretty sure he wants, and expects, to lead a very ordinary life and will be quite content that he has that much. But the course of true comedy never runs smooth, so his Charlie Asher is, in  a case of mistaken identity where someone seems to thinks he's an alpha in disguise, dragged screaming and kicking into a fight against the forces of darkness and left to fend for himself. He feels his ineptitude every inch of the way. The reader has far more faith in him than he does, and even we wonder how he's going to get out of it alive.

So sure, forget the central casting alpha guy. Forget the femme fatale (except you know that she's my playground). Forget characters so Mary Sue that they make you puke, or worse, makes your reader toss the book across the room. Create someone fascinating, wonderful, average but not average, horrible, even 'American Psycho-level crap your pants scary.' Just don't make them dull. 




  1. Oh! I don't watch TV, and most of the time don't miss it, but I do so wish I could see this new show. I've been a Sherlock fan since I was eight or nine!

    (And - I think the points in your post are expertly made and illustrated!)

  2. Lisabet - can you stream video? Check the PBS site. You can watch series 1 on Netflix streaming, but it may be that Amazon Prime can stream both series, and you would truly enjoy A Scandal in Belgravia (which is series 2)

  3. Good points, Kathleen. And I agree about Christopher Moore. I thought it was brilliant of him to make the king's fool the narrator in Fool, his version of King Lear.

  4. Jean - I'm such a fan of his work. I laughed so hard reading Fool. And Lear is one of my favorite stories from the time I first read it as a folktale called 'As meat loves salt.'


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