Saturday, August 14, 2010

Who's Normal?

Is there any such thing as a normal character? Can a character be too contrived or complex? Whose standard of ordinary do you apply to the people you read or write about?

I ask this because I was talking to my mom the other day and we drifted onto the subject of religion, which inevitably led to memories of my grandmother. Grandma was saved and sanctified – southern style; an avid member of the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C., to those who know). Devout and enthusiastic, she was popular among her church family in addition to being a well-known business owner in the community.

Religion is what I remember most. She was faithful to her denomination to the point of removing the dice from our Monopoly game and fussing at us for gambling. (I believe we ended up finding a “spinner” from some other game and continuing with our play that way.) Grandma did not dance or listen to (most forms of) secular music as I recall either.

Fast forward a decade and a half to when I’ve grown up moved away from Missouri to live my life as a young divorcee and single mom. Lo and behold, I capture the attention and affections of a preacher! I was just bursting with pride the next time I called grandma and couldn’t wait to tell her of my catch.

“UGH!” She practically spat into the phone.

I could all but see her eyes rolling in disgust across the 600 miles of wire between us. “A preacher?!” Tsk, tsks followed.

Not only was I stunned by her reaction, but I also recall feeling disappointed and a little embarrassed as I continued trying to sway her with this young man’s Godly attributes. She remained unimpressed, we changed topics, and I remember this still.

I experienced this incident as a human long before I could analyze it as a writer. But from both perspectives, it was the unexpected shift in character that caught me off guard.

Grandma was fervent in her faith. In my mind, she was supposed to delight in my pastoral find. Yet she didn’t. I continue to wonder what she’d encountered along her religious road that cost clergy their credibility. If she was a character in one of my books, what would Grandma’s backstory be?

Without the reason behind her reaction, my readers would be as stunned as I was in real life.

Now, I could use that unexpected revelation early on as an intentional plot device to set the tone for action in later chapters. Or, midway, I could use it as a pivotal turning point that re-routes the direction of the story. Or I could save it for a surprise ending that’s been hinted at throughout the story.

Regardless, I’d find a place to use it and ways to support and explain it in the plot. To me, these are the quirks that make characters worth exploring. I’ve come to learn that I really don’t know too many “normal” people. It’s the pits and warts that make us human and that bring fictional characters to life.

As an adult, this unexpected chat helped me relate to my grandmother as a woman rather than the iconic figure of my youth. Now that she’s gone, I can only wonder about the early pages of her life.

As an author, it’s one example of how reality impinges on our expectations in fiction: I owe my characters flaws, I owe my readers explanations. I think this is the only “normal” for fiction.

What about you? Do you think there’s any such thing as a normal character? Can a character be too contrived or complex? Whose standard of ordinary do you apply to the people you read or write about? Let us know.

Quirky, quiet, introspective, always watching, probably not normal,


Shauna Roberts said...

I struggle with this issue every time I write something because I do not have a normal background or a normal life, and I doubt anyone who knows me would say I was normal.

Sometimes, I think back to high school, when emotions were raw and extreme and out in the open for everyone to see, to get an idea of what a normal person would feel about an event.

Other times I search my own life, looking for experiences that are near-universal to draw the emotions and reactions from.

I'll be interested in seeing how other people create normal characters.

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely believe a character can be too contrived but it depends a lot on the genre. In a realistic story, a character can easily become too contrived, I think. In a fantasy it's harder because the range of the character can be broader.

Your story reminds me of my mom. She was also very religious and I was raised that way. I even toyed with the idea of being a priest as a kid, and I thought it would make my mom happy. But years later when I mentioned that to her she told me she was glad I hadn't become a priest because it seemed so lonely. I was surprised.

Liane Spicer said...

That's one of the strange things about fiction: it all has to make sense. If John acts 'out of character' in chapter 6, you'd better have this anomaly explained by the time you type 'the end'.

Unlike real life, of course, where illogic reigns and people surprise you all the time. Scratch the surface of any 'normal' person and heaven knows what you'll find.

Carol Mitchell said...

I don't know too many people who fall into the category of normal if you really explore them, as Liane suggested. The problem is that whether a character is contrived or not is really in the eye of the beholder. I read a book recently that I enjoyed except for one character who seemed to me unrealistic to the point of being like a caricature. I subsequently met a woman who behaves very much like that character and I realised that it was just my limited view of "normal" that made me think that the character was unrealistic!

Jewel Amethyst said...

I recently heard an interview with CeCe Wynans who said as a child she thought all families sang. Only as a teen she realized their family was the exception not the norm.

Normal is a definition that no one really fits into. One person's normal is another one's bizarre and it is tempered by culture, religion and all kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

I dont't worry about making my characters normal. My characters are generally a hybrid of the people I've come in contact with. Their normal is what I define for them.

Blasé said...

I love Jesus (not the Mexican, the other guy).