On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Are you planning to write about someone who lives on the fringes of society, whether willingly or unwillingly? Thinking about writing a socially outcast hero or a disaffected anti-hero? Or anyone else who, for whatever reason, is mostly alone and/or unhappy with society at large? Here are some things to consider and keep in mind.
Table of Contents
- A judgmental misfit/loner/malcontent is an unlikeable misfit/loner/malcontent.
- Be aware that your character may not be as different as you think.
- Humblebragging and wangst - be aware of them.
- Moving in with a gang of other outcasts does not necessarily mean acceptance.
A judgmental misfit/loner/malcontent is an unlikeable misfit/loner/malcontent.
It isn’t uncommon to see these sorts of characters generalize everyone else rather harshly. For example, introverted sorts of characters (often as not thinly-veiled projections of their creators) generalize characters who are more extroverted (or at the very least interested in partying, clothes, and makeup) as shallow and brainless. Sometimes they’ll describe other characters as being shallow or brainless for obsessing over some popular guy. (Never mind that they’re just as obsessed with some introverted poet at school or some tragic villain from popular fiction, often as not.)
If your character makes sweeping generalizations and assumptions about characters xe’s barely (if ever) talked to, xe will look petty and judgmental, if not even more shallow than the very people xe’s judging. And hey, if you want your character to look petty and judgmental, then keep on trucking.
If not, it’s time for a reality check: intelligence and a love for fashion and parties aren’t mutually exclusive. That pretty blond with glossy lips might be studying to become a marine biologist and read Elizabeth Barrett Browning at home. That girl shaking her hips at the football captain might be an aspiring astrophysicist. And quite frankly, being a bookish introvert doesn’t necessarily make one deeper or more intellectual, either: sitting around and reading ship fic or writing self-insert fics while waiting for the perfect dreamboat to come and sweep one off xir feet does not make one deep or smart, let alone “superior” to someone who loves partying.
And on the other side of the coin, many extroverts perceive "nerds" as being so engrossed in their own private worlds that they're utterly disconnected from the real world. In reality, that shy nerd who plays Dungeons & Dragons on the weekend might very well be studying to become an engineer in the hopes creating better water purification systems to bring clean drinking water to impoverished areas. Having a busy social life doesn't necessarily make one a better person than someone who doesn't - many people who are frequently alone are alone of their own choice, simply preferring to keep company with a smaller amount of people and for less time than extroverts.
Another issue with many a misfit protagonist is how often they claim not to care about those in outgroups (eg, preps, popular students, etc...), yet spend quite an inordinate amount of time complaining about them. If they’re complaining about someone, then they do care in some fashion - a negative one. If they really didn’t care at all, then they wouldn’t spent a lot of time talking about them, and when/if they they did their descriptions would be fairly neutral and apathetic. Compare with something you truly don’t care about… say, for example, the chemical makeup of the soil beneath a post office in a tiny town five thousand miles from where you live. How much time do you spend telling people how much you don’t care about the chemical makeup of the soil beneath a post office in a tiny town five thousand miles from where you live? Exactly. A character who genuinely didn’t care would most likely have other things on xir mind.
Be aware that your character may not be as different as you think.
Contrary to what some people might think, having only perhaps three or four close friends out of an entire school does not make someone strange or an outcast - in fact, it makes you pretty normal. People who appear to be friends with everyone are in the minority, and even then, they probably only have a few people that they would consider themselves close to.
To some degree, just about everyone feels like a misfit or dissatisfied with their lot in life somehow because no matter where or who you are there’s always someone more popular, better-looking, more talented, etc. than you. Almost everyone gets hung up to some degree at the thoughts of having to perform in public. Almost everyone worries about embarrassing themselves in front of a new acquaintance. If you’re using these feelings as you’ve experienced them as a basis for your character, remember: they’re actually pretty normal. To not experience feelings of doubt and inadequacy in some area to some degree is abnormal.
Likewise, having some interest or quirk that isn’t shared by the general population is normal. So is seeing some aspect of life differently from the way everyone else seems to see it. So is having some sort of disorder or physical condition. While these sorts of things can certainly set people at odds with society, especially if society isn’t very accepting of certain individual quirks and issues, there is nothing abnormal about having quirks and issues of some kind.
Many times I’ve come across people treating their introverted bookworms or artists as if they’re one-in-a-billion special snowflakes. In the real world, such a person might be strange or unusual in a small population, but in the big picture - in a world of seven billion people - introverted artists and bookworms aren’t really rare at all. Had Twilight taken place in a world with more realistic demographics, Edward wouldn’t have had to wait almost a century to find someone like Bella - there’d be girls with her general set of looks and personality all over in every time. Bella might be something of an odd duck in a tiny town like Forks, but in a major city like Phoenix she’d have to look no further than her school’s book club to find others like her.
As horrible as teasing and bullying can be, it’s unlikely that your character would be the only recipient of it, let alone that your character’s bullying experience would somehow be uniquely more horrible than absolutely anyone else’s. And the same goes for any awful experience - even if it was awful to go through, and even if it did leave awful mental or physical scars, your character probably did not have a one-of-a-kind experience.
Having parents or caregivers who don't really seem to understand you in some way (and don't seem to want to put in a genuine effort to try to understand you) is very normal. So are parents/caregivers who are apathetic or disapproving of things that you're passionate about. (For the record, most parents like this do genuinely care about the welfare of their children, and will usually react to protect their child should they perceive their child is in any real danger. But because parents are imperfect human beings, they may fail to recognize some real threats and/or misidentify certain things as threats, and/or take inappropriate or misguided action to fix perceived problems. And because children are also imperfect human beings, their parents may correctly identify threats that they themselves miss.) Basically, because people by nature have differences in tastes, opinions, and viewpoints, pretty much everyone is guaranteed to have something or other that will become a point of contention with their parents.
Every so often, I see people and/or characters talking about how they’re so different or weird because they fall in love with villains. First, it’s not as “weird” as people might think: consider that many villains display attractive traits such as confidence and charisma. They also flout society’s rules and norms, which is an alluring and tantalizing trait to a teen or young adult looking to find xir own way in life or at the very least feeling dissatisfied with the boring ol’ same ol’ at home. Many villains are also shown to be highly intelligent, which again, is an attractive trait. Add to that the fact that villains are often depicted with more delicate aesthetics - which teens and young adults tend to find more appealing than a bulkier look. Today’s villains create a perfect storm of attractiveness for this age group, so young people can hardly be called “weird” for finding them attractive.
Nor can people in this age group finding such characters attractive be considered especially rare: you can’t go anywhere there’s Harry Potter fanfiction without tripping over a fic shipping Draco with some writer stand-in or other, and the people on roleplaying sites looking to ship their characters with Loki vastly outnumber those looking to ship them with Thor.
Humblebragging and wangst - be aware of them.
Humblebragging entails attempting to use deprecation to brag about something that by all rights actually is pretty awesome, and you and everyone else knows it - eg, “Ugh, I just spat my Chateau Margaux on my Manolos laughing at Tony Stark’s joke! Can you believe my rotten luck?” ...Yes, you’re sipping expensive wine and wearing designer shoes while having a good time with a rich celebrity superhero. Life is clearly so hard for you. Let us gather the tiniest of fiddles and serenade you with the songs of our sympathies.
Angst becomes wangst when the angst seems disproportionately large compared to the issue causing the character distress, or when the character is so focused on xir own problems that xe brushes off or ignores worse and bigger problems - eg, the world is about to be shattered by an incoming asteroid, but Magical Girl Tammy can’t get her act together to stop it because she’s still obsessing over her significant other breaking up with her… two months ago.
Both of these will make a character look self-centered and arrogant. If that's what you're going for, then this can be the ticket to really make a detestable brat of a character. If you want your character to remain sympathetic, you need to be aware of these potentially making your character look like an awful person. Let's take a look at a couple of examples of wangsty humblebraggers, and how what they say can presented so that they’re actually sympathetic instead.
“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so beautiful. Ever since I can remember, my mom’s been pushing me into modeling and into beauty pageants, and I hate it! She makes me wear designer clothes all the time instead of what I want to wear, and the judges are next to impossible to please.”
Phrased like this, it makes the character look rather petty and self-absorbed, simply wanting more out of what’s already a fairly privileged life. On the other hand, if you put it like this...
“Ever since I can remember, my mom’s been pressuring me to enter beauty contests. I don’t like them, but I don’t want to hurt her by letting her down because it’s so important to her. I don’t think she realizes how stressful it can be to be constantly compared to other girls by total strangers and told that I’m not going to make the cut because of things I can’t control. Sometimes I think things would be better if I hadn’t inherited my mom’s looks.”
Now the character is no longer whining about things that are actually kind of awesome, but is complaining about things that anyone would find hard, such as being used as another person’s egomobile, and having to put up with disappointment and rejection.
“I just went and bought myself a BMW. Yeah, only problem is that it’s not really the one I wanted. Why couldn’t I have gotten an M6 instead? That’s a real car!”
Once again, this is an example of a character wanting more out of a privileged life and whining about something that’s actually pretty awesome. How many of us get to drive around BMWs, let alone can afford to just go out and buy one? Now compare with...
“Yes, my car might have the name, but what they don’t tell you is that the features they advertise are only available on the models that are outside my price range. I bought it on impulse without thinking it through and ended up blowing a lot of money on something halfway, but it’s too late to take it back to the dealership now.”
Unlike the previous example, which sounded like the whining of a spoiled brat, this example identifies the source of the problem, and acknowledges that the protagonist is partly to blame. It also establishes a sense of actual loss: the character is no longer simply whining about having to drive a BMW, but is instead having to deal with the consequences of a poorly thought-out decision that resulted in spending a lot of hard-earned money on something that didn’t have everything he wanted, and is now stuck with.
Moving in with a gang of other outcasts does not necessarily mean acceptance.
It isn’t uncommon to see a character who was perceived as a freak or weirdo in part because of having some sort of strange powers or something move in with with a whole gang of oddballs and find sudden intimate acceptance from nearly all of them regardless of… well, everything.
A character with magical powers that made xir an outcast before would probably not likely find xirself instantly accepted by a group of other magically-gifted people if the character had a detestable personality or generally went around bullying, badgering, bothering, and bossing the others around. If anything, xe’d soon find xirself alone and outcast again because nobody would want to be around xir if they could reasonably avoid it.
Furthermore, if a group has been together long enough to become tightly-knit, someone who comes in practically out of nowhere and starts shaking things up would soon be resented - and the most disruptive that person is, the more resentment xe’s going to create. Things might settle down depending on how the person behaves - if the new person can be considerate of the others in the group then things can turn out fine. However, if the newbie continues to act presumptuously or inconsiderately or even puts the group in danger, then xe can soon expect to find xirself just as alone as ever, possibly even getting the boot before long.
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