1.25.2018

Trying to Fit In

Every author understands the concept of the outsider. That’s why mavericks and misfits are the protagonists of so many novels. An author feels an affinity with such characters, because she regards herself as an oddball. Who better to infuse that character with life than someone who doesn’t just act, but is condemned to think about what she’s doing, often as the action is taking place?

The transition from felt impulses to story impact is not easily navigated, though. Rebellious swagger goes only so far. In order to maintain story tension, you have to align the character so that what she’s doing is consistently flouting social norms or in imminent danger of doing so. Only by having her break the rules can an author point out why they are nonsensical.

Using the hero of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, let’s see how this general principle can be broken down into specific examples. Billy is a soldier on leave from the war in Iraq. He is seriously damaged by PTSD—his outsider starting point. How does his affliction make an impact? The author describes how, when Billy is walking down the steps in Texas Stadium, he can’t look down because he feels he would fall into the void that yawns below. That’s bizarre, scary. No matter what else he does in the book, we know he’s unhinged.

Billy is a member of a Bravo team that is being feted during a football game. While he is drinking beers at ten o’clock in the morning to self-medicate, he is being hailed by a variety of back-slapping patriots that are as empty as their suits. Given his context, the game of football, revered as a domestic version of war, is an ironic joke. When the Bravo crew sits down to a buffet lunch, they are so rowdy that the rich folks’ decorum is threatened at every moment.

For this author’s outsider, he picks an ordinary young grunt. Yet he elevates Billy to a powder keg, ready to go off at any time, by the aberrant things he does. The author then proceeds to pick out the circumstances that can be upset. Soldier? Match him up with a patriot. A substance abuser? Inject him in a party.

This outsider is not alone in his room, brooding. He takes his damaged soul out in public, where he can either offend others or be humiliated. He’s on the firing line.

Exercise: Catalogue the circumstances in your manuscript. What qualities of your protagonist don’t fit in with respectable society? Then think to yourself: what social situations could she be placed in where those qualities can be put on display? Then take one more step. What rules is she breaking because of those qualities? Can you find respectable foils against whom she can clash?

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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