Thursday, May 27, 2010

In Which I Rebel Against Social Norms

I was wondering the other day if I had to write myself as a character, how would I do it? Which details would I choose to get across the essence of my character, so readers could instantly understand the "type" of character they are dealing with?

Then I thought some more, and realized that I might be a deeply weird person. To wit:

I don't own a cell phone. I have no desire to own a cell phone. It's true that I work from my house, so my need for a cell phone is somewhat obviated, but still. Not including my five-year-old, I'm literally the only person I know who doesn't own a cell phone.

I don't own a watch. I think the last watch I owned was a black plastic digital watch in fourth grade. I hated the way it made the skin on my wrist smell. LIke a belly button, but worse.

I wear no jewelry at all, except a wedding ring. And I didn't start wearing my wedding ring until 3 months ago, after almost ten years of marriage. I don't wear necklaces, bracelets, sunglasses, or earrings either.

I can't stand elastic in almost any article of clothing, and I won't wear clothes that have printed words or images on them.

Given the choice, I'll cut my hair twice a year—so it goes through stages. Very short, almost buzzed, then longish, then truly long. Then I cut it.

I'm terrified of cameras—and yet I've recently discovered that I actually really like doing TV. Somehow, that's not intimidating or scary, but exhilarating. I make weekly TV appearances on a local morning show, BUT I have trouble watching myself back on screen, so I often don't.

Even I think I have bad taste in music, but what can I say? I have the musical taste of a 15-year-old English raver. I like loud beats.

I like extremely spicy food, motion in all its varieties (spinning, roller coasters, even "the spins"), swimming in cold water, and being outside in rainstorms.

People often think I'm distant, which is true, but not for the reason most people think. I'm not unfriendly, shy, introverted, arrogant, or anti-social. The truth is, I'm usually distracted by what else is going on—and by what else, I mean what's going on in the immediate environment. I'm less interested in people than is perhaps socially acceptable.

And it goes on. If I was writing myself as a character, I'd look at this list and think they're mostly quirks. But there's a common theme that runs through all this. My wife would say I have sensory issues; I would say that I'm focused on experience rather than relationship, and I'm overaware of sensory input. This is why I can't wear most jewelry, or carry around things like phones and beepers, why I like strongly flavored foods, and why I have trouble focusing on conversations right in front of my face. It's all too distracting. I can't concentrate when I'm constantly playing with a ring or watch. On the other hand, strong sensations tend to focus me on the moment, and it's nice.

Isn't it like this with characters in books also? What looks like a collection of quirks and oddities is in fact united by a common thread ... a fundamental personality type that has both positives and negatives. It's true that I sound slightly autistic, but I'm also hyper-observant. I rarely miss anything going on around me, even at the expense of the conversation I'm currently sort of having.

So that's what I'm looking for as i write: a uniting thread with my characters that pulls together all the little quirks.

14 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

Brilliant.

And I have never thought you were arrogant. I always pegged you as brilliant but having focus issues--so I guess I was right. :-) I find your quirks delightful since I have so many quirks myself.

But pulling it back to writing, I think this is a dead-on analysis of creating a character.

Heather Kelly said...

Thanks for pointing me to this post--my blog reading has been erratic at late, and I loved this description of how you move around your world. I loved what you said about strong sensations focusing you on the moment. And this: "So that's what I'm looking for as i write: a uniting thread with my characters that pulls together all the little quirks." I try to put myself in the shoes of others, and how I see the world from that perspective fascinates me, especially from my idea of how my 6-year-old (the sensory seeker) experiences his life. It's just so unique and interesting to me. Thanks for sharing this insight!

LurkerMonkey said...

E,

Thanks :)

LurkerMonkey said...

Heather,

It took me years to figure out how all this stuff related. When I was a kid, they didn't diagnose people with sensory-seeking behaviors. I was actually diagnosed with ADD at one point and prescribed Ritalin. I never took it (not even a single pill, if I remember correctly), because it didn't feel "right" to me. Good luck with the OT!

Erica Orloff said...

Jon:
Jack was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder . . . I have a feeling he has OCD too. All of his quirks really relate to the former. He just can't "handle" a lot of sensory stimulation unless it's of his own choosing.

Melanie Avila said...

This is a very interesting post. I'm always curious to learn how other people think and only recently figured out that certain processes that are second nature to me never even cross other people's minds..

I think this would be a great character.

Melanie Avila said...

This is a very interesting post. I'm always curious to learn how other people think and only recently figured out that certain processes that are second nature to me never even cross other people's minds..

I think this would be a great character.

LurkerMonkey said...

Erica,

I'm the opposite ... the more sensory stimulation, the better.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

I find the same thing interesting—that some people think so differently from me, I couldn't even begin to comprehend their thought process. It's just fundamentally different. I've always thought that writers are a little naturally limited by their own perspective.

Kath Calarco said...

Jon, my Monster Chihuahua has the same sensory input problem. It's the nature of her beast, or so we are told. :-)

I have to admit that I never pulled the common thread through character quirks, and now that you've brought it to light, I see it's an intricate component of character building. Thanks for the great analytical analogy. Superb!

LurkerMonkey said...

Kath,

When I was writing this, I wasn't sure whether to call these "quirks" or "symptoms." :)

Lauren said...

Great post! I think it really draws upon the fact that, while characters should have unique "quirks" to them, these things can't just be thrown in just to mark a character. They have got to be there for a reason or a common thread as you call it. People really aren't all that random even if to others they appear so.

LurkerMonkey said...

Lauren,

I think when I first started really worrying about characters, I was throwing in a lot of quirks for the sake of quirkiness. Thankfully, my crit partners disabused me of that practice ...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I don't think my characters have nearly ENOUGH quirks. But I like the common thread theory - the one thing that drives their personality. I can think of something for almost all my characters. But I think I could do better at filling in the quirks to illustrate it.