You Gotta Get Behind Your Character


Illustration by Robin Follet. Minerda.

There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)

I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).

I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.

Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.

Nerd Hero, Surrounded by Quirks

“Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if I loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?”

Vera in Please Ignore Vera Dietz

I’m all for the nerd hero–the bland, retreating wallflower who blossoms late and great in his heroic journey. She can enthrall us if a) she grows up in some way and b) her compadres along the way are loud, unique, and full of quirks. We’ll keep reading so we can see his next choice and his friends’ next oddball move.

Just beware those quirks don’t create…jerks.

I had great hopes for The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I picked up this award-winning YA novel with its nerd hero expecting a lot. But less than halfway through, I put it down after three failed attempts to restart. The problem for me? The eccentric characters boasted way too many oddities for me to relate.

Nerd heroine Lennie lives with a sage-waving grandmother who paints only in shades of green and thinks the state of Len’s soul is symbolized by the health of a house plant. Len’s uncle thinks he can resurrect bugs by building pyramids (to be honest, I couldn’t quite keep track of his theory, which I guess is the point, but it was obscure and strange enough to the point of being a bit creepy and repulsive). Then there’s the new guy from France with a rock-star smile who falls for Len and embraces her eccentric family without question. Mom and Dad are MIA, no surprise, as we see in many YA novels. Never mind the suitor’s angelic patience while chasing Len, who rebuffs him every time (up to the part where I stopped). The most interesting plot element, Len’s affair with her deceased sister’s boyfriend, is overshadowed by this circus cast of characters.

There are beautiful lines in this novel and the prose is definitely worth the read–rich with imagery, compelling metaphor, strong voice. Blogger Casey McCormick offers an excellent tribute, and I share it here because I want to be clear that like desserts, wines, and meats, there are definite, inscrutable, and equal preferences when it comes to critiques. In other words, as someone once said when I was dumped by a boyfriend: There’s no accounting for taste. (How nice he thought the boyfriend made a mistake!) Clearly, McCormick loves this kind of a supporting cast and just because I find the characters annoying does not mean that in some universal sense, they should be ignored. I get the fan devotion and am struggling to discover why I can’t belong to this group.

I take another look, a man-in-the-mirror gaze, at what made me close this book. Yes, my own novel is full of oddballs: a teen girl who worships Michael Jackson (prays, invokes, petitions him like a Catholic saint); a hippie mom with money lust (who celebrates Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, or whatever holiday comes across her path with the exception of anything Christian); and a grandma who’s a faithful Mass attendee while cussing like a sailor. Yup, my peeps are weird. Yet in a given scene, I believe they do say enough standard, mainstream, expected things to give a reader something to cling to. They’re not flying so far off the radar they lose contact.

I also think Nelson’s quirky characters mask the lack of a hero’s quest, otherwise known as the protagonist’s goal. I get that Len suffers great grief at the loss of her sister, but for the first half of the book, she is merely buffeted by the latest strange choice by her supporting cast. She’s busy reacting rather than making any strides of her own. That’s the nature of grief, so I’m not questioning the realism of what Nelson portrays here. However, back to taste: what I want from literature is a hero’s journey with a target. Even if the protagonist doesn’t quite know her mission yet, I don’t want her passively waiting or dodging; I want her choosing. Many of us would have abandoned Star Wars early on in 1977 if Luke Skywalker had spent too many scenes mourning his aunt and uncle’s loss. The fact he goes off to war sooner rather than later makes us want to follow.

It doesn’t have to be battle; little actions can sometimes be enough, and Miles Halter of Looking for Alaska seeks after two obsessions: famous last words and a wild girl, Alaska. Both desires fuel his everyday, tiny choices. In The Sky is Everywhere, I’m not sure what Len wants except for her sister to come back, and as she avoids the help and concern of her family, her best friend, and various suitors, one starts to wonder, Would I leave her alone if I were her friend? I just might. Another reason I put the book down. Miles, despite his minor life, made enough small choices to be the tail of the comet that we followed his trail of light.

Some may argue that Len’s choice of her sister’s boyfriend, that inexplicable lust, is enough to keep their interest and moves the story forward. Again, this is where tastes diverge and I can’t quite pin why that desire didn’t keep me riveted.

Perhaps it’s an overall approach to characterization: if a character doesn’t choose much, then nothing much is at stake. If she is simply the eye of the storm while others swirl around her, there’s no contrast or foil. It helps when a character has contrasts, something to lose, and is foiled at every turn. It’s also helpful if the driving desire is nameable, less force of nature than an act of will. Len’s desire for her sister’s boyfriend feels like fate without free will; it’s as if a tornado blasted her into the arms of this boy. However, even the pallid characters of Alice Munro’s teen in “Red Dress–1946” or Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen make distinct choices they can discern and cannot argue are acts of God.

This matter of “what’s at stake” may be why I raced right through Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King despite a raging flu. It’s a valid book to compare with The Sky is Everywhere because both books deal with loss and death. Vera is also surrounded by oddballs–her deceased best friend, Charlie, who still haunts her and “made inner conflict look delicious”; and her workaholic dad who doesn’t get that Vera is still in school and might not need over 20 hours of work a week, but,”no matter the ailment, he will suggest working as a cure.” There’s her pizza delivery boss, Marie, a “really cool biker lady with crooked yellow teeth.” Don’t forget a mother on the lam who became a stripper (Cindy/Sindy) and then ran away with a podiatrist. There’s even a talking pagoda–an odd architectural feature in this town that gets to sound off every once in a while. I’d say this is enough of a freak landscape to satisfy anyone with a taste for weird.

Here lie my reasons why we shouldn’t ignore Vera Dietz. Where Vera veers off the passive, wallflower nerd trail (she’s obsessed with words and a strong student, like so many other YA heroes) is with her choices. She says she chooses not to be either of her parents. She makes the pizza job her own with a plan to pay for her community college future so she won’t be crushed by student loans. In the course of that gig, she must brave some strange houses. This is a heroine quality of courage we like to track. She also chooses to drink a little too much, and she chooses to have a crush on a 23 year-old. In other words, she makes some key mistakes based in real, out-there action. From the very first page, we know her inner conflict–loving and hating Charlie, the best friend/love of her life who just died. She’s a prisoner of horrible, obsessive questions(see the preface quotation) from the start, on page one. This gets readers running right behind her.

Vera makes bad choices. She doesn’t just wallow. Therefore the quirky folk around her don’t become jerks by overwhelming her. Len’s grandma, uncle, and wannabe boyfriend are so larger-than-life, they upstage.

I take comfort that my Wacko Wendy tends to upstage others when she walks into a room. But my advice to Len’s heroine’s journey is good advice for my writing as I revise any character’s trail. Is she blazing it, or is it a mere side trail of thoughts and wishes? What action will my characters take by the close of this scene?

Writing Prompts

— What is “quirky”? Define it by comparing quirks to what you consider normal, status quo, expected traits of people in your world.
— Who’s your favorite quirky character in literature or film? Explain why the quirks work for you.
— How are these quirks a cover for the character’s original wound? What hurt your character as a child that now expresses itself in weirdness?
— How are these quirks an expression of the character’s essence–personality, interests, spirit?
— What novel or story or movie have you abandoned because the quirkiness got too strange to follow? What alienated or frustrated you?
— How quirky are your characters in your WIP? On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “lemming and trend follower” and 10 being “freakazoid,” where do your protagonist and supporting cast rank?
— What quirks of others (real folk) irritate you to the point of leaving the scene? What quirks of yours irritate others?
— What are your writing quirks? How do these quirks express themselves in writing tics, blind spots, redundancies, blocks? What parts of the writing process are your biggest challenge?
— Are your characters making choices in the first ten scenes of your novel, or, are they merely thinking about making choices while other characters get to make the really interesting ones?
— Are you a nerd who tends to be upstaged by others’ quirks, but you’re brilliant at writing about them? If you’re a spectator-type of author, analyze how your nerdiness expresses itself. Are you hyperanalytical, perfectionistic, wallowing, highly observant, critical, and sometimes paralyzed in the face of larger-than-life personalities?
— Do you ever feel that others are too busy living while you’re too busy chronicling their odd escapades? Is everybody’s truth stranger than fiction–and yet your fiction is stranger than your life?

The Nerd Hero: Does it Work?

“I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.” — Miles Halter in Looking for Alaska

Maybe it’s because I’m mired in Harry Potter novels that I’m intrigued by what I call the Nerd Hero–unassuming male protagonists who are bookish, scorned wallflowers until external events force them into action. I’m wondering whether heroes should be exceptional from the get-go, as Aristotle argued and Shakespeare offered with the likes of Macbeth and Caesar. Does it work for them to be the retiring, quiet nerds?

Miles Halter in the YA novel Looking for Alaska by John Green is a prisoner of his own “minor life.” To shake things up a bit, he heads to boarding school, in search of a “Great Perhaps.” He spends the majority of the novel following his roommate, Chip Martin, AKA the Colonel, who drinks a ripe concoction of milk + vodka, prides himself on a record number of ejections from basketball games, and boasts a long history of dangerous pranks. Miles also falls in love with Alaska, a mischievous, lewd, brilliant, and unbalanced girl who embraces pranks, sex, and books with equal fervor. Other characters, from the Eagle (the headmaster) to Takumi (a classmate who talks with his mouth full and raps elegantly), pop up in Technicolor while Miles Halter dutifully studies for his classes, analyzes those around him, and pines for Alaska.

Miles in his hesitant approach to life (thus “Halter”?) is a character whose function is to mirror others. He’s the mild, nerdy counterpoint protagonist who doesn’t dare upstage the racy, rebel classmates. He stays minor so as not to steal their comet fire.

This is realistic, this is true to life, but is it what we the people want? Shouldn’t a minor character rise to major action at some point in the course of a novel–action bigger than pranks and deep sorrow? Because while “Miles to Go” Halter is much wiser at the end, his most internal, intangible shift doesn’t shake my soul.

Likewise Harry Potter is more mirror than actor for a good portion of book one. He’s dull compared to the colorful Ron (redheaded, too) who guarantees clumsy, hot-headed behavior. Hermione is more memorable than Harry for her academic zeal and busybody flair. Even the Dursleys, more caricature than characters, are better sketched–louder, fuller, easier to see. Harry can’t even recall the most important event of his eleven year-old life: surviving an encounter with Voldemort. His most interesting moment happened prior to consciousness. He’s a blank slate that needs a few scratches.

But when Harry finally looks in the Mirror of Erised in the most climactic scene, he earns the brave and wise culmination of a series of major actions, heroic actions throughout the novel. When the stone drops into Harry’s pocket, he’s earned it for being courageous, loyal, and pure of heart.

Miles stands up to peer pressure once but most of the time, he waits for orders from the more outrageous Colonel to execute various pranks. He dates the girl Alaska chooses for him and even follows Alaska’s instructions for a sexual encounter. He says, “She taught me everything I knew about crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry. She made me different.”

He will still have to work hard to be as different as Alaska. She’s a bit of a basket case but the one we all want to watch. Maybe Miles is too normal a nerd, in that he comes from nice parents who love him. The Colonel’s and Alaska’s family histories are much more complicated. That sets these characters up to hunt hard and fast after something, even if they don’t know what they’re chasing. Miles isn’t chasing much of anything save a “Perhaps.”

Harry steps out with a concrete, jock action–looking like a Division 1, number-one draft pick for quidditch. He dashes to the ground at top speed in search of the snitch. And he rushes headlong into a confrontation with Voldemort, his worst enemy. He also chooses Gryffindor over Slytherin. These are deep moral choices with consequences; meanwhile, the worst enemies at Culver Creek are the rich kids who are minor irritations at best, despite a horribly dangerous prank they pull on Miles in the beginning. That seems a missed opportunity for a powerful conflict, but neither the Colonel nor Alaska seem that disturbed by what Miles goes through.

Miles’ biggest regret is not doing the right thing before he loses Alaska. It’s a pretty big miss, and one that any teen could be guilty of, tonight. A huge moral miss. Harry has no such regrets.

Is this a problem? In the contemporary YA novel, perhaps not. Many of us are no doubt just like Miles–lukewarm in most of our actions in a world full of illusions and grays that we can’t wave a wand at. Especially in a difficult transition such as adolescence, we handle liminality by retreating and doing what I call nerd-ing: maintaining that hyper-reflective, observing, analyzing, hiding, and quiet stance. Maybe us nerds, we’re not so much mirrors as deep pools, with all kinds of untapped potential swirling beneath our still surfaces. Maybe we watch others’ dangerous lives as a dress rehearsal for our own. And maybe we let bad things happen to people. That banality of evil stuff. The only penance is Miles’ deep sorrow.

In the last pages he gains a redemptive wisdom–a gift of forgiveness we all must find when we lose someone. The musings on faith, religion, and the meaning of our minor lives are worth reading as separate essays, and I’ll no doubt go back to these pages.

A last note about nerd heroes, in light of craft: If Miles is the comet tail to Alaska and the Colonel, he brings light and attention to these outsiders, these fringe rebels looking for causes. He is necessary for them to exist–they must have someone to bump up against, even burn–and he reinforces their meaning by following their teachings. These character relationships are very realistic for a contemporary YA novel, where adolescents raise one another, abandoned by absent or incompetent parents and teachers.

But I maintain that the Nerd Hero works best when the circumstances he finds himself in are extraordinary. Hogwarts is an exceptional place to go to school and houses a most exceptional student–the orphaned, scar-marked Harry Potter. Culver Creek is a memorable boarding school, too, with its marauding swan; its intrepid, CIA headmaster; and its rebel warriors. The only piece missing here is the protagonist being exceptional. Miles is smart, kind, and interesting, but in a minor way. He’s too normal of a nerd to take any compelling, concrete risks.

Miles’ one unique feature is his fascination with famous last words, as in Rabelais, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” He can tell you important people’s final words on their deathbeds. That’s quite a streak, but it won’t scorch anyone’s earth. I know a lot of people, including myself, who didn’t leave scorched earth behind in high school, and perhaps that is why we’re still here. Maybe if we’d been better rebels, our tombstones would be the only thing left standing.

In his review of the movie Green Hornet, NPR critic Kenneth Turan says, “How great to have a hero who doesn’t have any powers. Let’s make him a bumbling and ineffectual fool into the bargain…It’s a dicey idea, and the attempt to implement it has been ruinous.”

Looking for Alaska and its nerd hero aren’t failures in the least; it’s a witty, thoughtful book with memorable characters. But there’s a reason it’s titled Looking for Alaska and not named for Miles to Go Halter. Miles is still looking, like so many of us, at the novel’s end. Still a sideliner, follower, armchair warrior, this nerd has many more people to observe before he steps out, alone, on his own faith.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— If you give contemporary novels to your students, do you aim for more realistic portraits of teens or the above-average, exceptional hero? Why or why not?
— Would you teach Looking for Alaska? Why or why not? Check out the Discussion Guide from Penguin here.
— Is Harry Potter the kind of heroic nerd you endorse? Why or why not?

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Define nerd. Do you distinguish nerd from geek, dork, and other terms? Are you or is someone you love a nerd?
— Is it cool to be a nerd? Why or why not?
— Do you like nerd heroes in your books or movies? Why or why not?
— Define hero in light of a story–how do you know a nerd has been a hero by the end of the tale?
— Is American culture pro or anti-nerd or something else in its stance?