For an outsider, life is a lock to be picked. It’s human nature to want in, and gain the acceptance that will let us rest easy in our skins. Outsiders become keen observers of how the walls between them and others are built, and how gates allow or deny entry.
Our emotions speak of the numerous ways we can be left out. Were you a geek? Sickly? A product of family dysfunction? Perhaps you had the ‘wrong’ skin color or body type, or drew the short straw when it came to birth order (#13, anyone?). On the flip side, perhaps assumptions were made because of your beauty when all you ever wanted was to be taken seriously. Perhaps you were destined for the depths but were plopped into a wading pool.
It didn’t feel good, did it? Don’t repress these painful emotions—lend them to your characters. It makes for great story.
Let’s look at examples of authors who have used the outsider perspective to propel them to bestseller status.
In an interview on her website, this young adult author says she had an idyllic childhood growing up on the Borden (of dairy fame) estate. She was not a Borden. Her family lived not in the mansion, but in a small apartment in half of the property’s converted dance hall. (Hmm, outsider?) Of her work, she says, “I draw extensively on how I remember feeling throughout school. I’ve always been small and thin, (4’11 and ¾”!) but I’ve spent a vast amount of my life feeling like the ‘fat kid’—namely, self-conscious.”
Let’s see how she tapped those feelings in the opening of her wildly successful first novel, Fat Kid Rules the World, a Michael Printz Honor Book that became an award-winning film:
I’m a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks. I’m seventeen years old, weigh 296 pounds, and I’m six-foot-one. I have a crew cut, yes a crew cut, sallow skin, and the kind of mouth that puckers when I breathe. I’m wearing a shirt that reads MIAMI BEACH—SPRING BREAK 1997, and huge, bland, tan pants—the only kind of pants I own. Eight pairs, all tan.
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m standing just over the yellow line trying to decide if people would laugh if I jumped.
This beloved American novelist was born to Chinese immigrant parents, and time and again Tan has dipped into the deep well of this perspective to drive her fiction and memoir. Here’s the opening to her novel A Hundred Secret Senses:
My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.
“Libby-ah,” she’ll say to me. “Guess who I see yesterday, you guess.” And I don’t have to guess that she’s talking about someone dead.
Actually, Kwan is my half-sister, but I’m not supposed to mention that publicly. That would be an insult, as if she deserved only fifty percent of the love from our family. But just to set the genetic record straight, Kwan and I share a father, only that. She was born in China. My brothers, Kevin and Tommy, and I were born in San Francisco after my father, Jack Yee, immigrated here and married our mother, Louise Kenfield.
When someone can’t communicate with you in expected ways, you wonder what is going in in his head—and authors like Haddon have crawled inside that perspective to show us. His novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published simultaneously in identical editions with separate covers, one for teens (after eighteen other titles) and one for adults (his first). It is a great study in show-don’t-tell: with no autism spectrum diagnosis uttered, we discover our narrator’s limitations and strengths from deep within the point of view of a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed teen who must prove his innocence when a neighborhood dog is killed. In numerous interviews Haddon has described himself as an atheist—in other words, he has rejected any pre-conceived worldview and is standing at the gate of life’s meaning, hoping to pick its lock on his own.
In the story, so is Christopher John Francis Boone. Haddon opens with Chapter 2 because of Boone’s predilection for prime numbers. Do you have any doubt that he will be a keen observer?
2. It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
Great examples abound, and hopefully you will now see them everywhere. How can this help you?
Think about the ways you have felt like an outsider, because translating those emotions to your characters is a mad, marketable skill.
Don’t forget your secondary characters. In her new novel based on family trauma and secrets, No Place I’d Rather Be, Cathy Lamb handed off one of the novel’s key emotional moments to a secondary character with Asperger’s, Kyle Razolli, who has literally been taking notes on human behavior his entire life in the hopes of understanding it. While he is surrounded by family members with a supposed emotional advantage, Kyle is the keen observer who figures out what everyone truly needs to heal. The scene where he does so is profoundly moving.
Are you resting easy in your skin? Stop that! Stay in touch with the outsider mentality by trying something new that will give you a distinct disadvantage and record all. Your stories will be better for it.
Over to you! Share from your WIP: how is your protagonist an outsider, and what is s/he doing to try to get in? What stands in her/his way? If you care to tie that in to emotions you’ve experienced as an outsider in your own life story, feel free!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!