Hi, I’m Sarah, and I’m completely awkward. I mean the stumbles through conversations, says the wrong thing, scared of people, misses handshakes, jokes fall flat, paralyzing fear at actual human interaction, kind of awkward.
I swear I’ve gotten more awkward with age, but I’ve finally learned to accept the way I am, and maneuver around it. By which, of course, I mean my extroverted husband has spent the last eight years pulling me out of my shell and picking up conversations for me. (Seriously, how do extroverts do it? Also, I have no idea what to call the opposite of socially awkward—socially adjusted? Let’s roll with that).
Aside from jumping like an electrocuted rabbit whenever someone talks to me and perfecting the uncomfortable side smile, I’ve realized there are benefits of being awkward, especially when it comes to writing. For instance, I love being on the fringe of social gatherings, which are basically the human equivalent of the zoo, and I freaking love the zoo. My husband proposed at a zoo, we went to a zoo the day after our wedding, and on our honeymoon, and for our second anniversary, basically, any time we’re near a zoo we end up there. It’s not just that I love animals, I like watching them do their thing. The best zoos are the ones where the animals have limited interaction with humans.
Parties are no different. As much as possible, I sit back like a socially inadequate Jane Goodall and watch my famiy and friends interact. You can pick up so much by simply observing people in their natural habitat, espeically when they don’t know you’re doing it. The aunt with hyenna laugh, the hamster-like cousin who stuffs his pockets with food to take home later, the bear of an uncle who wants to be left alone and hibernate after dinner, the friend with a gorilla sway to his walk, the girl who hides in the corner like a frightened mouse (totally me).
Being awkward around people means I’m a pro at watching them. Fringe-dwellering writers have an advantage—everything we soak up can be used in manuscripts to really make characters and scenes come alive. What do your friends’ faces look like when they’re upset? How do their laughs differ? How do they move their hands when they’re telling a funny story? (Personally, I have the hardest time figuring out what to do with characters’ hands. In my first drafts no one can figure out were to put the weird grasping devices on the ends of their arms). People watching is a great way to pick up unique little mannerisms. I have a coworker who chews on his shirt buttons when he’s thinking, but he never does it around people. It’s just a small thing I’ve noticed when walking past his office, but it’s the tiny tics that make a character stand out. The YA Highwayers had a great post on this last year if you want more ideas.
There’s only one problem with treating the world like a zoo: the more timid animals, like me, tend to get overlooked. You can’t always see the Pygmy Hippotomus in its zoo habitat, or in the wild. This little guy avoided people until 1860. Then there’s the newly discovered Olinguito that was identified in August 2013. Turns out, zoos have actually housed them in the past, but zoo keepers mistook them for a different animal. Why is this a problem?
Well, there is a whole group of socially awkward or introverted people who go unnoticed in favor of our more outgoing counterparts, not just in the real world, but in books too. Characters portrayed as “awkward” in literature rarely go through any experiences I associate with being awkward. They have socially adjusted interactions, can be in love triangles, and even lead rebellions. Sure they’ll be given a few characteristics to highlight their “awkwardness,” like being clumsy, or they’re described as “bookish” or “nerdy,” but any truly awkward person can tell you these traits don’t automatically make someone awkward, just like being athletic or involved in organizations doesn’t make you socially adjusted. I played three sports in high school, but can barely muddle through a conversation. My husband, on the other hand, is an engineer and works with a whole passel of “nerds,” who I call his “nerdlings” (don’t worry, they’re aware of their title), and as I mentioned earlier, he’s the extrovert out of the two of us.
Awkwardness is more than these stereotypical characteristics. The first book character I remember truly relating to was Meg Murray in A Wrinkle In Time. Just a few paragraphs in, Madeleine L’Engle gives us this about Meg:
“School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, ‘Really Meg. I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.’ During lunch she’d roughhoused a little to try to make herself feel better, and one of the girls said scornfully, ‘After all, Meg, we aren’t grade-school kids anymore. Why do you always act like such a baby?’”
Every time I read that, I experience the discomfort Meg must have felt. There haven’t been many characters I’ve related to on that level.
Recently, though, I encountered Eleanor Douglas. Rainbow Rowell nailed it with Eleanor and Park. I mean nailed it. Eleanor, at least for me, was so awkwardly relatable. She didn’t know what to say, or how to act, or how to stop herself from tumbling down the awkward rabbit-hole. I could highlight any number of passages from this book, but one of the most real and cringe-worthy is the first time Eleanor visits Park. This shouldn’t spoil anything if you haven’t read it:
“Park sat on the couch. Eleanor sat on the other end. She was staring at the floor and chewing on the skin around her fingernails. He turned on MTV and took a deep breath. After a few minutes he scooted toward the middle of the couch. ‘Hey,’ he said. Eleanor stared at the coffee table. There was a big bunch of glass grapes on the table. His mom loved grapes. ‘Hey,” he said again. He scooted closer.”Can’t you feel how awkward they are? I think a lot of teenagers can relate to this sort of uncomfortable, I-don’t-know-what-to-do-next, interaction. I know teenage me would’ve loved to read more characters I understand like Eleanor.
So, as Queen Awkward, I end with two pieces of writing advice: 1) People watch. Watch your friends and family and strangers. This is something the quiet ones probably already do, but even if you’re the rare extroverted writer, try to sit somewhere every once in a while and just observe. I keep a small moleskin in my purse and jot down traits I notice when I’m sitting in the park, or writing at the coffee shop. 2) Don’t just watch the obvious people. Watch the quiet ones. You never know, maybe you’ll be inspired to write the next Meg Murray or Eleanor Douglas.
And remember: awkward can be awesome. Embrace it!
Have any awkward characters stood out to you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.