Escape from normalcy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of weirdness in fiction. Or rather, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to make stories believable – to create characters, scenes and settings that readers will accept without question.

And I’ve decided the answer is weirdness.

As fiction writers, we make up imaginary worlds and then ask readers to accept those worlds as real. In a lot of ways, this is kind of a big scary cognitive leap (for both reader and writer). So it’s easy to become preoccupied with proving realness. I know in my own writing, I’m often so concerned with believability that I end up building scenes that only serve the story in so far as to reinforce that believability. Or worse, that seem unreal because they are too typical. To avoid this trap, we have to let ourselves write about the gritty oddity of human existence. In explicit detail. Because it’s in the weird that we construct worlds that are actually most believable – and most telling.

Example. I just finished reading “Leopard” by Wells Tower from his short fiction collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The story is about a middle school-aged kid and his relationship with his stepfather. There’s also a humorously incompetent cop and, as the title suggests, a leopard (kind of).

The piece (written in second-person, present tense – very cool) starts out with the kid, lying in bed, thinking about how he doesn’t want to go to school and deciding he’s going to fake sick so he can stay home. When his mom comes into his room to check on him, we get this description:

Your skin is slick with sweat. You slept in your school clothes, jeans and a windbreaker, as you always do, amid the rustling mess of books and magazines piled in drifts on your bed. You will be twelve next year, but you usually still enjoy the solid, imperturbable sleep of a small child. You could get eight hours of good rest in a crate.

I read this, and I thought, wow, this little dude has issues. How much does this image tells us about the protagonist? He’s got to be pretty unaware of himself physically to sleep in his school clothes every night. That his mom allows this, and allows his bed to be a total mess says a lot about her involvement with him, or lack there of. And, best part of all, I didn’t question this description for a second. It rings 100% possible and 100% true. This is this kid’s world. This is his life. I believe it because it’s just a little off from what I anticipated. I’m in. I’m sold.

Conversely, if Tower wrote the room in the way readers expect an 11-year-old boy’s room to look, it does nothing. It does less than nothing. In fact, it potentially undercuts other efforts at characterization.

Here’s Tower’s description of the kid’s sleeping situation, rewritten by me to be devoid of weird:

Your skin is slick with sweat. You slept in your flannel pajamas, plaid and buttoned to your chin, under a pile of matching flannel sheets, the heat turned up high. Beneath your bed is a box of Match Box cars, a mismatched collection of action figures, and a single dirty magazine you pilfered from your stepdad’s private stash. You will be twelve next year, but you continue to sleep with a well worn teddy bear tucked under your arm. You are still a little boy in a lot of ways.

This image is totally unremarkable, and if all I had written was the last line, “You are still a little boy in a lot of ways,” readers would probably just fill in the rest of the scene on their own. Boy clothes, boy toys, one small nod toward puberty under the bed. Check, got it, didn’t need to be told. And by extension, there’s no real reason to believe it. Or to care about it. For that to happen, we’re going to need some weird.

Of course, it’s totally possible to go off the weird deep end. Try this one:

Your skin is slick with a blue-ish, plasma-like substance. You slept in your astronaut suit, complete with airtight helmet, as you always do, amid moon rocks and a half dozen tiny aliens that would gladly eat your face if given the chance. Hence the need for the helmet. You will be twelve next year, but you are still spending upwards of eight hours a day in outer space.

There may be a story out there in which this description could be telling. But removed from any context, it just comes across as weird for weird’s sake. That’s no better than normal for normal’s sake. All we know about this kid’s world: shit’s strange. So clearly there’s a fine line between good weird and too weird. But it’s a line I think we fiction writers have got to try to walk if we want to create compelling characters in situations that are believable.

Simply put, if you want it to be real, you’ve got to make it weird.

4 Comments

  • Deana Krow says:

    You’re clearly on to something, but maybe “weird” is too strong a word. Certainly a character has to be compelling for us to want to know more. But, compelling can be accomplished without out and out weirdness. A little quirky usually will suffice if it’s fully developed and consistent.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Okay, for realz, are you making fun of my future-hypothetical-awkardly-obsessed-with-space son? In 17years he’s going to kick your ass.
    (Didya do the math? That means I’m having a kid in 5 years. Count it)

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