You would think writing about the fringe would be easy for me. I was born there, I grew up there. In many ways I live there to this day. And yet as I set out to write something, it feels oddly difficult, as though I were attempting to describe the experience of breathing air, or asking a fish to describe water. I don’t know (at least not first-hand) what it’s like in the middle, so it’s hard to make comparisons.
My characters have always been outsiders. Because…well, I’m not sure. Because I know their experience, because I want you to accept them. Because the mainstream does not ultimately strike me as very interesting.
I could be wrong, and I don’t say it as a point of pride, but I think when I write characters on the fringe, they are farther out on said fringe than most writers write, and most readers expect.
Take Ernie, in Diary of a Witness. He’s overweight. Which is nothing much. Lots of people are. And lots of authors write characters who are overweight. And yet…when I read about them, this number is thrown my way…this number of pounds of dreaded overweight…and it doesn’t seem too extreme to me. It’s introduced as this major disaster, and, though I believe it may be to the character involved, it seems less than disastrous to me. Ernie is more than a hundred pounds overweight. He’s deep into the fringe, not on the edges of it. Most people would choose to portray a weight problem using a milder example. But I’m not sure why.
Or when I write about age differences in a relationship. Which, I should say, I mostly don’t in YA, but not everything I write is YA. In Walter’s Purple Heart (though there’s a reason for it that’s not worth going into) I have a relationship between a man in his 20s and a woman in her 60s. In Love in the Present Tense, when I handed it to my Doubleday editor, Mitch was 20-something and Barb was about to turn 50. My editor said that was too much. She really felt it would freak people out. I felt that was their problem. Yet I gave in and toned her down to 42. But now I wish I hadn’t. Think Susan Sarandon. Is anyone really going to fail to see it?
I don’t know. Because I’m on the fringe. What seems right to me might not resonate with others. Yet I wonder…are we really so different from each other? I wonder if we freak out not because we really can’t go there or because we think we’re not supposed to. A reference to the Emperor’s New Clothes would probably fit in well right around here. It’s just a theory, though.
Probably my least fringy character is Theresa from The Day I Killed James. She’s pretty and she’s popular. And she does what everybody else around her is doing. She treats the hearts of others fairly carelessly. But in her case it backfires. So her experience puts her on the fringes.
Sometimes I write a character who’s so out there I worry for him (or her). I worry that I’ll lovingly create this character and readers will dismiss him as “too weird.” The guy who jumps to mind is Billy in Don’t Let Me Go (not YA, but some have said it could cross over easily enough). Poor guy hasn’t been out of his house in 12 years. The whole time I was writing him I was simultaneously loving him and worrying that other people would not. But a glimpse at the reader reviews shows I was worried for nothing. Other people love Billy, too. I think it’s because he tries. He really makes an effort to move beyond his hangups. But why is not so much the issue. It’s the feeling I get when I create a character that far from the mainstream and then watch him be met with acceptance. It makes me feel that people are basically good, and can be trusted. And that we’re going to be okay after all.
It’s a triumph if I can make you love a character you might dismiss in real life. I think it’s the reason I do what I do. And keep doing it. And that has to circle back to the fact that I never hit the mainstream myself.
It’s a logical connection.