The other day I was thinking about a scene in the holiday classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Yes, I occasionally have odd thoughts like that, despite the season. If you’re not familiar with this Christmas special, go here. (I’m not the only person thinking of Christmas in July. Many stores start selling Christmas decorations in July.) As a red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph has always felt like a misfit. So when he travels to the island of misfit toys with his friends and fellow misfits (like an elf who would rather be a dentist than make toys—see elf above), they feel right at home.
Some of the misfit toys
When I was a kid watching this show, that scene was always poignant to me, especially when the doll (above) later starts crying because she’s unwanted. Also the toys sing a sad song. If you have few minutes, check it out below. Maybe like me, you’ll want to move to the island to take care of the toys.
I can understand a kid’s reticence to play with a train with square wheels or a water pistol that only squirts jelly. But I never understood what was wrong with the doll. She seemed okay to me—not at all a mistfit. I remember asking my older brother what he thought was wrong with the doll. I think I remember him shrugging and giving me a “Who cares?” look, but I wanted to understand her pain! Perhaps beneath the surface, she had enough angst to fill a young adult novel. But her issues remained hidden.
At first I wondered why the scene went through my mind recently. But now I know: because I’m having trouble conveying my characters’ emotions in a way that satisfies a reader. With some characters, I’ve barely scratched the surface of their psyches. Yet I expect readers to care based on scant visuals like a tear rolling down a character’s face (like the doll). But readers, like my beta readers, aren’t fooled by cosmetic things like that. They don’t want see my character’s tears if they’re not ready to shed their own at the character’s plight.
Plumbing the depths of a character’s emotions is very difficult for me, perhaps because I’m so good at hiding my own emotions or blocking emotional trauma. If I don’t want to feel it, I block it. That’s why I resonate with what Princess Unikitty suggested in The Lego Movie. In the quote below, she’s talking about ideas, but just substitute negative emotions, and you’ll understand where my head is at sometimes:
Any idea is a good idea except the non-happy ones. Those we push down deep inside where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them!
But negative emotions have a way of coming out. And they need to come out in healthy ways of course, according to psychologists. But for characters in books, the emotions need to be shown, rather than told, so that readers connect with their lives.
We are our characters’ pipeline to pain. To use a cliché, our pain is their gain. Characters are believable if they have a bit of our interior life. If they’re misfits (some of my characters are), we need to show that by harkening back to our island of misfits experiences. Nobody wants to feel pain. But if we want to go beyond the teary doll syndrome (see the second paragraph if you’re not sure what I mean), we have to feel it, then show it in a believable way. And by we I really mean me: the Queen of Blocking.
Are any of your characters misfits? How do you show it?
Rudolph image from thatericalper.com. Misfit toys image from 3.bp.blogspot.com. Princess Unikitty from http://www.lego.com.