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.
I like words like misfit-how two words have combined to make one. A bit like dis-ease. Sense-less.
A bit of an irrelevant comment for you Linda-bit there you go 🙂
I do love words like that, Andy. I should have known a poet like you would notice things like that. 🙂
I think I have a bunch of misfits in my stories. If we’re going specifically on flaws then nearly every character of mine falls into that category. Writing emotions into a story is a tough one since you have to do one of two things. Either master the language needed to do it without accessing the emotion in yourself or write while letting said emotion free. It can be rather uncomfortable for certain scenes. Personally, I think if part of a story is emotional enough to make me tear up then the readers will have the same feeling.
You have a stellar group of misfits, Charles. And then they bump up against each other and create such lovely friction. 🙂
I need to do some freewriting and see what happens. The main problem I have is not slowing down long enough to really feel the emotion deeply.
Good idea. Giving it time makes it more natural. If you write rushed then it shows.
Aww, I love your story about feeling sad for the unwanted doll and wanting to understand her pain. Conveying a character’s pain without letting the character get whiny or self-pitying is so hard–the story of that “misfit” doll is a great metaphor to hold onto while revising!
Thanks, Laurie! And that’s what I’m trying to do, though in some scenes I have the teary doll syndrome. Arrggh! I’m trying to go deeper though.
Every time I make a reader cry, it’s because I cried first. I’m not sure I consciously do this when I write, but I think I access an old theater technique: the emotions don’t forget. One of my teachers used to make me evaluate a scene, identify the emotions present, and go off by myself to recall times in my life when I’ve felt those emotions. It wasn’t pleasant, but I can cry onstage like magic now.
It’s easier to use with characters, though. I’m having a tough time doing it as myself with this memoir.
That’s a great exercise, Andra. I need to do that. A friend suggested that I watch some acting master class DVDs to see how the actors convey emotion in a scene. I thought that was a great idea. Until I can get those, I’ll use your technique.
How weird. I was just discussing Rudolf with a co-worker who has never seen it (!). What a bunch of conformist jerks at the North Pole. I was rooting for the Bumble.
That’s a hard thing to know: Are readers feeling your characters’ plight? I like to think that people gravitate toward other people. If I make the main character relatable and not whiny, and readers know it’s the main character, they will become invested. As a reader, I already want to identify with the MC, so that should be half the battle.
Your experience with my fiction is probably making you question what I just said about main charatcers being relatable. 😉
I’m enjoying your story, Eric! In some ways Riley’s desperation is relatable though I question his judgment.
I hope my readers will relate to my characters. But they need more work on the emotion end of things.
I love those Christmas claymation classics… great article, Linda.
So far as characters that are misfits, yeah, I have a few of those. You could say my protagonist in “Wolf’s Tail” is one. With a bum arm since birth, he’s been treated as less capable than others in his clan and it bothers him to no end, initially leading him to want to prove himself and eventually reaching the point of caring less and less anymore because he starts to believe it himself.
At least that’s how things look in this draft.. all liable to change of course. 🙂
Makes sense that he would try to prove himself, especially since he’s a military man. Sounds like a great story, Phillip!!!
This is great, Linda! I could watch Rudolph any time of the year, it’s one of my favorites. 🙂
There were so many misfits in that show, but some were stronger in the end, others seemed to wallow. Like Eric, I kind of pulled for Bumble. I felt sorry for him. In the end, he turned out to be a good guy.
One of my recent short stories has a character who is very much a misfit. Although she and her family are homeless, she was able to appreciate what she did have. Even though the shoes her mother gave her for her birthday were found in a dumpster, she still appreciated them.
Oh Jill! That sounds like a great story! Are you submitting it for publication?
I also liked Bumble. In fact, I have a stuffed Bumble on my wardrobe. I took a picture, but couldn’t figure out how to insert it in this comment. I’ll have to print it at some point. 🙂
Ha ha! Really! I’d love to see Bumble…you can email it to me…when you have time. That’s hilarious!
Actually I submitted that story last year to Southern Writer’s Magazine Short Fiction Contest. It was a finalist and was published in their special edition of contest winners. I’ve thought about turning it into a YA Novel, but I’m not sure.
I remember you mentioning that a story of yours was a finalist. That’s so awesome! I think turning it into a novel would be great, Jill!
I think all compelling characters are misfits of some kind or another. It is a piece of their flaw which makes them a key part of a story.
I agree, which is why conflict makes a story great. Had Rudolph been a regular reindeer, the story would be boring. 😀
In the story I’m starting, the protagonist is a misfit but he doesn’t know he’s a misfit because his family is supportive despite being somewhat dysfunctional. I don’t think misfits have to be aware of their status but their actions (like my character’s effort to “fix” his family) should put them further from their goals and this bring them pain.
When is your next book debuting, Lyn?
I’m good at the public happy face 🙂 Very murky when you get beyond that though.
I also am good at the public happy face, though sometimes the cracks show.
Interesting post, Linda. In thinking about one of my WIP (PC), my protagonist is not a misfit on the outside, but he feels it on the inside because of his love/hate relationship with his father and his desperate need to please him. He’s kind of like the doll in that he is still broken and different and isolated on the inside, but on the outside, he seems fine. (not sure that makes sense)
Which makes him a very compelling character, Nancy! And yes, it makes sense!
Princess Unikitty kinda creeps me out. Not sure why. I haven’t seen the movie yet. Maybe she’ll be less creepy when i see the movie.
As always, you make an excellent point. I like writing misfits. I can’t tell you whether I’m any good at it or not yet, but they’re fun.
You’re good at it, ReGi! I’m loooooooooooving your story. I look forward to Arvid’s adventures every week.
*blush* Thanks. 🙂
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I used to love Rudolph too and I felt so sad for the misfit toys. Negative emotions are hard. We spend so much energy trying not to feel them, but, of course, we have to (sigh). Facing some of those is a central part of my WIP–and I’m doing my best to show, though there’s probably some telling there too.
Hi L. Marie, I came to visit from Celine Jeanjean’s blog, and I love this post. I felt exactly the same way about the doll – I could never figure out why she was a misfit, and it bothered me. I still get teary-eyed when she thinks that Santa isn’t coming.
I think a lot of us squash our negative emotions, so it’s difficult to channel them into our writing. I certainly haven’t figured this one out yet. Best of luck with your character crafting!