The Disruptive Force in the Story

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The protagonist of my first novel, Nimri, has a personality that in real life would be Kryptonite to me.  (Whichever kind of Kryptonite it is that saps Superman’s strength.  Green, I think.)

On the MBTI, Nimri is an ESTP:

Extraverted

Sensing (i.e. concrete)

Thinking (no special desire to please people)

Perceiving (adaptable)

ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude.  David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:

Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is.  ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case.  Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way.  Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.

Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65

How Did This Guy Get in The Story?

I’m an INFP.  I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character.  But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.

When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote).  I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption.   Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.

At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type.  He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them.  Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner.  (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)

At this point, Nimri’s Promoter gifts kick in and start to serve him well.  He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary and occupies himself with things like arm exercises.  His ability to read people’s body language helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language, he begins joking with them.  His concrete nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.

By the end of his time with his captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP.  Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter personality start to shine.  He becomes what you might call a “good” ESTP.  Still a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive.  Red Kryptonite.

Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story. 

Some People Are Like That

Perhaps you know a person like this.  Some people need only enter a room – or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out.  Disruption follows in their wake.  They don’t even need to do anything (although they usually do).  In Nimri’s case, he causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.

And We Need Them

Though I started out to write Nimri as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually needed his maddening nature more than I realized.  A story needs a disruptive force to keep things moving.  Jordan Peterson would say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.  Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be stifling, enslaving.  And so in a novel.  You need a steady source of trouble or nothing will happen in your story.

(By the way, Peterson relies heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived – distantly – from Jung’s work.  I realize there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life.  However, both are useful when talking about stories.)

The disruptive force in a story is often the villain.  It can be that character that readers love to hate.  Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature.  In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order.  This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies).  It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters.  You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor.  It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home.  In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.

What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?

Don’t Tell Me Your Story is About Misfits. Because That Tells Me Nothing

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I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.

Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:

  • the girl who is plain or fat
  • the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
  • the orphan or stepchild
  • the sensitive, misunderstood artist
  • the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
  • the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
  • the person who stands out because of their race
  • the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
  • the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
  • the drag queen

That’s just off the top of my head.

When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.

Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.

We Are All Misfits

Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!

It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.

In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.

So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.

To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.

Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin

In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?

The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.

Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.

Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness

This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?

Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.

I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)