We try to sort people into boxes and when they don’t fit, we are not that happy. Human beings sure don’t like surprises when it comes to human behavior. Good luck controlling and predicting that. I learned a lot when I wrote my novel Denby Jullsen, Hughenden about how folks are disappointed when they don’t get the behavior they expect.
Before writing Denby, my first book-length fiction for adult readers, I’d worked for several years for The Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune as their weekly faith columnist. This was great! This position kept me writing and ultimately it led to the publication of my first book.
Listen to me read this post:
A friend of mine who had been a faithful follower of my faith column felt proud when I released Denby. She lent the book to her friends, older women who had also enjoyed my column. They were not impressed. What had happened to Lori? She never made references to sex in her weekly column, she never wrote about drinking, and she certainly never swore in her faith pieces.
My friend and her cohorts had inadvertently tripped over one of the differences between a newspaper column and fiction for grown-ups. The borrowed book was unsettling. Feathers flew in the henhouse.
Again, more recently, someone else expressed disappointment with the sexy bits in Denby. It’s been a few years now and I’ve had to explain to some ruffled readers that, if a writer does it correctly, characters in books behave like actual people. They have physical relationships, experience lust, and then lose interest. Some characters drink too much and even swear occasionally while others appear as straight as pins. Later on, those straight characters are the ones who go right off the rails.
Does the writer always get to choose how her creations will behave? Heck no. I try to fit my characters into boxes that suit the plot. I slot them into a timeline and place them on a carefully-mapped trajectory. They usually get to where I intend them to go, but they do unexpected things along the way. They swear, have sex, and have a drink, those unruly, realistic characters.
Fictional characters aren’t the only ones we like to strictly categorize. For years, I tried in vain to neatly compartmentalize myself. “From now on, I will act this way.” It rarely worked out for me. The container into which I stuffed myself kept expanding and changing shape. I’ve accepted now that this will be the case until I’m placed in that final box and dropped into the ground. In fact, now I see all this changing and shifting as something to celebrate, but it took a long time to foster that point of view.
Throughout my life I’ve watched as others like me have tried unsuccessfully to fit into too tight a niche. They believe they should be a certain way. It never quite works out for them, either. I’ve also witnessed people confined by the rigid expectations of others. Living under the weight of cruel control is a joyless, soulless existence. I’ve had the sorrow of seeing some die while still trapped by their restrictive designations, and I’ve felt my heart soar at seeing others break free of their restraints and fly. It can go either way.
I know I’ve said it before, but it’s still true. People are complicated. We are full of surprises and often hard to predict. Yet, we try to mold ourselves and others into what we expect. This leads to a range of reactions from mild disappointment to full-out fury. To avoid disappointment and anger we could learn to accept our changing, unsteady human nature. But that would mean tearing down a whole lot of walls and gaining a fresh new perspective. Sometimes it’s just easier to pigeon-hole ourselves and everyone around us.
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