Does anyone else look for their own characteristics in books? Do you look for characters that could be you, if life happened to swing that way if you happened to live in the 1920’s or a dystopian world where children fought to the death?
When I look through my “read” history on Goodreads, I recognize a pattern… In many of the books I read have characters that look and act exactly like me. If they don’t look or act like me, they look and act like I want to.
It is incredibly normal to be attracted to books with characters that you can either relate to or desire to be like.
However, when I look through my literature history, the books I’ve read over the years and the lives I’ve lived with these characters, there is another clear pattern. MANY of my favorite books, my favorite characters, are nothing like me, and nothing like I’ll ever be.
Earlier this year, I read a book called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This novel rocked my world.
Eleanor is a very average woman, living a very lonely existence. She goes to work and returns directly home all week. Then on the weekends she wastes away in a pool of vodka and margherita pizza. She has no friends, very little family, and a very hard and tragic backstory that is slowly and painfully revealed throughout the entire novel.
For those of you who remember my blog RIP, Miss Brill, you may remember the soft spot I have for these sad, and dare I say, pathetic, characters. It doesn’t make sense for me to believe that I might relate to them or their life.
When I read these stories, I find no upfront similarities between their life and mine. I have wonderful friends, exciting weekends, a loyal husband, and now two large and loving families.
But I do relate, for whatever reason, despite the vast contrast.
And when I think about it all, when I compare, when I line up their life to my own, I recognize, that through it all, I am only one or two unfortunate mishaps separated from these two women and all these characters that I bond with so quickly.
I am attracted to and broken by these stories because I am only a few bad circumstances, a few unlucky genetic makeups, a few mental or social illnesses, a few deep and harsh personality traits, a few chemical imbalances away from being Miss Brill or Eleanor Oliphant.
We snub our noses at these people, both in literature and in life. You should have heard the remarks that my AP Literature class made about Miss Brill all those years ago. These were educated and sensible young adults who chose to snub their nose at this fictional lady who was “different” or “weird” or “needed a life.”
I get it, it was a short story, and we were all high school seniors in our last semester, but how does this translate to how we treat these same people outside of a fictional realm?
The reality is this: me, and you, and all of them, we are all just a couple, or maybe just one, mishap away from being this very different character, from living a very similar and tragic life.
This is why I think it is so important to read books about people who are incredibly different than we are, not just culturally, but also by how our minds are formed and developed.
Some of my favorite characters, and favorite real-life people, for that matter, have mental or social disabilities, and these disabilities help them to see the world so differently than I see it. This difference is beautiful and necessary, and eventually, as you get to know them, it stops making them weird. It makes them incredible.
In their little world, these characters are “strange.” Interactions with them are “uncomfortable.” And even in our world, many people won’t be able to make it through these stories narrated by these unique minds.
However, I want to introduce you to some of my absolute favorite thoughts, views, and opinions on life. I hope that the unique perspectives will impact you the way they have impacted me. If you take me up on this challenge and choose to read one of these books that remain near and dear to my heart please, PLEASE, show them grace, and love, and understanding. See them as people just barely different than you are.
Oskar Schell: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
My friend Oskar is a nine-year-old who is affected by both an unfortunate event and a mental disorder. From the beginning of the novel, you understand that the mind creating the story has some kind of unique social disability, which is developed more throughout the novel. On 9/11/2001 his father passed away, along with so many others in the World Trade Center. Oskar spends the entire novel facing his fears and social dilemmas in order to solve one last mystery that his dad leaves for him.
Christopher Boone: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Meet my friend Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome. He’s a math genius and a master puzzle solver, but his life is incredibly driven by his many pet-peeves, as many with this syndrome experience. When he runs into a puzzle that he just must be solved, he steps out of his comfort zone and uncovers some hard and heartbreaking truths. This book is hard to read, but I guarantee that the lessons you learn through this unique mind will impact you for the rest of your life.
Eleanor Oliphant: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
And finally, my most recent friend, Eleanor. Let me start by saying, those of you who were broken by Miss Brill, this is a book that you NEED to read. This story may redeem any heartbreak there. Eleanor seems like more a product of tragedy than anything else, though the novel explores the subjects of mental illness and depression on a very vulnerable level. This story is not only a tale of the mind, but also a tale of unmeasurable grace. Eleanor meets one single friend, one single person, willing to accept her and show her value, and the difference that a single act of kindness can make is baffling.
These characters have some incredibly lovely qualities, and just the time spent inside of their words has played a huge role in my own mission. Keep reading the books with characters that you know you relate to, but also try to meet a few new misfits.
In addition, please feel free to let me know of your own favorite misunderstood characters. Understanding those who seem different from us, who even make us a little uncomfortable, is incredibly important on our journey to being lovely.