A week ago, I read an interesting article about oddball protagonists by Caitriona Lally, author of the recent, highly-praised novel Eggshells. I liked the article, and was particularly glad to see mentions of Kevin Curran’s Beatsploitation and Daniel Seery’s A Model Partner.
The article was talking about contemporary Irish literature, but I was wondering if it could be applied to historical fiction and other genres. Usually when you’re writing a historical novel, the events are somewhat interesting (in the sense of a Chinese curse) so the oddballness tends to belong to the environment. Also there is the fact that in the time period I was working in, people were oddly enough in some ways less likely to pathologise. Depression and eccentricity were part of human experience. I suspect that only changed during World War I.
Historical Fiction and Oddballs
Wolf Hall‘s Thomas Cromwell is totally in possession of his wits and not lacking cunning. A Long Long Way‘s Willie Dunne is a gentle, warmhearted, somewhat naive youth, not what anyone would call weird. Stephen Wraysford in Birdsong is detached rather than an oddball (and to me doesn’t entirely succeed as a character.) Julie and Maddie in Code Name Verity have a fascination with planes, but what with getting tortured by Germans and flying over hostile territory, they really do have to keep it together. The titular Emperor of I Claudius is too busy trying to thwart the intrigues of his female relatives to have time to be an oddball, though he does have some promise in that regard.
In my own work, I do have quite a few odd people, but I also confess to having a scene where, to quote the article, which disapproves of this tendency: “[the] female characters…gaze at their doe-eyed reflections in mirrors while they brush their silky hair and apply lipstick to their luscious lips” (except Sybil’s not doe-eyed, she’s breaking social rules applying lipstick so does it on the train, and Eva is doing her hair, very badly too) – and frankly, given everything else they have to go through during the course of the novel, they’re entitled to a bit of primping 🙂
One Further Point
But there is one further point I would like to make about oddball characters in Irish literature. It’s this. When you write about a misfit character, an oddball in a hostile world, and describe their journeys and whims – then it’s serious literature.
But then when you write about that same oddball and against the odds have them find another oddball who loves and understands them and these two oddballs form a little unit of weirdness against the hostility of life which threatens to part them – then it’s a disrespected genre and not serious literature any more.
Why is this?