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Why Writing an Introverted Character Is Hard, and Why You Must Do It Anyway

The following is a guest post from Jessica Tom, author of the novel FOOD WHORE: A Novel of Dining & Deceit. Here she writes about the challenge of creating an introverted protagonist. Jessica describes herself as a non-anxious introvert. Find her at www.jessicatom.com and on Twitter @jessica_tom.

In so many books, we follow the adventurer, the warrior, the stranger who brings trouble to town. It is easy to write a page-turner about these action-oriented people. Writing a page-turner with an introverted main character is much more difficult.

A couple years ago, I started writing a novel titled FOOD WHORE: A Novel of Dining & Deceit, a culinary coming-of-age novel about an 18-year old girl named Tia who secretly writes The New York Times restaurant review because the real critic has lost his sense of taste.

The concept is easy to understand, but as with so many things, it’s all in the execution. Tia is an introvert. But like real-life introverts, Tia was prone to being misunderstood. When I shopped the manuscript to agents, I got these sorts of responses:

“We felt that Tia came across as whiny at times, especially with respect to Emerald, who seems to have done nothing wrong or that warrants Tia’s intense dislike of her.”

“She frequently gets angry out of nowhere, and we thought she was unnecessarily ruthless with Carey.”

“Why hasn’t she made any friends in her classes? Doesn’t she have friends from high school she might call for advice, even if they’re at different colleges?”

Take my word for it: I would never write a whiny, unlikable, navel-gazing main character—yuck!—yet, that’s how people are often primed to think of the quiet, slightly anxious people in the room, fictional or otherwise. Now, you can blame the reader for the misinterpretation, or perhaps make the main character all sunshine and giggles. Or you can do the more difficult thing: give a voice to the introvert and fight that bias.

Here’s the book’s premise: Tia lives in public as a college freshman. She is navigating her first love, coping with her sexy roommate, and trying to please her parents. But in her secret life, she is directing the NYC dining world. She gets access to a glamorous world and sees her words in the world’s most influential newspaper. She is afraid of success, of losing her love, of failing, of judgment. Writing The New York Times restaurant review under secrecy keeps her safe from criticism—until it doesn’t.

The emotional core of the book is how Tia reconciles her introversion with her ambition and personal relationships. This is a subtle and hard thing to articulate, especially given the uphill battle introverts must climb in the realm of public perception.

But for every Huck Finn, Odysseus, and Harry Potter, video game-like characters who thrust the book through action, there are many introverted characters. Hamlet, Holden Caulfield, Mrs. Dalloway. These are the characters you relate to most. I may never catch a killer, win a war, save a country. But I endure little humiliations each day. Everyday I am learning about my weaknesses. And everyday I am living my greatest drama—learning how to overcome what Trollope calls the “lacerations on the human spirit.”

The best way to turn an introverted character into someone you want to spend 300+ pages with is by baring his or her soul in a way that might feel uncomfortable at first. But do that you must. You must prove she is not whiny, but sensitive and pained. She isn’t angry, but scared. She isn’t pathetic and lonely…but happier and more productive alone.

If you put in the effort to really understand your introverted character, then the payoff can be enormous. The introverted mind can be a thrilling minefield. Her choices can be life or death. And her feelings can be so deeply felt that the reader gets chills just thinking about her story.

This is what I sought to achieve in my book, a 320-page novel starring an introverted main character, and I am looking forward to sharing Tia’s story with the world.

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.

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