Revising Leah

November 19, 2008

Is Leah Just Introverted, Or Is There Something More?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday’s short post reminded me of a concern that I have had ever since I wrote the very first draft of Leah. My concern is that I’ve created a character who is too introverted. While I’m willing to bet there are a few teenagers out there who are as extremely introverted as Leah Nells, most introverts and shy people don’t live in near total isolation as Leah does.

In the first chapter of the novel, I don’t offer any exposition for why Leah isn’t saying anything to anyone. I simply describe how she behaves when she’s in the presence of strangers, and how that behavior angers and disappoints her mother. In the second chapter, I do offer some necessary exposition of Leah’s past, including this passage:

Before she was even old enough to walk, she would enter fits of panic and tearful screams whenever a stranger came near. When she was older and her parents took her out in public, she would cling desperately to them, holding their hands and hiding behind her parents’ legs when she was introduced to another child . . . . Her parents believed that Leah would eventually grow out of her shyness, that she would make friends and lead a normal life just like any other healthy little girl. But she didn’t. By the time Leah started kindergarten, the fits of panic had stopped, but in their place came silence. Leah almost never spoke to anyone, whether children or adults, even when they spoke to her directly. . . . While other children played with one another, Leah seemed perfectly content to be by herself. When she played with dolls, she never spoke to them and never pretended that they were speaking to each other.

What I worry about is that readers will “misdiagnose” Leah’s problem at this point, that they’ll assume that she has a serious developmental condition or disease — like autism, perhaps. But that’s not what I want the reader to think. Hopefully, as the novel goes on, I make it sufficiently clear that Leah’s only “problems” are that she has an extremely introverted personality, and she is very shy (introversion and shyness are not the same thing — see my comment below). Otherwise, Leah is supposed to be a typical teenage girl. Indeed, it’s important, thematically, for the reader to believe that she is a normal girl other than those two personality quirks.

For example, despite what many of her classmates at school believe, Leah isn’t stupid. I’ve never seen her report card, but I would guess that she is a B or B-minus student — an average student academically. She does better in some classes than others (she prefers math over English), but she doesn’t warrant special attention from her teachers, and she isn’t enrolled in the special education program.

Part of Leah’s internal conflict comes from her belief that she is really, really weird, and that she is the only person in the world who is as uncomfortable and as at a loss in social situations as she is. The reader, I hope, knows the truth: that most of Leah’s fears and worries are experienced by other people, even extroverts. It is that secret knowledge that lets the reader empathize with Leah and all of her experiences in the novel.

Originally, Leah was a novel that allowed me to explore ideas about individualism (that remains a theme, but the novel has grown into something much more), and in order to create a character who was truly an individual, I needed to isolate her as much as possible. So I not only gave her an introverted personality, I gave her an extremely introverted personality — and I made her shy on top of that. Some readers may find Leah an unrealistic character, but, like I said, I’m willing to bet that there are a few people out there who are living Leah’s life.

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3 Comments »

  1. It’s important to distinguish between “introversion” and “shyness.” They are two different conditions, although their outward symptoms are often similar: a quiet person who spends most of his or her time by herself.

    While it may be true that many introverts are also shy, a person with an extroverted personality can be shy, too (which is probably an extremely uncomfortable experience). People who are shy are quiet because they don’t know how to talk or are too afraid to talk, even though they might have something that they really wish to say. Introverted people have little to no desire to engage in social activities. They don’t necessarily fear talking to people; they just prefer not to. Introverted people aren’t alone because they can’t make friends. They’re alone because they don’t feel compelled to make friends.

    I’m an introvert, and over the years I’ve discovered that I tend to frighten extroverts. I just completely baffle them. In fact, I had an experience just the other day where I freaked someone out. It was a “corporate training” kind of situation where I was in a room full of people. Naturally, I sat by myself. The trainer/teacher had us do some activities, some of them in groups, but I decided to work alone. I participated fully — I even spoke up in front of the entire room a couple of times — but otherwise, I kept to myself. Confused by my behavior, the trainer asked me to leave the room with him so he could ask me if I was angry with him or with the people around me. I had to assure him that I wasn’t angry with anyone; I just preferred to work by myself. I don’t think he completely understood.

    Comment by jmreep — November 19, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  2. I read your paragraph, and I don’t think I would get the impression that Leah has some sort of disorder. What you said about her being introverted and shy rings true in it, and while at that point I might be thinking more shy than anything else, I wouldn’t worry about readers not getting the point. I tend to think that while some people might not fully understand her situation, they would be able to emphasize with her because everyone is shy on some level. She’s just an extreme case.

    Comment by chibidoucet — November 19, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  3. Chibi:
    Perhaps, but you’ve been following my blog for a while and so you already have a pretty good idea of who Leah’s character is. One of the most difficult things that I have to do as I revise is to imagine what the story would be like for someone who is completely unfamiliar with it. I have to ask myself, “Will a first-time reader understand what is going on here, and how can I make the reader understand?” It’s too easy for me to take for granted knowledge and information about Leah and her backstory that I have known for years, but which a first-time reader has no idea about. That’s a big danger.

    Comment by jmreep — November 20, 2008 @ 9:11 am


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