Awkwardness: The Novelist's Secret Weapon
By Michelle Barker
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve either had to watch someone else’s awkwardness play out in painful slow motion or endure our own. We meet someone and suddenly find ourselves tongue-tied. We ask about a stranger’s children only to discover one of them just passed away. Dad gets invited to the wedding and shows up with a date young enough to be his daughter.
Awkwardness is something we’d all like to avoid, but in fiction it’s a writer’s secret weapon.
One of Those Situations
Take the wedding as an example. Weddings are hard to write without falling into cliché. Awkwardness can come to the rescue because it usually involves something happening that the reader doesn’t expect—and it creates conflict. In one of the weddings in Four Weddings and A Funeral, poor Charles gets seated with a table full of ex’s, all of whom know way too much about his personal life (and vice versa).
In Jane Eyre, Jane is about to marry the love of her life, Mr. Rochester, when Mr. Mason stands up in the middle of the ceremony and announces that the wedding cannot proceed because Mr. Rochester is already married.
Up Close and Personal
While awkwardness shows up quite often in young adult fiction—since adolescence is the age of braces, pimples, and hormones—it’s really a hallmark of humanity at any age.
This means that when you bring awkwardness into a character’s experience, you have the chance to make them relatable and endear them to your reader. It can even soften the edges of an otherwise prickly character and humanize them, as it does in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Eleanor starts out as a character who is hard to like. She’s a loner; she’s bitter; she doesn’t seem to get along well with anyone because she is often unintentionally blunt and says things that she doesn’t realize are inappropriate. But it’s her awkwardness that makes the reader root for her. It makes her vulnerable and genuine.
Tongue-Tied Dialogue and Inner Monologue
Awkwardness can show up in many ways in your work, but two of the most effective are in dialogue and inner monologue. Uncomfortable silences between characters can produce great tension in a scene. Blurting something that you know you’re not supposed to mention (thank you, Freudian slips). Gossiping about someone and having them round the corner with a look on their face that tells you they heard every word. A conversation that stops and starts and stutters its way to embarrassment.
Inner monologue allows the reader to find out directly what’s going on inside a character’s head. Maybe they’re adept at hiding their awkwardness from everyone around them, but if the reader has access to their true thoughts and feelings, they will know the narrator is convinced they’re making an ass of themselves in front of the person (or people) they’re trying to impress.
Again, this is a great way to humanize your protagonist and allow the reader to connect with them on a deeper level. Your reader will recognize themselves in that person and their awful struggles and self-doubt. We’ve been there.
Some Cliches to Avoid
As in most things, while a little goes a long way, you can have too much of a good thing. If awkwardness is the sole defining characteristic of your protagonist, they will only sound one note emotionally and that will get old fast. Show the reader something more than the klutz who’s constantly tripping over their own feet.
The plain girl meets super-hot guy awkwardness of YA fiction will have to do something special for it to stand out from the crowd of novels where this happens all the time.
Awkward characters who make a sudden transformation to smooth talkers might create a surprising character arc, but they won’t convince readers who are looking for more believability and meaningful character development in their fictional characters.
Then again, no growth whatsoever is not the best solution either.
As always, with character development, nuance is the gold standard.
In our personal lives, we expend a lot of energy trying to avoid awkward situations. In fiction, we should embrace them, seek them out. Awkwardness is an excellent source of conflict and a great way to create an emotional connection between your narrator and the reader. It makes the reader care about what will happen to the character, which keeps them turning pages to find out what will happen next.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.