Tuesday, April 9, 2013

My Fictional Heroes

I came across this article, Literary Introverts of my Childhood, in which the blogger explains that her literary heroes were introverts like her. It got me thinking about how many of my fictional heroes are introverts and how many are extroverts.

The Introverts

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy is a character I have always loved and admired. I saw the movie in third grade and read the book in fifth grade. I loved that Harriet kept notebooks and wrote about everyone and everything. She actually inspired me to start keeping my own journals. I thought being a spy like Harriet would be so cool. But what I loved about Harriet more than her spying or her writing was just how important these things were to her. Even when her classmates read what she's written about them and all gang up on her, she never backs down. She writes right in front of them to let them know that she's not backing down. Her spying and writing are more important to her than not having the entire class hate her. Harriet even says the if she had to choose between being a spy and having friends, she'd pick spying. That was really inspirational to me. Now that I'm older, I would pick having friends, but when I first saw the movie and for the first half of my life, there were a lot of things that were more important to me than having friends. Most of children's media tells us that having friends and being social are the most important things to strive for, so to hear Harriet say that spying was more important to her made me feel like, "Wow. I'm not the only one." And Harriet lives by her own priorities. When her parents take her notebooks away because of all the trouble they've caused, she stops doing her schoolwork. She's not willing to function and do all that stuff she's supposed to do if she can't have what actually matters to her.

Harriet always knows exactly what she wants. She knows she wants to be writer. She eats the same tomato sandwich every day. People try to get her to try different sandwiches, but she knows what she likes. She's not wandering around trying to figure things out like her peers, and it's hard for them to accept that. Her nanny, Golly, tells Harriet, "You're an individual and that scares people, and it's going to keep scaring people your whole life."
"What do I do?" Harriet asks.
"You stay true to Harriet and accept the cost."

When Harriet's classmates are upset by what she's written about them, the common response we might expect is for Harriet apologize for writing what she did and say that what she wrote isn't true. But she doesn't do that because she has right to write whatever she wants in her private notebooks and it was her friends' faults for reading her notebook without permission in the first place. It actually takes a while before Harriet really starts to miss her friends and realize that she wants them back. Her nanny, Golly, tells her that she will have to apologize and she'll have to lie in order to get her friends back. I had a hard time understanding this when I was younger - how could they be friends again if she lied to get them back? But even so, I liked the acknowledgement that it would be a lie. She did miss her friends, but she wasn't about to say that she shouldn't have written what she did. One of the ways that Harriet and her friends get back together is that while she's missing them, they also start to miss her. They start to feel like they want to be friends again because they actually like Harriet.

The story ends with Harriet becoming editor of the school newspaper, using the information in her notebooks to write things that people liked to read, and apologizing to everyone by retracting what was in her notebooks. What I love about this ending is that Harriet grows as a writer and uses her passion to fix the problem, rather than cutting back on her passion. I also love that she never actually apologizes for writing in her own notebooks - she "retracts" them from the newspaper, from the public. There's a difference.

At the end of the book, Harriet says, "Golly's right. Sometimes you have to lie."
At the end of the movie, Harriet says, "The truth is important, but so are your friends. And if you can have them both, then it's a good life."

I struggled with this concept when I was younger. Watching it when I was older made me realize that there was a way to stay friends and not stop being truthful or being yourself.  Harriet managed to stay friends without losing the truth or what mattered to her in the process. She made me realize that if you have good friends, you can resolve a conflict like hers without compromising what matters to you.

Harriet is definitely an introvert in my mind because she's happy doing her own thing. She has good friends but isn't very concerned about what other people think of her. She is interested in other people for entertainment purposes, like she's watching a movie, but she doesn't care about being liked or fitting in. Socializing isn't her priority - she's fine telling her friends that she can't hang out because she has spying to do.

I think Harriet is the fictional character that I identify with the most.

Amelia's Notebooks 

Before I even knew Amelia, I loved her because of her notebooks. All of Amelia's notebooks are actually handwritten (not just a font that looks like handwriting). She writes down everything and draws her own illustrations. Her margins are always filled with her observations - lists of fun things to do on long car rides and things she hates about long car rides, drawings of different people's hands and what they show about the people - side-track things that make her notebooks feel like real notebooks.  She writes short stories based on what's on her mind - they're not wonderful stories, but the way she includes them in her notebook feels realistic. I love the way that she uses illustrations to show how she's feeling. Her notebooks were what I aspired my journals to look like. One time Amelia's new step-mom read her notebook without permission and Amelia had to decontaminate the notebook afterwards. That's exactly what I would do, and I thought, "Wow. We're so much alike." And I admired her passion - how she put so much effort into something that was just for herself.

I'm pretty sure Amelia is an introvert because she doesn't hang out with large groups of people. She has her best friend Carly, her friend Leah, and her old best friend Nadia from before she moved. But that's it. She doesn't talk about anyone else as being a friend. When she had to move in her first notebook, the only person she was really going to miss was Nadia. She never mentioned or stayed in touch with anyone else.

The other reason Amelia is an introvert is that she really has her own world - she does write a lot about her friends and family, but she also talks about her other interests and her general observations of things. She would like to fit in, but she's not extremely concerned about what's going on at school unless it interests her or it affects her personal world. In her middle school notebooks, Amelia worries about not being cool or grown-up enough for Carly, but it's because she doesn't want to lose Carly as a friend. Amelia wouldn't care much about being cool or acting like a seventh-grader on her own because she's happy just doing her own thing.

A Wrinkle in Time  

A Wrinkle in Time has always been one of my favorite books. Meg has to travel with her brother Charles Wallace and her new friend Calvin to rescue her father from a planet billions of light years away.  I love the adventure and the characters. Meg starts off very insecure and hating herself. She doesn't fit in at school, gets into trouble, and people think she's dumb. But she's not dumb. In fact, everyone in her family is very smart. But they don't always fit in to their social world. Everyone thought Charles Wallace was dumb because he didn't speak until he was about five (the book is from 1962, so people might not have considered autism), but when he did begin speaking, his speech was very advanced and he could also read people's minds. Meg is doing badly in math class because she has learned so many tricks and shortcuts and doesn't understand how to do math the long, drawn-out way that her school requires. Meg's brothers Sandy and Dennys are super-smart also, but they manage to blend in at school - they play sports, they're popular, they don't let on to how different they are from their classmates. Calvin is sort of the same way - he's athletic, popular, and hides how super-smart he is. In the sequel book, A Wind in the Door, Calvin and Meg learn to kythe, or communicate telepathically without speaking. All these characters have exceptional powers.

I love the characters' journey and all the things they encounter, but in terms of Meg, I like that she doesn't try to pass for something that she isn't. It's hard to tell in an adventure story whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert because the characters are in an emergency situation, but I think Meg might be an introvert not ecause she's socially awkward and doesn't fit in, but because it's not worth it for her to try to fit in. Sandy and Dennys seem to like having a lot of friends and socializing and having a typical school experience. For them, acting like everyone else is not to avoid being outcast, but to be able to have fun with their peers. As much as Meg would like to fit in, she doesn't seem like she would enjoy hiding part of herself. Calvin hides that part of himself to fit in, but he isn't happy. I like that Meg never acts - everyone knows how she is feeling and she never tries to hold it together. I relate to her a lot in that way. Meg grows a lot in the story - after having to save her father's life and pull Charles Wallace out of a deep hypnosis, I think she figures out that she's not dumb, that she is capable regardless of what her peers say.


I've always loved the story of Matilda. I loved the book and have watched the movie over and over again. I love the relationship that Matilda has with Miss Honey, and Miss Trunchbull makes a perfect villain. Most of us have had our share of Miss Trunchbulls and Miss Honeys in school. Maybe our mean teachers never threw kids out the window, but we imagine that they would. Maybe teachers don't actually adopt students whose parents don't want them, but a lot of us have had strong bonds with teachers, and some kids probably feel a parent-like bond if they don't have a good home life. And there are families like Matilda's - maybe not exactly like hers, but the way they treat her isn't unrealistic. And while not many four-year-olds could learn to read on their own and find their way to the library from a phone book address, that concept of having to do everything on your own because your parents don't care is not far-fetched. Matilda is like an exaggerated realistic story. I love that she's so smart and brave and does everything on her own, like getting books from the library and getting Miss Honey's doll out of Miss Trunchbull's house. I love that she finds her telekinetic power and uses it to drive Miss Trunchbull out of the school. It's not just about moving things around with her mind - it's about finding a hidden strength. I love it when the kids stand up to Miss Trunchbull - the scene where Matilda gets the kids to start cheering for Bruce when Miss Trunchbull is forcing him to eat cake is one of my favorites.

I had never thought of Matilda as an introvert until I read that article on Psychology Today. I think she's an introvert because socializing is not her number one desire. Matilda didn't have any friends before she started school, and if she was smart enough to find her way to library, she could have just as easily gone to a nearby park and played with other kids. In the movie, she actually reads her books at the playground instead of playing. Matilda has great friends, but social activities are not the center of her world.

The Extroverts

Harry Potter 

The Harry Potter books are my absolute favorites. Harry Potter is my number one fictional hero, although I don't have the same personal connection with him as I do with the other characters I've mentioned. Harry is an extrovert. Some people question whether Harry might be an introvert because he keep some things to himself (like detention with Umbridge) and he wants to do thing by himself (so his friends don't die). A lot of people think of Hermione as introverted because she likes to read and isn't the most popular or sociable person. But I think that almost all the Hogwarts students we encounter - with the possible exception of Luna - are extroverted. Why? Because they are always doing everything together. I'm not talking about when they are out fighting the Death Eaters - I'm judging based on how the students act when they are safe at Hogwarts. They always seem to spend their free time with other people. Someone might sit alone if they're angry with their friends or if they desperately need to finish their homework, but you never really see any of the students, even Hermione, just do something alone in their free time because they like to be alone. Luna seems like the only Hogwarts student we know well who might be an introvert because she's comfortable in her own world.

Like A Wrinkle in Time, it is very hard to judge introversion/extroversion in stories with a lot of adventure. If the characters have to be with people constantly in order to fight evil or save the world, you can't really know whether they enjoy being surrounded by people or not. I was trying to figure out whether Dorothy from the The Wizard of Oz was an introvert or an extrovert, and I really couldn't tell because we don't see much of her normal daily life.

Another thing to keep in mind is that introverts enjoy alone time - it's something that they would choose. Some people classify fictional outcasts as introverts, but that's like saying that someone who is sick in bed for the whole story would rather read books than play outside. That might be true, but you can't really determine that when the character wasn't able to play outside. Someone who is ostracized by their peers or who withdraws from people because of depression or a traumatic experience does not necessarily prefer to be alone. Harriet (before the kids read her notebook), Amelia, and Matilda are not hated by their peers - they just find that socializing with their peers is not their first choice.

As Told by Ginger 

I didn't really like As Told by Ginger when I first saw it on TV, but the show grew on me as I got older. When I first watched the show in 7th grade, the characters seemed a lot older than me, even though we were supposed to be the same age. But by the end of 8th grade, I could relate to it a lot more.  I like that Ginger was insightful - that we would get to hear her thoughts on what was going on, what she was writing in her diary. I also liked Ginger as a character because she stood by her beliefs. Even though she wanted to be liked and cared what people thought about her, she was loyal to her friends.  Her friend Dodie often acted like she would do anything to become popular, but when Ginger was friends with Courtney, the most popular girl in school she didn't compromise her standards or jeopardize her other friendships in order to be popular. She stood up to the popular kids when she needed to (which is probably why Courtney liked her in the first place).

(TW: suicidal thoughts) I went a while without thinking about As Told by Ginger until I went searching for it in college. There was an  episode called "And She Was Gone," which for some reason, I had never seen before, but it made me fall in love with the show again. In this episode, Ginger gets sent to the school counselor because she wrote a poem that sounded suicidal. The show just barely touches upon the issue because her poem was not actually suicidal. But still, the reaction to her poem was something that I could relate to a lot. I liked this episode best because it really got inside of Ginger's mind. I used to watch it over and over again. My other favorite episode was "A Lesson in Tightropes," because we get to see all the thoughts that run through Ginger's mind while she's having surgery.

I liked the way that the characters evolve, how they don't stay frozen in time forever like a lot of TV characters do. Ginger starts dating her friend Daren and her friends have a hard time with it and learn to adjust. All of their friendships become strained when they enter high school and are headed in different directions. Daren breaks up with Ginger, but somehow they end up together eventually, as we see in a flash-forward in the final episode. The show does have some issues (like why Macie's allergies are such a big part of character), but the way that the characters change made it much more real and relatable to me.

At first I thought Ginger could be an introvert because she's so introspective, but now I'm pretty sure she's an extrovert because she is very social. Ginger has her best friends, but she talks to everyone else as well and seems to enjoy being social. Unlike Amelia, who has her own world inside her notebooks, Ginger uses her diary to write about her external world.

I guess when it comes to fictional characters, I don't always have a preference for introverts over extroverts. It really depends on the story and on the individual. I guess I like a combination of introverts, extroverts, and characters who can't be classified.

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