Friday, June 16, 2017

10 Tips for Writing Socially Awkward Characters

"Hey there! What's up?"

"Oh, uh. Good, thanks!"

"...."

Oh dear. It looks like Socially Awkward Character has done it again. He was going to be so careful about not being awkward today. He even came up with standard responses to small talk. But he overthought it and now it looks like he has yet another event to add to his list of Awkward Moments that he'll be losing sleep over.

Socially Awkward Character is a favorite of mine. He/She shows up in many novels, floundering his way through life with a level of awkwardness that should be unknown to man, but actually isn't because we are all awkward people and gosh, this character's inevitable success is so darn encouraging.

Unfortunately, just like Social Awkward Human in real life, Socially Awkward Character is often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and miswritten in fiction. But he's too nervous to bring the topic up and point this out to us authors, so I'm going to speak on his behalf. Ready? Okay. Let me explain some pointers to make your Socially Awkward Character realistic.
Hannah Heath: 10 Tips for Writing Socially Awkward Characters
First off, a socially awkward person is a person who has a difficult time with social interactions because they don't seem to have/know how to use/even know that they are missing the correct responses to social cues. This is sometimes due to anxiety, but not always.

1. They don't need a reason to be socially awkward. No, they don't need to have been dropped on their heads as children. They don't need to have been former extroverts who went through a traumatic event and slunk into a shell of social awkwardness. You know that one amazingly lucky person you know who was just born naturally charismatic? Well, the same goes for socially awkward people, and, thus, for socially awkward characters.

2. There's a difference between awkward and socially awkward. We all have awkward moments. In fact, many of your characters probably have more than one. Socially awkward characters, however, are in an almost constant state of awkwardness.

3. There's a difference between autism and socially awkward. Many autistic people are socially awkward, but not all socially awkward people are autistic. Got it? You sure? Because this is an important point. Writing an autistic character is a whole different ball game. Please don't confuse your character portrayal.

4. Pick a list of awkward things your character does. Every socially awkward character should react differently. Here are various struggles that socially awkward characters have.
  • They have a hard time making or keeping eye contact. 
  • They constantly stumble over their words and mumble. 
  • They fidget during conversations....Or hold themselves in incredibly stiff positions.
  • They don't talk often because they're afraid of stumbling over their words....Or they talk too much because they're nervous. 
  • They don't understand context or appropriateness. 
  • They don't know how to enter a group conversation....Or a group anything, honestly.
I would too, man. It's okay. *pats on back, awkwardly shuffles away*
  • They try to shrink down when they're in a group setting in a desperate attempt to become invisible and, thus, left alone. 
  • They blush or turn pale when talked to. 
  • They are awful at small talk and thus plan out conversations ahead of time, but then get confused when the other party doesn't follow the script. 
  • They apologize frequently, even when something isn't their fault. 
  • They don't like to correct other people in public. Even when the person is clearly wrong. Sometimes even when the person specifically asks for correction. 
  • They get part way into a sentence, then kind of trail off because people aren't listening and, you know, it's probably not super important and maybe dumb and....you know....So yeah. 
  • They talk to themselves. A lot.
Aaaaand I just realized that I fit quite a few of these examples. *sheepish grin* *runs off to take a Social Awkwardness levels quiz* Well. BuzzFeed says I'm "Moderately Socially Awkward." So kind of them. I feel much better now. 

5. They overanalyze everything. Like, everything. No, you don't understand. EVERYTHING. Let me show you how their mind words: Driving in the rain? Gotta make sure the windshield wipers are going the same speed as everyone else's. Teacher taking roll call? Gotta make sure to say "here" in the exact same way as everyone else. Got a funny look from an acquaintance? Well, now there's no chance of making friends with that person because something has gone horribly wrong, but what was it?? Socially Awkward Character overanalyzes everything. And keeps overanalyzing events years after they've taken place. This can lead to your socially awkward character believing that he's more socially awkward than he really is, but being so wound up about it that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Poor guy. 

6. Your socially awkward character doesn't need to be introverted. It should also be noted that social awkwardness is not exclusive to introverts. Extroverts can be socially awkward, too, it just looks slightly different. Extroverts will talk too much, laugh too loud, and just generally try too hard. While introverted socially awkward characters try to fit in by making themselves smaller, extroverts can try to fit in either by making themselves larger...or by attempting to tone themselves down and thus coming across as stiff or creepy. Read this post on how to write extroverts if you're confused.

7. Socially awkward characters have a lot of upside. They really do, though they may not believe it. Give your poor character a break and recognize him/her for all the things they do right. Maybe he's refreshingly candid (a side-effect of not being good at small talk). Maybe she's an excellent listener and very observant because she chooses to talk very little. Maybe he's persistent because he's had a lot of practice from failing socially and still continuing to try to make friends. Maybe, though she doesn't have a ton of friends, the ones she does have she's very loyal to. Maybe his awkwardness is just incredibly precious and lovable. 

8. You don't need to cure your socially awkward character. Social awkwardness is not a disease. Newt Scamander is an excellent example in this area. He is undeniably awkward around people. He has a hard time making eye contact, he hunches, he's not particularly good at carrying a conversation. But he's very intelligent, a gifted Magizoologist, and though he's not a conversationalist, he has very strong opinions and will voice them if pushed. 
The movie never apologizes for his social awkwardness. In fact, one of the things that makes him such an excellent character is his layered, awkward personality. Learn from J.K. Rowling. You don't need to fix your socially awkward character. While he/she may need to overcome his awkwardness to get through certain circumstances, that doesn't mean that he/she needs to go through a complete personality change. 

9. They don't always need to have low self-esteem. How about some more socially awkward characters who know they're awkward and have a good sense of humor about it? Or ones who see it as a flaw, but don't really mind because they know they're good at other, more important things? 

10. Read up on other socially awkward characters. Obviously, I think Newt Scamander is an excellent example. Others include: Charlie Brown, Piglet, Hiccup, Lilo, Neville, Mr. Darcy, Mary Bennett, Merlin (kind of), and Sue Heck. Awesome people on twitter had more to add, so click here to read their thoughts! Notice that they exist in all genres (not just contemporary) and can absolutely be main characters, not just secondary comic-relief characters.

Tell me a little bit about the socially awkward character you're writing (or your favorite fictional awkward character!). Do you have tips to add? Please leave them in the comments below!

Related articles:
Writing Introverted Characters: 8 Things You Should Know
Writing Characters With Depression: What You're Doing Wrong

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19 comments:

  1. Yes! Socially awkward characters are some of my favorites! *gives them awkward side-hug because not everybody likes to be touched* And can I just say, thank you for including #3. My brother and I are both socially awkward in our own ways, but he has high functioning autism and I do not.

    I'd also like to add that socially awkward characters may have trouble making friends, not just making small talk. It's frustrating how in a lot of books, people make friends right away, but that's not always how it works. Speaking from experience, sometimes it takes two or three or ten conversations before I realize who is likely to be a close friend and who is more likely to be an acquaintance.

    Thanks for another great post, Hannah!

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    1. I love that point about making friends! That holds true for me- it always surprises me how quickly people consider others 'friends.' I want more hesitant characters:)

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    2. *returns awkward side hug* Thank you. I'm one of those "don't like to be touched" people, so I appreciate the consideration. =D

      Your point about making friends is excellent! Making friends is hard, especially for us awkward people. Thank you for pointing that out. Great comment!

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  2. Oh, wow, yes!!! to so much of this. As someone who's naturally socially awkward (but it's because I'm on the spectrum, and so much of what my neurotransmitters believe about emotions/culture/social cues, others don't agree with), I completely agree that far too many socially awkward characters are seen as "the comic relief" or that they have "a problem." And there are lots of characters I've come across (especially in kids' movies) that are socially awkward, and are so NOT autistic. There are certain physical reactions we autists have to being around crowds or group settings that general introverts don't experience. (For example, many introverts would be okay with just hanging around the edge of the party/sporting match/dance hall, but autists may have to leave the whole setting entirely, before their heart felt like it was going to explode from all the noise and lights and stimulation.)

    Also, you're very right in that just because you're having issues socializing does NOT mean you're inept at everything. Great discussion!

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    1. Thank you, Daley! I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! I loved your insight on how autists process group settings. I know sometimes people with autism feel physically sick when there's too much stimulus, so thanks for mentioning that!

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  3. I've never written a socially awkward character before, but now I want to try adding one. Hiccup and Lilo are both some of my favorite characters in their movies. Thanks for the great post.

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    1. They are a lot of fun to write! And also very helpful to readers. I love reading characters who are able to keep being awesome and achieve amazing things through their awkwardness. It makes me happy. =D And hurrah for a fellow Hiccup and Lilo fan! *high five*

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  4. Great post, Hannah! Though I don't have any socially awkward characters of my own, I'm definitely going to pin this for future reference.

    I think if I were to add something, it would be about how socially awkward characters always seem to be nerdy types, or vice versa. Actually, I'm not sure if this trope is still as pervasive as it used to be, but I digress. Anyway, it seems like being a geek/nerd was often used to explain away social awkwardness ("They spend so much time on the computer, they don't know how to interact with real people!"), when that simply isn't true. Geeky people are actually very capable of holding a normal conversation, and although some may be socially awkward, that doesn't mean every socially awkward character is a geek.

    Whoops, didn't mean to rant there, haha. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this, and I'll keep these tips in mind if I ever write a socially awkward character.

    Maggie's Musings

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    1. YES to your point about socially awkward people always being portrayed as nerdy. I do think it's still pretty pervasive. Geeks can be very charismatic and jocks can be very awkward....I think Victor Krum is an excellent example of this trope being turned around. He's an incredibly talented athlete who isn't super great socially. =)

      Thanks for the great comment, Maggie!

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  5. I really like this:) One of my main characters is socially awkward- in a very 'will not talk' way. She changes in that she has more self confidence by the end, but she'll still be slow about making friends.

    Fanny Price from Mansfield Park is another socially awkward person. I feel so bad for her, because she always thinks she's being much harsher than she really is. She also tends to read a situation well, but no one else around her does and so she thinks she's wrong all the time.

    Great post, as always!

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    1. Oooo! Fanny Price is a good one. Now that I think of it, Jane Austen has a lot of really good socially awkward characters. =)

      I love the arc that your main character has. It's a favorite of mine. Go you! And her, for gaining more self-confidence. =D

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  6. This is really interesting. I've never thought about writing a socially awkward character, which is odd because I know several socially-awkward people (autistic and not).
    I'm not sure Mr Darcy is socially awkward though. I think he's just very introverted, and my reason is that he doesn't seem to care much about being liked and is very aware of other people (such as Mr Collins) breaking societal rules.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Kikyo! It is possible that Darcy isn't socially awkward. He is very introverted, yes. I always got the impression that he did care about being liked, but pretended he didn't so that he could keep his pride. He knew that if he tried to step outside of his 'touch-me-not' boundaries he'd trip over himself and be disliked....Much like what happened between him and Elizabeth. But I could have misread that, because it is possible that he honestly didn't care at all and was just an arrogant person. =D

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  7. I'm glad that there is a post that can help clear up what actual socially awkward characters are like. :)

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    1. Happy my semi-social awkwardness and absurdly intense, introverted observation of others can finally be of some service. =D

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  8. There's also the "oblivious to everything that is happening around them" type. That's me. As a kid it took a lot for me to realize that someone might be trying to be mean to me/might not want me to be around. And even now I don't always notice when people are upset or snippy. I just assume everyone's happy. :D Not sure if this causes any problems on their end...I haven't noticed.

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  9. Awesome post, and good points! I see so much of me reflected up there.
    I've got a couple of socially awkward characters. One's an introvert and the other's an extrovert. The extrovert is always trying too hard and ends up making a public fool of himself often enough. He's pretty nerdy and awkward wherever he goes.
    The introvert tries too hard sometimes in her own way. She likes staying in her own little corner and not being noticed, but at the same time, she also wants to for once at least be the life of the party like her non-awkward best friend.
    I love my non-awkward characters too, but there's just something about the awkward ones. I'm rather awkward too, so that probably has something to do with it. =)

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  10. Socially awkward characters are so fun! I feel like I'm maybe a little socially awkward too, so it's a little easier write about them, I think. :)

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  11. Another common trait of socially awkward people is non sequiters. We want so bad to join the conversation that we'll say something completely random that has nothing to do with what the other people were talking about. We can also seem insensitive because we don't pick up cues. We often have trouble knowing when to concede an argument to stop it escalating into a fight. We don't pick up emotional context so easily, and so when someone starts talking about a sensitive or painful topic we assume the discussion is hypothetical and give our honest opinions.
    One of my favorite socially awkward characters is Hagrid. He quite literally doesn't fit in, and he's sometimes painfully reminded of his differences. He's great because he sometimes tries to shrink into the background and avoid notice, but more often he forgets to even try to be normal.

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