The appeal of the misfit

This past weekend I had the chance to co-lead a writing workshop for some aspiring writers aged 10-12. I had a great time doing it and what a fun group it was!

But one thing that struck me was how each of the girls admitted to having been at times ridiculed or somehow labeled by peers at school and elsewhere. Hippy, goth, nerd, brainy freak: these were some of the assorted terms used to brand them as different, and not in a good way. Some of them reported teachers who must have felt threatened by the differences. One girl was told she couldn’t have spiders and cats talking in a story–um, Charlotte’s Web, anyone????

The co-leader of the workshop and I could recalled similar incidents from our own youths. The girls seemed happy to know they were not alone and not crazy (or at least crazy in a good way). 🙂 Afterwards I reflected that while my writer friends and I have, by and large, found our places in various communities as adults, many of us were somehow “different” as children. These differences were not always appreciated by either our peers or our teachers. But while painful memories can block us, they can sometimes slingshot us into the work and provide source material. It’s no wonder books and films are full of characters trying to cope with being different.

In romance we see a lot of “misfit” types: bastards (whether or not they turn out to be the Lost Heir), heroes with shady pasts, heroines who are hoydens or bluestockings, characters with physical imperfections or even disabilities. I love ’em all, as long as they are unique creations and not imitations of someone else’s misfit character.

Not all heroes and heroines are misfits, of course. Sometimes they get together because of a threat is to the community they’re both part of, or they belong to different communities. Interesting things also happen when one fits in better than the other.

Anyway, here are just a tiny few of my favorite misfits from historical romance:

  • Phoebe in Georgette Heyer’s SYLVESTER: she likes horses better than most people, acts like a hoyden and writes a novel featuring the hero as a villain. Her foil, Sylvester, on the other hand, is the perfect duke, obviously welcomed everywhere.
  • Lady Alys Weston from Mary Jo Putney’s THE RAKE AND THE REFORMER (a.k.a. THE RAKE). She’s a tall woman with mismatched eyes, thinks of herself as a “great horse” and holds the unusual position of estate manager. The hero, Reggie, is an alcoholic trying to save himself. It’s ironic to me that while some characters thought he took his drinking too far, it was a very socially acceptable vice. Reggie isn’t really the one who doesn’t fit in.
  • The hero and heroine of Loretta Chase’s MR IMPOSSIBLE are both misfits after a fashion. Rupert is a ne’er-do-well younger son who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Daphne is a scholar with a fascination with Egypt and ancient languages.

Having been the nerdy kid with cat’s eye glasses and her nose in a book, I know exactly why I relate to misfits. What I do wonder about is why they are so very popular. Are there really that many misfits who are readers? Or are there “normal” people out there who secretly relate to the misfit?

So why do you think misfits are so popular in fiction and on screen? Do you have any personal favorites?


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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