Holden Caulfield Sure Wasn't Created From Happiness (aka How To Write Great Literary Characters)

Literary fiction is not your surface-level, summer beach read with the tide lapping at your toes on the shore in a fleeting escape from everyday life. It often doesn’t wrap up in a pretty pink bow with all questions answered and characters living happily ever after.

 

It lets you know up front that you’re embarking on a journey, one that may be ugly at times and difficult to look at. One that might challenge you to accept hard truths and agree to crack a little inside as your heart swells with happiness, aches in brokenness, and emerges a changed creature. 

But at the end of all good literary fiction, you know this: the journey was totally worth it.

Enneagram 4s and INFPs with the talent for writing (and, if you’re a 4 or INFP, you likely read that sentence and were like, “I mean, I write but am I really talented? My work is okay, I guess? I’m not as good as her/him. Well, maybe? I don’t know. No, definitely not. I’ll stop talking now.”) These personality types are fantastic for writing literary fiction and characters, because, unlike more commercial genres, it requires deeper thinking, further exploration, and understanding more than just words on a page. 

 

3 reasons Ennegram 4s and INFPs write great literary characters (and how you can do it too)

 

  • It’s easy for them to withdraw into their feelings- And not just the cute ones (4s have cute, happy feelings too, right??) (Right.) Many people like to avoid what most societies refer to as ‘negative’ emotions. But emotions are just emotions. They are neither good nor bad; they just are. In this ‘think positive’, ‘get over it,’ ‘you should smile more,’ world, sorting through your sadness can be seen as self-indulgent and unproductive. However, to 4s and INFPs, the unpopular feelings to process like sadness and anger isn’t an obstacle, it can be damn near cozy. Asking the hard questions and being honest enough to receive and dissect the hard answers is where these personality types shine. Melancholy can be comfortable, and that comfort will bring a well-roundedness and complexity to characters, making them feel real on the page. 

 

  • They aren’t afraid to be different- they thrive on this, actually. Their uniqueness and authenticity are the core of who they are, and, while readers should still be able to relate to characters, they push their characters to be equally as authentic and with a quality or two that makes them stand out from the norm. Just look at Holden Caulfield among all the “phonies”, or read anything Anais Nin has to say about herself and life.

 

  • Understanding truth and identity is above all else- 4s gravitate toward more character-driven than plot-driven stories. They want to immerse themselves in understanding why people are the way they are. They can sometimes inherit a character’s experience as their own and when the story is done, are left feeling like they left a piece of themselves behind. Searching for identity is inherit to their personality. The plot is simply a backdrop for characters to discover who they truly are and how they fit in their environment. Who they are is far more important than what happens to them, and 4s and INFPs have no problem getting to know their characters on an intimate level in order to reveal a story layer by layer.

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Coming-of-Age Books: Not Your Usual Suspects

Bildungsroman. No, I didn’t sneeze. 

This coming-of-age literary genre pulls together two German words: bildung meaning education, and roman meaning novel. Together they describe a novel that follows a protagonists psychological and moral development during his/her formative years, from youth to adulthood.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

So much of who we are and how we want to be in this life is formed during these years, when we really begin to question spirituality, society, and our dreams. When we leave (or escape) the proverbial nest, set our own path, and, if I’m being honest, screw up some along the way.

We don’t always get it right, but in our new adult phase, we are ready to try this life thing our way. For better or worse. Of course we have Jane Eyre and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and authors like Jesmyn Ward, but I also wanted to add books to your list with lesser known titles in the coming-of-age world that are fantastic nonetheless. 

Here are 5, bildungsroman (coming-of-age) books for twenty something women exploring life on their own terms.

  1. Black Girl in Paris

  2. I’ll Take You There

  3. After You’d Gone

  4. My Soul Looks Back

  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Yes, about a boy, and pretty well known, but the mother and sister stories are powerful and significant)


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Tiffany Clarke Harrison
The Naked Queen
 

The first step in reclaiming my body began a little over a year ago at a Trader Joe’s in the suburban south.

I was thirty-eight and six months into an MS diagnosis. The vision in my left eye still threatened me with darkness and when I dared to peer through it, the world was smudged by a gray, cloudy filter. The tiny store was crowded with hipster parents and cranky toddlers sticky with fruit leather, or sugar from the bakery next door. No matter where you went, you were in the way.

I stood in front of tiered buckets of spray roses and carnations, mums and seeded eucalyptus. I reached for the seedy branches wrapped in plastic. Eucalyptus was my favorite, a simple pleasure, the bend of a stem heavy with buds and leaves reminding me of the soft curve of a shoulder. I closed my left eye, studied the greenery through my right: normal. I closed my right eye and looked through my left: the VSCO preset equivalent of a lesion squatting on an optic nerve. It was a fun, anxiety-ridden game I used to play called Why isn’t it normal yet?! My knees grew numb with fatigue and I leaned against my little red shopping cart.

At 6, I knew something about my body was not allowed.

For months I felt like my body had betrayed me. Like rules, and religion, and gluten-free, grass-fed, non-dairy everything huddled in mean-girl scrutiny and mocked my constant trying to do the right thing. I’d followed all the good girl steps so how the hell did I end up here? I went home, unpacked groceries, dusted off my old DSLR and rescued the tripod from under a pile of dry-clean-only clothes in the back of my closet. I didn’t know what photos I was going to take, but somehow I was going to capture a piece of me that had remained hidden for far too long.

When I was about six years old, I had my own bedroom and a canopy bed with a Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, shams, and canopy my mother had sewn. I was a serious and sensitive child who frightened and cried easily. I didn’t like to be noticed or perceived as misbehaving. In kindergarten I used to pretend to be asleep on my mat during nap time because that’s what nap time was for, and I was a girl who did what was expected.

In my bedroom, I laid among dolls lined on top of the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread. I wasn’t wearing any clothes. I said, “I am the naked queen,” to Rainbow Brite, calm and authoritative, with a smile. I stayed there for a long time (or maybe just a few minutes) on my back and talking. I wish I could remember what I talked about, but I don’t. It was an honest and innocent moment veiled in a thin layer of looming shame. Before I’d gotten undressed, I knew enough to shut my bedroom door and lock it. At 6, I knew something about my body was not allowed.

I looked like I might be naked behind those beautiful sprigs of green and what would that say about me?

At 38, I shut my bedroom door and locked it.

Two bouquets of eucalyptus were laid on the foot of my bed, seeds trailing along the duvet like creative carnage. I took off my shirt and pulled down my bra straps, set the timer on the camera and sat in a wooden chair, gripping those bending branches as leaves spread across my chest. I’m not a photographer or a model and didn’t expect much, yet light from the window found the skin of my shoulder. Branches searched my neck and arms, deliberate. I blinked at the photo in my camera, breathed a little ‘oh!’

For the first time in many years I allowed myself to revel in how much I loved my mouth. I allowed myself to look at my body without thinking too much about it. Without seriousness, and scrutiny, and shame. But I hesitated to post that image on social media because *gasp* my exposed shoulder! My collar bone! I looked like I might be naked behind those beautiful sprigs of green and what would that say about me?

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I posted that photo amid all my sweating and anxiety around doing so because while I was still scarred by my body’s betrayal, I also recognized my betrayal of it. How, in an effort to please and fall in conventional line, I denied sensuality and my body. I denied myself.

The photos I take are more suggestive than explicit, and that is enough for me. Some of the characters I write in prose or stories push sensual boundaries I am still uncomfortable pushing in real life. However, I am uncomfortable because I’ve created my own boundaries and (mostly) no longer care much for the boundaries impressed upon me.

I have little desire to squeeze into anyone else’s box.

One of the female protagonists in my book If I Fell, a young 20-something, says, “I did not think of my body, what it felt like, tasted like. What it was capable of doing, attracting, inducing. How could something so wholly and uniquely mine be so foreign to me?”

I was this girl. A lot of women were. I still pick apart my body, like my soft, stretched mom belly and breasts. I’m insecure about hormonal acne, scarring, and the eyebrows I over plucked in the 90s that have yet to grow all the way back. But I am working to know this body, to love and honor this body, and feel good about doing so.

I am the naked queen after all.  


 
Working 9 to 5

Age 21. New York City.

I remember I sat on the cold, piss-covered tile of the men’s bathroom holding on to a moist rail above my head, recuperating from soreness that heated my neck, my thighs.

Perhaps he had been too rough with me. Perhaps I had not deserved the reckless banging, his heavy, calloused hand at my throat affixing me to the grainy film along the tiled wall as I stood compliant but alarmed. (I’d said ‘affix’ in my mind, confused it, however applicable, with ‘asphyxiation.’ To die engorged with an angry cock and a fake, gold watch ticking impatiently beneath my chin seemed less than honorable.)

We were strangers, all of the men then, strangers, and I expected nothing more, nothing less from them.

He hurried as most men with little regard for the women they pollute do. He held his head down as he fumbled with the tarnished silver buckle of his belt and shoved my legs apart with one bent and jabbing knee. The erratic undoing, unzipping. The upward yank of my ripped t-shirt, one large palm grabbing at the full weight of my breast, mashing the flesh up and back, scissoring the nipple between spread fingers.

The back of my head ached. Knock, knock, knock with the thudding beat from the club outside the bathroom door, where sweaty bodies convulsed and collapsed in rhythmic, intoxicated motion, the mixed allure of indulgence and pain. Each violent surge of his body into mine strengthened his grip on my throat. Fingers pressed deeper, palm pressed deeper. His muscled arm, mass. My throat constricted. Gasp the air. Push it down.

My limp compliance. My balance on one leg, one high-heeled foot. How he enjoyed this! I can see him even now. Look at his grooved brow, creased with concentration. Look at the gutters formed within the rolling folds of his forehead. His bloodless lips pulled tight across stained teeth as he came inside me, nostrils flared with the rushed gusts of completion, a job well done.

Two, maybe three minutes had passed between his solicitation and clean escape, and yet I knew the cowlick in the center of his thinning blond head spun clockwise. The intimacy in this information sent me to a place far from my destructive present. How his mother must have fretted over the cowlick’s prominence. How she must have wet the defiant hairs before a bathroom mirror and combed them flat. Cursed as they sprung back stiff, united, toward the light.

Constant

I am whole with you.
I am whole without you.
I am whole in the in between.

And while i search the answers, 
roll truth on my tongue,
I will store within
these brittle, gray bones
a soft heart.