The Secret to Awkward
How novelists create realistically awkward characters
Lesson number three from writing No One Else Can Have You, my new book about friendship and murder from HarperTeen.
I wanted to write an awkward narrator, and since I was all fed up with the usual definitions (I feel like “awkward” typically connotes gorgeous girl with winsome bangs who snorts often yet charmingly) it seemed important to write my protagonist, Kippy Bushman, in a way that didn’t rely on the usual manic pixie dream girl tropes, but nevertheless contrasted her personality with the pulse of her conservative Wisconsin community.
I never trust a character who describes herself as a loner or an outcast. I find that such certainty is usually at odds with being a wallflower in the first place. Someone who is truly socially uncomfortable can rarely define herself so decisively relative to her peer-group. So I decided that in order to portray Kippy as a real outsider with genuine social problems, she could not spout off some drippy monologue about how different she was, or how she didn’t fit in, or how much she hated everybody.
Instead, I would have to elaborate on her awkwardness in-scene, in a way that characterized Friendship, Wisconsin, while simultaneously establishing Kippy’s otherness within that collective.
I created a situation where she would have to talk about her feelings. Into a microphone. To the entire town.
Friendship, WI has a population of 689 people—well, technically it’s 688 now, I guess. But they haven’t changed the sign, or anything. Anyway it feels like pretty much everyone is at the memorial service. The fact that Ruth’s family is Jewish—the only Jewish family in town, actually—means they’re having the memorial at Cutter Funeral Home instead of a church. There’s a line out the door that wraps all the way around the sidewalk. About fifty people are just milling about on the front lawn, occasionally standing on their tiptoes, trying to see what’s going on inside. I’m just sort of standing there, watching them, with my arms wrapped around the food we brought and the wind whipping through my tights. I’d pretty much rather be anywhere else.
“You got it, baby,” Dom calls from the car. He’s running his engine in the parking lot. He was planning to come with me but then I asked him if I could please do this one thing by myself, since we’ve sort of been up each other’s butts the past week. The truth is I’m hoping it’ll be easier for me to improvise a eulogy without him staring at me. I didn’t end up writing anything.
“Pimple, that’s 100% reasonable. But just so you know I’ll keep an eye out from the Subaru.” Dom’s all about standing watch these days now that there’s a killer on the loose. “I’ll meet you at the wake.”
Robert Cutter is outside, playing bouncer, instructing everyone who’s just arrived to stay on the grass.
“The service room and hallways are filled to capacity,” he shouts. “I’ll open the windows so you guys can hear the rites, but that’s all I got, okeydokey?”
He takes one look at my face and nods, waving me through. Rob’s dad and grandpa cremated my mom, so he knows me, and everyone who knows me knows that I was Ruth’s best friend. I mean, apparently. Who knows anymore if she even liked me, and it’s not like I can confront her about it.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Kippy Bushman,” Rob says as I walk by.
I wish I could go back to being demented with grief. Feeling angry at a time like this is enough to make you hate yourself.
Inside everybody’s smashed together in a buzzing ruckus. They’re playing Ruth’s iPod over the speakers. I recognize the playlist, but it’s the wrong sort, and someone really needs to change the track. Whatever’s on is like, sexy hip-hop music, or something.
All of a sudden, a bunch of girls run up to me and attack me with stiff hugs, the kind where you’re pulling away just as much as embracing, the kind Olympic gymnasts give, that say, “Great job on the high bars! Now I’m going to put poison in your face glitter!” It’s Libby Quinn and those girls. Ruth was kind of a loner, but she was dating the most popular boy at school, so the popular girls sort of took an interest in her.
They’re all bawling. “OMG Kippy Bushman, we’re so sorry for you,” they keep saying. “Bless you, honey.”
Something about all the popular girls at my school is that they’re really Christian, or at least they pretend to be. Libby’s the worst of them though—because on top of being kind of pushy about her love for God, she’s also not very smart. She’s always going, “Oh my Gah,” because she refuses to say, “Oh my God”. And if she hears you saying, “Oh my god,” she’ll correct you (Gah, say Gah!). Ruth always said it was annoying how both her and Libby got held back a grade, because Libby gave it a bad grade. With Ruth it wasn’t about a learning disability. She got held back because she couldn’t name 10 animals in two minutes, which they had us do back in Kindergarten. Or at least that’s what she told me.
“Oh my Gah, Kippy,” the girls are saying. I hold the cookies I’ve brought protectively above my head while each one drapes her arms around my shoulders. Before driving over here, Dom and I went back to the house and he stood watch so I could bake. He was reluctant at first to return to “the scene of the crime,” but Dom knows firsthand how important it is to bring homemade food to a thing like this. He’s always reminding me how when Mom died, he and I existed on funeral food for like a month. The two of us were comatose—hardly able to move, much less pick up the phone and order pizza. If it hadn’t been for all those sweets and casseroles, we probably would have starved.
Libby Quinn walks up last, like some kind of queen about to knight me. She presses at the corners of her eyes, trying to push away the tears without messing up her mascara. One of her girls plucks the tray of cookies from my hands.
“Oh, Katie!” Libby coos. She’s about a head taller than me in her heels, and when she pulls me toward her I land face first against her gigantic boobs. “How are you, honey?”
“It’s Kippy,” I say, and hear the words vibrate dully against her sternum.
“We’re all so worried about you,” she says, shoving me off of her. One of the girls hands me my cookies back and the whole group smiles in unison. Before I know it, they’re all skittering off in their high heels, looking around to see who else is coming inside.
“Thank you?” I call after them.
Friendship is small enough that you can all sort of recognize each other. But so far I don’t think most of these people knew Ruth. It was the same at my mom’s funeral. Lots more people came than we actually knew. Dom called them Grief Gawkers. Still, it wasn’t this crowded. I mean, Ruth was popular by association, but nobody has this many fake friends.
So far I don’t even see Colt, but he’s probably around somewhere, unless he was too sad to come. Sheriff Staake usually makes a point of coming to important town events, but he must be out prowling for the killer, or standing watch like Dom, because there aren’t any cop cars in the parking lot. Friendship police vehicles are pretty conspicuous. They have big yellow smiley faces on the sides. The Sheriff’s car is different because the smiley face has sunglasses on it.
I wiggle and weave through the hordes, still holding the tray of cookies above my head. “Sorry,” I’m saying. “Excuse me, I’m doing the eulogy, sorry.” After a while the crowd becomes a single-file line. I stand on my tiptoes and see Ruth’s family, all lined up and letting people grab onto them and kiss their heads. Davey’s with them, Ruth’s big brother. I haven’t seen him since freshman year of high school. He never came back to Friendship after he was deployed. I guess the army gave him leave or something for the tragedy. He was special-ops. My neighbor Ralph said that means he’s trained to kill.
Davey sees me squeezing past these strangers and breaks away from greeting people to walk toward me. When he graduated high school he was all skinny, but now he looks like he could lift a truck. I notice he’s got a pretty heavy-duty bandage on his right hand.
“Kippy Bushman,” he says, taking the cookies from me. A buzz cut looks good on him. “How are you?”
I feel like I should know the answer to this by now, but I shrug. Davey’s face is wet, either from crying or people’s kisses. I look again at his hand. This morning I watched a Diane Sawyer interview where there wasn’t one awkward pause. The trick is to pose good questions.
“So how was being in the war?” I ask.
I’m always saying the wrong thing.
“Is this thing on?” I hold the podium with one hand and tap the microphone with the other. Someone has finally turned off the dance club music, and Rob is going around the room, cranking open all the windows. Davey brings his thumb and index finger together and signals “OK” from his lap. According to the pamphlet they gave me at the door, he’s next up on the eulogy schedule.
“Hi,” I say slowly. My voice echoes in the small room. I glance at my backpack, which is still on my seat and has Ruth’s diary in it. I don’t know why I even brought the journal. Staring at it across the room is not helping me think of what to say.
“Or as they say in France, ‘Bonjour,’” I add.
I’m not very good at these things. Last semester I gave an improvised speech in debate class and threw up in my mouth. I look out at the audience and swallow, reaching instinctively for my necklace. It’s half a heart, and touching it used to calm me down because Ruth was supposed to have the other half. She said it was the gayest thing we’d ever done, but I always thought she wore it. Only when Dom said it was okay to ask Mrs. Fried for Ruth’s other half, Mrs. Fried said they didn’t have it, so apparently Ruth wasn’t wearing it when she died. Maybe she lost it and just never told me because she didn’t care. Or Jim Steele told her it was stupid and the two of them smashed it with a hammer or something while laughing about how pathetic I was.
I crumple the hem of my cardigan in my fist, and chew on the edge of my tongue. My face is hot and probably bright red. I suddenly remember the feeling of climbing back down the ladder of a diving board in front of a long line of other kids.
I take a deep breath and jump in. “What can one say about friendship? That is the question.” I spread my arms like some kind of preacher and look out at the Frieds, who are saving my seat in the front row. They stare back at me. Maybe if I hold this pose long enough, and let the question sit, someone in the crowd will actually answer it—for a moment I even see myself leading a call and response thing like on the evangelical channel. But the room stays quiet, and within a few seconds there’s a sour taste in my mouth. I lower my hands, drum my fingers on the podium. Someone in the audience coughs.
“Well, Friendship is our town, for one thing,” I blurt. “And everyone knows what our town motto is: ‘Do Unto’, plain and simple—‘Interpret that as you will,’ Principle Hannycack once said. Um.” Mrs. Fried forces a smile at me from the front row, and I feel sick.
“But friendship is also another thing,” I go on. “It’s a thing between friends, and you have it when you’re a friend to someone, and they’re friends to you, and the equation makes it so that you’re friends together, amen”—my face twitches. Did I just say ‘Amen’?
“Ruth was super duper,” I announce. Super duper? I swallow a few more times, fighting off nausea. “In conclusion, friendship, the thing I’m describing, it was, well—Ruth and I had that until she was murdered—I mean. Holy geeze.” Wide eyes blink against black outfits. “Thank you and please make sure to try the sugar cookies I baked for this occasion.” I wave goodbye.
Ruth’s mom won’t look at me, and Mr. Fried’s face is twisted like he might scream. The microphone rings as I scuttle away from the podium. Libby Quinn and her posse whisper at each other in the doorway. “That was the best friend?” I hear someone say.