Introversion’s a funny thing. More funny peculiar than funny ha ha, but maybe some of both. Because people as introverted as me are really quite rare — I typically rate 100% ‘I’ on the ‘I/E’ continuum of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator — the sense is often of living in a world that wasn’t quite built for us, and not feeling entirely sure why that is. It’s a kind of psychological left-handedness. Extroverts are, of course, used to being around extroverts, so I imagine that to a certain extent they come to see extroversion as the normal centre of things. When an introvert comes into their world, they might as well be from another planet, so alien must they seem. Introverts — and there are plenty of jokes to be wrung from this — don’t tend to hang around other introverts. Introversion isn’t a reason for throwing a party. But society and, well, life, throws them up against extroverts all the time. We know very well what they’re like, and so I think we also begin to believe that extroversion is the normal centre of things, and that we’re the aliens.

To be introverted, but not shy — which I’m not, really — is another odd twist. The combination means that I can get by mostly undetected in social situations, if I have to, but that effort results in a dead battery very quickly. Some things are effectively insurmountable, though. Take me somewhere social that’s noisy, or where lots of people are talking, and I can’t deal. It’s just too hard. So I tune out, listen to the music, or my own thoughts, and pass the time until I can retreat to a quiet place again. If I have to strain to hear what someone is saying, or have to raise my voice to be heard, I might just as well not be there. The fear of this happening, and the frequency with which it does, means that I’m typically reluctant to try again, and risk coming across as distant, aloof, or just plain boring.

Connection with people is something that just doesn’t happen for me in groups. If it’s going to happen — and that’s not often — it’ll only happen when I’m alone with someone. Otherwise, if I’m part of a larger group, even one of only three or four, I fade into a passive background, listening but not speaking, responding but not asking. There’s probably some laziness there; it takes a great deal of effort and energy to be socially active in a larger group. Also, though, it’s a kind of bizarre need for social privacy. Insofar as I ever make social phone calls, I can’t make them at all unless I can have privacy — and by that I mean complete aloneness. In the same way, social privacy in person seems to be the only way I can connect. Needless to say, such privacy is rarely practical, the effect of which is that connection rarely gets a chance to happen.

This has some unexpected side-effects. A scary number of years ago, during a long summer at home from university, I wrote about 30,000 words of a terrible, clumsy, lame story, full of all the things that people who are too young to write write about. Later, I realised something about the plot mechanics that seemed significant, and not in a good way. Something was common to each of the scenes, and it was this: they all involved just two characters. Where more characters were involved in a larger scene, I had contrived, without this being a conscious goal, to move them around the stage so that at any one time only two were present. It was like a cheap repertory production in which two actors rush on and off-stage, throwing on costumes and changing hats to fake a larger cast. As a writer, I either could only handle two characters at once, or had a preference for scenes involving only two characters.

This realisation depressed the crap out of me at the time. It seemed yet another way in which the writing was inescapably juvenile. Now, I suspect it has a lot more to do with introversion. There’s plenty of lack of writing skill in there too, but mostly I think the reason I can’t connect socially unless I’m alone with someone, and the reason I write two-person scenes, have the same psychological root. If I want to write a scene that has some emotional depth, then of course I’m bound to use a template that borrows from my own social strengths and weaknesses.

I used to be terribly awe-struck by writers who could handle scenes involving lots of characters. It was as if they were using a foreign language. I’m thinking Wodehouse here, and perhaps Terry Pratchett, whose character dynamics owe a lot to Wodehouse. It’s a mistake, though, and an obvious one: to think that something I can’t do is more worthy because of that. The mistake is to imagine that there’s a hierarchy of writing skills, and that competence in one implies competence in everything below that: that a facility for group scenes implies a facility for quieter, deeper, smaller scenes. And heaven knows there are plenty of group-scene writers out there who are as bad at them as I’d be if I tried: witness the dead hand of J.K. Rowling’s turn-taking exposition in group scenes.

I like to use Beckett as a kind of touchstone in this regard. I could die happy having written something with a hundredth of the surpassing brilliance of Krapp’s Last Tape, and yet, I doubt Beckett could have written a multi-character Wodehouseian romp if he’d spent his whole long life on it. There’s a space that includes Beckett, Wodehouse, Pratchett, even Talbot Rothwell, but it’s most definitely not a single dimension, and that’s terribly important.

1 Comment

  • Funny – I did the Myers-Briggs a number of years ago now, and I was one point away from the complete introvert. Apparently, I am more comfortable talking to the air (or the dog) than to other people. [There is one person who thinks I can talk up a storm, but even then I don’t actually explain anything and end up confusing him 😉 – earlier today he actually said I was babbling]. And… one of the reasons I find it easier to write romance instead of general fiction is because it takes place primarily between two people. Truth to tell, I wouldn’t know how to construct a believable conversation between four people (I’ve tried), though I hadn’t exactly related it to my introversion. Thanks for clarifying that little frustration in my life!

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