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Must Introversion Have a “Why”?
Consider subtle manifestations of the idea that introverts aren’t normal.
Last year, when a writing workshop discussed an essay I wrote about my lifelong love of words (a piece later published here), someone suggested I add the psychological reasons for that keen enthusiasm. Was treasuring words an escape from something bad that happened to me as a child? A way of coping with loneliness, perhaps?
I felt flummoxed and a bit insulted by these comments. Would they have made the same suggestion if I’d described loving something more active, such as swimming, dancing or collecting model trucks? Some kids become enthralled with playing basketball while others – like young Edith Wharton – spend hours upon hours making up stories. Must there be a deep cause for what we enjoy? Can’t it just be a fact, a difference like having blond hair rather than brown, and not a psychological compensation?
Months later I wrote an essay describing how much I cherished the near-complete solitude of my daily walks and living in the country where no one ever came to my door. In a workshop of 12, no one commented anything remotely like “I can relate to that.” Instead people asked, What made you that way? Why do you feel peaceful not connecting with people? Did you grow up without privacy? Was there some trauma in your life that accounts for this?
Again, underlying the questions was the assumption that my preferences weren’t normal, that they must represent a warp, a deformation of what’s natural. This assumption dismisses the degree to which people naturally differ. It also reflects the degree to which our society unconsciously defines the social-connection style of extroverts as the norm. After all, people who fall into the extrovert portion of the personality spectrum don’t get asked questions like, Why do you join bridge or tennis clubs wherever you live? Why do you feel so content when you have guests over? Did something awful happen in your childhood to make you enjoy being in the company of others?
I found a variant of this perspective online in advice for writers on how to make introverted characters engaging. For instance:
“If your story does, in fact, call for an introverted protagonist, think about giving their introversion some backstory. Why have they drawn into themselves? Sure, many people are simply wired that way, but that’s not super-compelling when you’re writing fiction. Did your protagonist experience some kind of upheaval that caused them to seek isolation? Maybe they moved around a lot as a kid, and found it easier to keep to themselves rather than endure constant goodbyes. Maybe they experienced some kind of trauma, and introversion is a mode of self-protection. Whatever the reason, clearly defining the why will give your main character more direction and purpose than the hazy, indistinct ‘wired that way.’”
In this view, someone who likes to think, imagine and enjoy being alone is boring and inherently undramatic. Although readers might simply accept that a fictional character is tall, blond, musically gifted or fun-loving, according to this perspective being an introvert demands a “why.” It requires a story that positions being reserved as caused by negative circumstances. In turn, this sets up being introverted as something that the person can change or overcome. And in turn, this conditions the reader for a supposedly heartwarming plot in which the introverted character discovers that they can evolve into a more social and thus better and much happier version of themselves. For the Introvert Book Club, I’ve considered and rejected featuring several contemporary novels with that plot line.
On the other hand, at a site called “Coffee Book and Candle” I found a strongly worded post for writers criticizing the narrative arc where an introvert lives happily ever after by turning into more of an extrovert:
“Introversion is not a flaw that needs to change any more than someone's sexuality is. Imagine a book about a gay guy becoming straight, where the underlying message is that he ‘grew out of his gayness’ like it was some horrible character trait. Your character can and should have flaws, but introversion is not one of them. Focus on other things they can overcome, like a fear, a vice, a trauma. Let them become stronger in their own quiet way.”
My premise throughout Introvert UpThink is that we shouldn’t need to apologize for or explain away being wired the way we are. We don’t have to become extroverted in order to have an interesting, contented life. There isn’t a “why” that accounts for our personality. Because we’re normal. Period. End of story.