Gabriel Roth‘s debut novel, The Unknowns, got an amazing review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times, which probably sold a lot more copies than the cover blurb from me. But man, did I love this book. I also love Gabe, who I met through friends back when we both lived in Brooklyn and were young(er) and cool(er) than we are now. Now we are both novelists and both nerds, who write about nerdy characters. Read Gabe’s totally charming essay on the subject of nerdy heroes, and then read Exhibit A, his even more charming (and deeply devastating) novel on the subject.
Ben asked me to write about creating a compelling nerd protagonist, which is the kind of question I really like because it allows me to do some retrospective theorizing. I could never in a million years sit down and say, “Now it’s time to create a compelling nerd protagonist — what would be a good approach to take?” But having spent a few years writing a book with a nerd for a protagonist, doing my best to make him interesting and sympathetic to readers, knowing that he’d have to carry the entire book on his shoulders, I am well positioned to make up a Totalizing Theory of Nerd Protagonists.
So here’s where we’ll start: There are two kinds of nerd.
Already I hear your complaints and challenges, and I sympathize with them: there are a billion kinds of nerd! Each nerd is a unique snowflake! For example, I like superhero comics and Doctor Who but I have never really gotten into Star Wars — what a fascinating man I am! Regardless, for the purposes of this discussion, I will be drawing an anayltical line between two kinds of nerd, and here’s where I’m drawing it: there is the nerd who is less sensitive than other people, and there is the nerd who is more sensitive than other people.
(We’re using male-nerd examples here, in part because female nerds have been neglected by literature and popular culture; I feel bad about exacerbating the problem in this discussion; really, if you want to create a compelling nerd protagonist you should make her a girl or woman because there’s a lot more fresh powder to ski on there.)
Category one (less sensitive than others) is Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom don’t seem to give a fuck what other people think of them. (The punk pretends not to give a fuck what other people think of him, but the effort he puts into his unconventional appearance suggests otherwise. If you really don’t give a fuck what other people think of you, you’re a category-one nerd.) Nerds of this type have traits associated with Asperger syndrome: highly specialized interests, difficulty reading interpersonal cues. The famous-software-billionaire examples sometimes obscure the fact that this is actually a very difficult way to go through life.
The category-two nerd (more sensitive than others) is less likely to become famous, so it’s easier to think of fictional examples. Peter Parker is a nerd of this stripe, and so are the characters Anthony Michael Hall played in John Hughes movies. This kind of nerd is more likely to have an anxiety disorder than an autism-spectrum disorder. In movies he might have a crush on the head cheerleader, because movies are like that, but in real life he probably has a crush on a normal-looking girl who is kind to him, although he’s still too shy to tell her how he feels.
Both types of nerd are isolated — that’s what makes them nerds — but they’re isolated for different reasons. The category-one nerd doesn’t talk to people because he doesn’t care what they have to say. The category-two nerd doesn’t talk to people because he’s afraid that they’ll laugh at him.
For a writer, the category-one nerd makes a difficult protagonist. The things he wants are things it’s hard to make the reader care about. His quests are intellectual quests, they take place in the rarefied air of high abstraction, and no one, not even the reader, can really follow him. (There’s not a lot of suspense to be generated from “Can he fix the bug in his code?”) Whereas the things he’s oblivious to are the stuff of fiction: relationships, feelings, communication between people.
An exception to this rule is the classic mystery story: Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate category-one nerd, and the fun of Conan Doyle’s stories lies in seeing how much smarter he is than we are. But in contemporary fiction, paradoxically, this kind of hyperintelligent character is typically dumb about the thigns that are important in stories, so, paradoxically, he makes readers feel like they’re smarter than him. This kind of nerd functions as an unreliable-narrator type, the kind of protagonist who makes the reader want to shout at him, “No, you idiot!” (That’s how Steven Moffat brings the Holmes stories up-to-date in the current BBC series: by making his Sherlock both impossibly clever and, “where it counts,” impossibly obtuse.)
The category-two nerd, on the other hand, is an ideal protagonist. He’s an underdog, so he automatically attracts a measure of readerly sympathy. He’s hypersensitive, which means that small emotional moments have a lot of weight for him and hence for the narrative. His experiences — humiliation, anxiety, fear of rejection — are universal; the only readers who can’t relate to them are the kind of people who are so frightened of their own feelings of weakness that they defensively refuse to identify with them in others.
It’s noteworthy, in the sense of “it provides evidence for my thesis,” that Aaron Sorkin, in writing about Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, had to change him from a category-one nerd into a category-two nerd. The real Zuckerberg seems to be chiefly interested in building systems and accumulating resources, which are difficult motivations to ask an audience to sign on for. So Sorkin invented a “Mark Zuckerberg” who built the world’s biggest website because he wanted to prove his worth to the girl who dumped him and the Ivy League snobs who wouldn’t invite him to their parties. And it made a pretty good movie, although it doesn’t tell us much about Facebook.
Because the narrator of my novel, The Unknowns, is an Internet millionaire, some people have assumed he’s a nerd in the Gates/Zuckerberg mold. In fact, he’s solidly a type-two nerd: desperate to make a connection with others, terrified that they’ll reject him. I hope readers find him convincing despite the fact that I am a confident, self-sufficient, athletic type to whom such feelings are entirely alien.
See, I told you Gabe could write, and I seriously can’t recommend The Unknowns highly enough. And if you want more thoughts on geeks in literature, you could read my blog post on the subject, from “Geeky Library” last week.