When I think about my favorite actors (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise), most of them have what might be called quirky careers. They are the actors who are always playing different roles, who refuse to be pigeonholed as an “action star,” “romantic lead,” or “villain.” They’re the ones who take the roles no one else will, or who play the small but significant roles. The indie films, the passion projects, and the small budget films are where you’ll usually find them. They’ll even turn up in stage productions, music videos, shorts, and other weird little productions. Occasionally they show up in a blockbuster, but it’s usually in a supporting role rather than the lead.
Despite this, they manage to become household names, even beloved. In a world where fame is often determined by box office numbers, how is this possible, and what can writers learn from these people?
I think the key is that these actors are acting all the pieces of themselves. They’re honoring everything that makes them unique. Rather than showing only one side of themselves, they constantly plumb the depths of their souls for the good, the bad, and the weird within themselves. They take on roles that allow them to stretch, to become someone a little different every time. By doing this, they give their fans a fuller appreciation of who they are and what makes them tick. In the end, their fans love them for it.
Their fans may not realize it at the time, of course. Sometimes it’s only through looking back at a body of work that you can really appreciate what the actor did in their career. At the time a fan might think, “That sucked. I really liked him better when he played the bad boy.” But later, when that fan looks back, they may say, “I see what happened there and why he had to try that part.”
(Side note: I realize I should also add musicians to this category. There are plenty of musicians who create up and down the spectrum of their lives, giving voice to who they are now rather than who they were ten years ago. Oddly, it seems easier for musicians than actors or writers to “get away with it,” but that’s a conversation for another day.)
Writers can do this, too. And probably should. The trouble is, once you make your debut as a romance novelist, YA author, or writer of legal thrillers, it’s incredibly difficult to make the switch to something else. People want you to stay in your box. Your publisher wants to package you as a certain thing. Your fans expect that you will always write the same kind of book. And so you’re stuck writing that same piece of yourself over and over. While that might be lucrative, it can also be stifling.
But the brave (or crazy) will follow the path of the actors I described above. They will write and honor all the pieces of themselves. They will write the funny and the sad, the romantic and the dangerous. They’ll write across their interests, even if that means writing in different genres or forms. As life winds on, they’ll add their life experience and maturity to their work, and take on projects they wouldn’t have dared in their youth. They will carve out a quirky career for themselves.
I think the greatest compliment a writer can get is when, at the end of their career, someone says, “He left behind a varied and unique body of work.” While I like genre writers, I really enjoy those who are “off” by popular/conventional publishing standards. They write the books no one else will and they don’t worry so much about salability/trendiness/bestsellerdom, turning to self-publishing if they have to. They refuse to be stuck in one form and are often found writing books, scripts, poetry, comics and whatever else strikes their fancy at the time. The best writers figure out what’s important to them in their life right now and write that.
And the work is usually better for it. Instead of becoming formulaic and tired, the work of such writers is often fresh and surprising. As a reader, you can almost follow along with the author’s life as they grow and move from phase to phase in life. You get a sense of their triumphs and tragedies, and the things that make them tick. They don’t hide their true selves behind a never-changing brand.
Sure, there’s a risk here. You may alienate people. Publishers may not know what to do with you, or fans may leave reviews saying, “I was expecting X type of book and I got Y. One star!” But here’s the thing: None of us are one-sided people and to act like we are wastes lot of talent and experience. A lot of great stories go untold when we force people to stick to one thing, one experience, one time period, one age group, or one interest.
We all have multiple stories we can tell and that field only gets larger as we age. Our emotions broaden and deepen, our perspectives change, and our knowledge increases. But to ignore that and only write the same thing you wrote when you were twenty is to literally waste an entire lifetime. Why bother gaining all of that experience if you’re just going to stuff it in a corner and never let it inform your work? If you’re not going to share it with others, why are you a writer?
It’s possible that your work in another genre or form might suck. But chances are it won’t. It just won’t be what people “expect” from you. And that’s okay. There’s value in figuring out who you are and incorporating all of yourself into your work. You might have to go it alone at points. You might have to self-publish or find some other way to break out of the box. And you might not make a lot of money.
Personally, I want to go out having written all of myself. I want to have explored everything that makes me the strange being that I am. I want my work to showcase the different people I became as I went through life. It’s my hope that people look back on my career and call it quirky. Or they say, “What the hell was she thinking writing that?” and then laugh because, of course, I could have written nothing else.