Naomi and I recently went to an IMAX and saw Divergent, based on the best-selling novel series by Veronica Roth. We’re not usually fans of Young Adult fiction, but we found this movie riveting. It mirrors society and our penchant for slotting everyone. By tradition, each of us is pressured early on to wear a label and stick with it (lawyer, doctor, farmer, mechanic, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jew, Muslim). In a past age, people were even named for their predetermined slots in life. Tom Tinker. Mary Baker. Billy Tanner. Mr. and Mrs. Miller. The Weavers. The Bookbinders. That nice Joe Carpenter who always smelled of fresh wood shavings.
We indoctrinate our children in ways subtle and overt, and they often have little choice in the matter. An infant is baptized into a certain faith, for example, and the small person has no knowledge of what’s happening, much less any free choice about it. We naturally want our children to follow in our steps, so we teach and discipline them accordingly, but sometimes we do so even against their wishes or natural skills or secret ambitions. Carried to extremes, this philosophy can produce rigid thinkers, unhappy workers, almost superhuman warriors with unquestioning adherence to orders, dogmatic believers, and even suicide bombers.
The custom perpetuates our differences, reinforces our biases, and sustains divisive and sometimes violent tribalism, religiosity or un-religiosity, bigotry, prejudice, and controlled thinking, generation after generation.
But thank goodness some folk like Beatrice Prior, the heroine in this movie, refuse to be slotted by their elders or by society. They’re divergent. Not classifiable.
Many real people come to mind. There once was a boy, for example, whose father had him slotted to become a clergyman. Instead, the boy became a rebellious runaway, a printer, a writer, a publisher, a philosopher, an inventor, a civic leader, a statesman, and a philanthropist. And he excelled at all of that, endearing himself to millions. Some 20,000 attended his funeral and people named cities after him and erected statues in his honor. You and I are still benefiting from his generous legacy. Benjamin Franklin was an exemplary divergent.
Our fiction is rich with heroes and heroines who live on the fringes of society, outside its walls and cubicles, so we must at least envy them a bit. Consider Jack Reacher, loner hero of Lee Child’s best-selling series. Or Sherlock Holmes, Monk, Stephanie Plum, Derek Morgan, Miss Marple, Patrick Jane, Madea Simmons, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
So, if you’re contemplating starting a fiction series, you may want to recruit outside the societal slots for your lead character.