There’s something enticingly ambiguous about characters who hover on the fringes of social groups. They’re not strangers — they have a perfectly legitimate reason for being there — but they’re excluded from the inner circle. They don’t quite belong, and this can lend them a certain invisibility.
The neighbor who smiles over the fence; the intern who arrives at work first and leaves last; the acquaintance who joins the camping trip to make up numbers… these characters are finely positioned to observe the action and make their plans without having to reveal their own flaws in return.
When we encounter one of these characters lurking on the social margins, delicious questions arise. Do they resent being overlooked, or are they revelling in the lack of scrutiny — even taking advantage of it? Does their position make them vulnerable, or powerful? Sometimes, as readers, it’s our desire to discover which of these outcomes will triumph that keeps us hooked.
If we’re sympathetic to our doesn’t-quite-belong character, we might worry about the illusion of safety. An observer is only one step away from being a witness. An inadvertent glimpse of something wrong, or an overheard revelation, might catapult our outsider into a moral dilemma or a life-threatening situation. Will they choose to become a whistle-blower, or an accomplice? Will they intervene despite great personal risk, or will they flee?
Yet, with a few subtle words from the writer, how easily our sympathy slides into suspicion. Is our interloper hiding a murky background, an ulterior motive? Do they plan to stroll, unremarked upon, amongst the main players, right up until the moment they drop their mask and show who really has the upper hand?
The suspense created by these questions has a unique flavor. This is not stranger danger, nor does it focus on close personal betrayal, but it combines elements of each into something all the more slippery and unpredictable.
The balance between vulnerability and power in these characters can push a plot along at a rapid pace. And how much more claustrophobic it becomes if they take up a role inside our homes. Literature is rich with butlers and governesses, cooks and housekeepers, all afforded a unique view of — and unique access to — their employers’ private lives.
Is there an ultimate position that one of these characters can inhabit? How about caring for our most precious ‘possessions’ — our children? A nanny is often the person who keeps the family’s life running smoothly, who holds the very family unit together. Almost, you might say, one of the family. Yet working under contract, of course, and subject to the whims of their employer, like anyone else.
I’d like to suggest that an au pair could claim an even more almost-integrated role whilst still hovering on the social fringes. The name itself comes from the French for on a par with, emphasizing their equal status within the host family. An au pair is there to help with light childcare and household duties, in return for a pocket money-level of payment and the chance to experience a different way of life. The employer-employee relationship is blurred into something more personal, more familial, more altruistic. For a character who doesn’t properly belong, this might be as close as they can get to pretending that they do.
In real life, of course, the relationship between au pairs and their host families is frequently a happy one. In fiction, however, we are instantly alert. Here is a seemingly defenseless character sleeping under a stranger-family’s roof. Here is a character pottering around that family’s home while the adults are busy elsewhere. Here is a character who hears the late-night quarrel, who sees the unguarded flash of emotion, who empties the trash can and closes the laptop and passes on the phone messages. Here is a character glimpsing — and hiding — secrets.
Here is a character both powerful and vulnerable, and we want to know how their story ends.
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