When Fictional Characters Do the Unexpected

During the next two weeks, I’m attending a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, and also dealing with some other responsibilities. So I decided to save my next new blog post for Sunday, June 18.

Today and on June 11, I’m reprinting (with slight changes) previously posted literature pieces. The column below is one I wrote for The Huffington Post five years ago — two years before I fled the site (after finally growing disgusted with the lack of pay and other problems there) to start this blog in July 2014.

Here’s that half-decade-old post from June 7, 2012:

Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth, but they’re often pernicious. So, it’s refreshing when some novels feature a character who breaks ethnic or gender molds.

For instance, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here includes a 19th-century Jewish character named Ephraim who’s a macho, hard-bitten, frontier type of guy. When he makes his first dramatic appearance in the bitter Canadian cold throwing bear meat to his sled dogs, one thinks more of Jack London than Woody Allen.

Then there’s the title character of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an American nerd of Dominican descent. Perhaps not the ethnicity you’d expect to be out in force at the next Star Trek convention.

And there’s the Chinese-American housekeeper Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Many servants from that era were of course smarter than they were allowed to show their alleged “betters,” but the depth of Lee’s intellect and philosophical musings is off the charts.

How about the bold, holds-her-own-with-the-guys Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins’ mystery The Woman in White? She’s hardly the stereotypical female one sees in many other male-authored novels published during the Victorian Age.

And Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews flips a gender stereotype by having a male title character who protects his virginity against female seducers as he overcomes obstacles to be with his true love.

Then there’s Colette’s Cheri and Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which women are in relationships with men half their age. That’s not unheard of, but it certainly shows up less often than the older-male/much-younger-female dynamic in many novels — including classics such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and modern fiction such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Breaking stereotypes doesn’t just involve gender or ethnicity.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, for example, the protagonist is a smart but physically weak man named Humphrey van Weyden who is picked up by the brutish Capt. Wolf Larsen after a collision at sea. By the time the book concludes, Humphrey ends up being far from the stereotype of a soft intellectual.

Set at around the same time that London’s novel was written, E.R. Greenberg’s baseball novel The Celebrant features an ardent New York Giants fan who becomes friendly with early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson. But unlike the typical besotted sports lover, this immigrant jeweler doesn’t fawn over Mathewson, try to pal around him, or exploit the relationship in any other way.

And how about wealthy literary creations who do the right thing rather than behave like spoiled brats? One such non-stereotypical character is the star of Honoré de Balzac’s César Birotteau who acts with rock-solid integrity after falling into debt. Unlike today’s bankers who privatize the gain and socialize the loss, Birotteau wouldn’t dream of being bailed out.

Of course, if authors deliberately avoid stereotypes enough times, that can become stereotypical…  🙂

Who are your favorite non-stereotypical literary characters?

(Some days this week, I’ll be slower than usual replying to comments, but will answer eventually!)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which includes made-up quotes “from” Trump and other objectionable politicians — is here.

32 thoughts on “When Fictional Characters Do the Unexpected

  1. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”– Sidney Carton, described as a “cynical alcoholic’ barrister in wikipedia’s plot summary for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, must rank among the most famous characters in fiction who do the unexpected, swapping clothes and fate with a condemned man.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve challenged me to rehearse the literary figures I’ve encountered. How about the title character of John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” He is a lecherous Christ child who winds up carrying out a salvation mission.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As jhNY said perfectly “The silver lining in the dark cloud that was HuffPo, now that all the comments have been expunged ” .
    We posted and then checked all the time if they are going to post our comments, those were low paid staff perhaps doing multiple duties to go through all the comments. Then some commentators were given positions as Pundit, CM!, CM2 which went to their heads .
    That site has shrunk in name and the original queen made her millions and sleeps 10 hours a day.
    Then they had trolls, multiple mismatched socks who are encouraged to have more comments in their stories.

    Sigh of relief, did learned a lot to grow up and are fortunate to find you there Dave.

    Now in this blog You Dave treat us equally no positions no distinction from one another and our comments are posted instantly.
    You are the winner of A Perfect Gentleman.
    Guess who are not..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! Terrific comment!

      Yes, the comments at HP sometimes took a LONG time to post, if they posted at all. And there were indeed low-paid, overworked staffers there, which didn’t help. Given how much HP raked in from those sales to AOL and Verizon, SOME people were getting a lot of money, even though those recipients were already in “the one percent.”

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m also grateful that HP was the place you and I and others here found each other through our love of literature — and our interest in various other topics. 🙂

      Great cartoon you posted!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    As your blog this week is a little unorthodox, I thought I would do the same, and rather than comment, post a photo of my new favourite reading spot. Alas, I lack the technological know-how to do something that sounds so simple! I guess I’ll have to describe it instead. I work in an industrial area where nothing is pretty. Then last week I discovered a river! Well, people probably already knew it was there, however I had no idea that I worked so close to it, nor that it has been done up with a café and nice walking paths. It’s not exactly sitting on a Caribbean beach, but it’s a much nicer spot to have lunch and read my book than my desk.

    FYI, the book of the week is Ben Elton’s “Time and Time Again” which is much more entertaining than what I was reading last week, however the protagonist is entirely predictable. Unlike Marian Halcombe who I agree is an excellent example of a character who doesn’t conform

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue, it’s great that you found an appealing lunchtime reading spot! Even if a river area is so-so, it can be very nice to be near water.

      I think there’s something about the primitive nature of my blog’s format/design that makes it hard to post photos here. 🙂

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      • Sue, Dave well knows how much trouble I had trying to post a photo on here, but I don’t think it’s our incompetence, but the vagaries of the WordPress account (at least that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it! 🙂 Anyway, I’m glad you found your lunch/reading space — river, café and walking paths sound better to me than a beach in the Caribbean!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I like your excuse 🙂 I don’t know about better than the Caribbean though! The beach would mean I’m on holidays, and of course, the worst part of spending lunch by the river is I have to go back to work!

          BTW, Dave. The book I was reading at lunch time was Ben Elton’s “Time and Time Again”. Have you read it? Very plot driven, and will probably never win a Pulitzer, but I really enjoyed it, and I know you like time travel stories 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

      • Dave, you say primitive, I say easy to navigate, and without distraction 🙂 Of course, the content of your blog is excellent, but I genuinely love the layout as well. I will sometimes browse through old topics if I have time to kill at work, and the comments always flow in a way that makes sense. I’m not normally one to take a lot of photos, and I love that your blog isn’t filled with lots of pretty things with no substance. Of course, the occasional cartoon or news picture can be good fun!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks so much, Susan! I also like the basic nature of the blog’s look and layout. I could make it fancier, and in fact paid for the option to do so, but I decided not to change things. 🙂

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          • Dave, I agree with Sue that I do love the setup of this blog, especially now that all of my posting problems have somehow been resolved. It is easy to navigate, and when a friend was telling me he wanted to start a blog, I recommended WordPress as a good place to get that done. So, in other words, please don’t change a thing! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Kat Lib!

              WordPress is definitely a great place to consider when starting a blog.

              As you know, WP does give bloggers the option of fancier layouts, but I decided to stick with the basic format. Glad you like it!

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              • Dave, your essays are intelligent and humorous. Your commenters are friendly and kind. It doesn’t get much fancier than that! I realise of course that you’re talking about the layout, rather than the content, but I think the latter is so much more important, and I doubt that too many people here would disagree. Even other WP blogs don’t compare to this one.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Thanks so much for the kind comment, Sue! I greatly appreciate it!

                  I agree that the commenters here are wonderful! I also agree that content is the most important thing. It reminds me of when I wrote about newspaper comics for many years, and most people connected with that profession agreed that it was better to have great writing and mediocre drawing than mediocre writing and great drawing in a strip. Of course, both elements being great usually isn’t a bad thing… 🙂

                  Thanks again!

                  Like

  5. The silver lining in the dark cloud that was HuffPo, now that all the comments have been expunged, is that those of us who might have written in when first this essay appeared are free to remark again, possibly repeating ourselves, without fear of anyone, including ourselves, remarking on the redundancy.

    So it may well be that not for the first time I would direct you to phenomenon of Man Bites Dog, the enduring staple of news item creation, Dog Bites Man being the ordinary story no one much wants to read as compared to the remarkable Man Bites Dog. So Goliath the giant beating teeny David to a pulp, the expected tale of mismatch, becomes top rate story material thanks to a well-placed stone skillfully slung that turned the tale on its head. In short, the reverse of expectation is the foundation of many of our most-told stories, and the confirmation of expectation is unremarkable.

    George Washington could not tell a lie, though we could and would if it meant missing a beating we would otherwise endure as choppers of the cherry tree. The Spartan boy who let a stolen fox gnaw out his entrails beneath his cloak is remarkable because he wouldn’t admit he’d stolen the fox; we would, and in a heartbeat, jf we thought our vitals were in the slightest danger. The hotrod loving youth who built his own race car from junkyard parts and beat all the pros on the track is the stuff of thrilling tales for boys; the pro with a factory car who beat all the boys with home-made hotrods is not.

    One of the best example of the week’s theme, when fictional characters do the unexpected, is Scrooge, though when he does it, we fully expect him to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Eloquent, insightful comment. I especially liked this line: “…the reverse of expectation is the foundation of many of our most-told stories, and the confirmation of expectation is unremarkable.” And your Scrooge point is an impressive mind-bender.

      Finally, an excellent observation about HP — those of us who were around that site back in 2012 unfortunately have no record of what we said or didn’t say. So, yes, no one can prove anything if we repeat ourselves in 2017. (Well, it’s provable that I repeated the above column. 🙂 )

      Like

      • Ironically (as that’s just the way my life seems most to roll), I probably wrote more under articles at the Huffington Post than I’ve written elsewhere over my lifetime. There was a time when I actually thought I was doing something useful and civic-minded, what folks like to term ‘making a difference’ with my keyboard from home. Truth is, since the coup of 2000, I’ve been over-engaged and hyper-focused on the end of our democracy, and the Huffington Post was a place where I could exercise myself politically.

        Once facebook became the mandatory requirement for comment, I no longer appeared under articles. I had over 1000 fans, and had contributed thousands of comments, several insightful. Always meant to download what I’d written from the site somehow, well before the comments were expunged, but then I remembered Li Po, who wrote poems by a stream and then let them float away on the water, which reminds me of Keats ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water’, which reminds me there is consolation in books, and here I am, happy to be among friends, at your blog.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jhNY, I well remember how excellent your HP comments were — both under my book posts and in various other parts of the site. You truly deserved your 1,000-plus fans. A real shame that HP didn’t give bloggers and commenters any warning before the mass comment deletions. I, too, would have consider trying to save the comments under at least some of my columns.

          And, yes, before HP got TOO corporatized, it did seem like we were all making a bit of difference with what we wrote. An illusion, I suppose.

          This blog is small potatoes compared to the massive HP, but I’m very glad you and other former HP commenters are among the people who now comment here — making this blog a remnant of sorts of those HP days. 🙂

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    • Thanks, energywriter! Not a speed reader. 🙂 I often mention novels that I had read months, years, or decades ago — relying on Wikipedia plot summaries if I forgot the details of some books.

      Sorry you can’t make Manchester, but hope to see you again at a future conference! Cincinnati is the possible locale in 2018.

      Like

  6. Hi Dave, the book that came to my mind was the wonderful novel, published in 2012, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple. Everything Bernadette Fox does is anti-stereotypical. She should just be known for being the famed architect, married to a Microsoft executive in Seattle, with their one precocious daughter Bee. She is instead an extreme agoraphobic who relies for a while on an assistant in India to do even the most basic things, like ordering takeout pizza for her family, and getting them outfitted for the trip to Antarctica she promised Bee if she got perfect grades. Then two days before Christmas, Bernadette disappears. There is such comedy on each and every page of this book, that relies not only on prose, but emails, invoices, report cards, FBI reports, and everything one finds in today’s world, yet still has an emotionally satisfying ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love novels that surprise a reader on almost every page, Kat Lib! Great description of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” — which sounds quirky and fabulous. I know you’ve recommended that Maria Semple book before, and it’s never there when I visit my local library, but one of these days…

      Thanks!

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  7. Those days are behind us Dave, the excellent comments are all wiped out and huffington post has a new name huff post , HA what’s so new about that name I wonder .
    Your own blog is so much better, I do look at huff puff it is basically just there;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Looking forward to seeing you, too, Bill — but I’m not bringing “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” 🙂 Will probably bring Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (which I’m currently reading). That novel is not about the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, because it’s no secret, historically, that the organization started in 1977…

      Like

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