‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction

Herman MelvilleToday’s theme? Novelists who keep readers off-balance by defying expectations with certain characters.

But before I get into that, I wanted to mention that this weekly blog and my literary-trivia book are the subjects of a roughly 16-minute podcast posted last night. The podcaster is Rebecca Budd, who’s not only a skilled/eloquent interviewer but also an excellent blogger on a variety of topics. It’s always a pleasure to converse with other book lovers — including all the commenters on this blog!

Rebecca is in Vancouver and I’m in New Jersey, so the vagaries of cross-continental WiFi cut off a few of my words here and there. But 99.9% of what I said got through. 🙂

Anyway, back to “‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction.” A strong example comes from Harlan Coben’s starts-slow-but-gets-riveting thriller Stay Close, which I read last week. The novel — set in the sordid underbelly of my home state of New Jersey — includes two characters named…ahem…Barbie and Ken who appear to be clean-cut, caring, religious folk. In reality, they’re a scarily sicko couple who delight in working paid assignments to inflict excruciating pain on hapless people. (Although Coben’s novel was published in 2012 — four years before America’s disastrous 2016 presidential election — something about Barbie and Ken reminds me of the many supposedly pious white Christian evangelicals who support the pathologically cruel Trump.)

Another character who turns out to be different than one might initially think is Queequeg from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. That tattooed South Sea-born character looks fierce, and has a fierce job — harpooner on Captain Ahab’s ill-fated Pequod ship. But Queequeg actually has a heart of gold, and he and the book’s American sailor/narrator Ishmael strike up an unlikely cross-cultural friendship. (Melville is pictured above in 1861.)

Staying in the 19th-century, certain novels punctured unfortunate racial and gender tropes of the time. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for instance, Jo March is hyper-focused on becoming a professional writer — hardly an expected ambition for a female of that era. The titular protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’ Georges is a brainy/admirable black man stuck with none of the pernicious stereotypes most authors foisted on characters of color at that time, if they included them at all. (It didn’t hurt that Dumas was of part-African descent.) And Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is a much more three-dimensional Jewish character than seen in the vast majority of novels penned in the 1800s, though the depiction of her money-lender father Isaac is nowhere near as nuanced.

Going back another century, the title character of Henry Fielding’s semi-satirical novel Joseph Andrews (1742) resists temptation as he holds to his intention of remaining a virgin for his true love Fanny. A gender role reversal, especially for long-ago literature.

Speaking of gender surprises, the first book (One for the Money) of Janet Evanovich’s popular crime-novel series has protagonist Stephanie Plum switch from being a lingerie buyer to a…bounty hunter. It’s safe to say that’s a career change not often seen.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Humphrey van Weyden is a “soft” intellectual who’s held against his will and abused by tough-guy-with-a-screw-loose Captain Wolf Larsen when van Weyden is rescued after the ferry he was on sank. Humphrey’s transformation into an equal foe of Larsen is something I didn’t see coming.

I’ll stay with London and end by briefly taking this post into the animal realm. In that author’s The Call of the Wild, a domesticated dog becomes adept at surviving in the wild. And in White Fang, the opposite happens with a part-wolf/part-dog who is moved from the wild to civilization. Not the usual canine story arcs.

It almost goes without saying that any element of surprise is often welcome in a novel. What are some of the books that do that for you?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: 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. The latest weekly piece — which has a food theme — is here.

38 thoughts on “‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction

  1. As it should go without saying that mystery and suspense stories nearly always have one if not several of those unforeseen moments, I will skip over such examples as come to mind. In literature, two endings took me completely by surprise: Flaubert’s “Salammbo” and Singer’s “The Family Moskat”. I’d tell you what they were, but then, should you ever choose to read either, there’d be no surprise!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Dave,

    I’ve been wanting to comment here for a couple of weeks, but time keeps escaping me . So just quickly, re last week, though I’m not a huge fan of Lord of the Rings I did always have a soft spot for Samwise. I think in the case of Frodo, and maybe Harry Potter, the main character is burdened with so much responsibility that they don’t have the room to be as much fun as Samwise or Ron. I don’t know what Hermione’s excuse is 🙂

    There is s Paullina Simons books that I read a few years back about a young college woman who if memory serves, has a boyfriend that she’s not very happy with, and she may or may not leave him for the local cop. And then she’s dead! I remember not much liking the ‘main’ character, so it was almost a relief when there was this plot twist that I didn’t see coming.

    How could I forget about Rebecca?! It’s been about six or seven years since I first read it, and I think I’m still in shock.

    Oh, I thought the Simons book might be my only offering this week, but now that I remember how floored I was by Rebecca, I remember feeling the same way when I read Malcom Knox’s The Life at about the same time, and then when reading about a particular wedding in A Song of Ice and Fire about a year later.

    I love books with great twists. And it’s even better when you know people who have read the same book, and had the same reaction. Though it can be a little frustrating when you know someone *might* read the book, so you can sort of talk about it. But only sort of…

    Dave, I try to stay away from making too many political or controversial comments, but hopefully on this page, it’s ok to say Merry Impeachmas 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, Susan! 🙂 I enthusiastically welcome your “Merry Impeachmas”! Or, when it comes time for Trump to start a deserved jail sentence, “Seize Him Greetings.”

      I think there’s something to your point about the main characters in some novels being “burdened with so much responsibility that they don’t have the room to be as much fun” as secondary or sidekick characters.

      And thank you for the excellent examples of books with surprises/plot twists. Daphne du Maurier was certainly one of the authors very adept at that.


  3. Thank you again, Dave, for sharing your insights and profound knowledge of books on Tea Toast & Trivia. I enjoy following your blog. Your posts provide a wealth of ideas to consider and the ensuing discussions are always a great read. An interesting topic today – I didn’t see that coming – because it gave a change to consider why I have avoided fiction for several years. Writers have an extraordinary ability to entice me into their world where I become totally involved in narrative. Fiction challenges me in ways that non-fiction cannot. (Non-fiction gives their own challenges) “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier was my “I didn’t see it coming” moment. As you know, my brother Wes has challenged me to read 25 books, that I would not normally read, in 2020. I need all the help I can get to achieve this one….

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome, Clanmother, and thank you again for inviting me onto your wonderful podcast! And for the kind words about this weekly blog!

      Daphne du Maurier is indeed a really good, really interesting author. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend her time-travel novel “The House on the Strand” as a 2020 possibility. Not on the level of your-just-mentioned “Rebecca,” but it kind of sticks with a reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Howdy, Dave!

    — It almost goes without saying that any element of surprise is often welcome in a novel. What are some of the books that do that for you? —

    OMG! Here I am busily putting the finishing touches on my one and only 2020 New Year’s resolution — “I will NOT mention Henryk Sienkiewicz’s masterly Trilogy (‘With Fire and Sword,’ ‘The Deluge’ and ‘Fire in the Steppe’) in any ‘Dave Astor on Literature’ blog-post comment this year.” — and you make it impossible for me to get an early jump on this sucker!

    Here’s why.

    Before I began reading the fictional Trilogy translated by the awesome W.S. Kuniczak, I believed I knew exactly one thing about the nonfictional Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the nonfictional 17th century: King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania John (Jan) III Sobieski brilliantly led the relief armies that famously lifted the Siege of Vienna in 1683, a historic military victory that marked the beginning of the end of the Islamic Ottoman Empire’s territorial ambitions in Christian Europe.

    As it would be obvious to the most plodding of plotters that Sobieski was destined to be an appellation of increasing importance throughout the chronologically ordered Trilogy and the climax of the series’ action likely was to be a charge by the commonwealth’s husaria on a bloody battlefield outside Vienna, so it was to me.

    In the first novel, “With Fire and Sword,” centered on the Hmyelnitzki Uprising in 1648-49, the name Sobieski does indeed appear attached to a minor character. However, this one is not Jan but Marek, the older brother of the future king and grand duke.

    In the second novel, “The Deluge,” dealing with the successive invasions of the commonwealth by Swedish, Russian and Cossack forces in 1655-58, neither Sobieski is a character (John likely because the historical figure of the same name was a traitor to the crown during the early part of this period, and Marek likely because the historical figure of the same name was one of thousands of captive Polish soldiers massacred by Cossacks in 1652).

    In the third novel, “Fire in the Steppe,” focused on the war between Poland and the Ottoman Empire in 1668-73, the soon-to-be-monarch Jan III Sobieski finally emerges as an important character, albeit a comparatively minor one in the context of the author’s story, which comes to its beautifully epic conclusion long before the pivotal Siege of Vienna, considered by many the greatest moment in the commonwealth’s military history.

    I didn’t see that coming.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: Nice podcast by Clanmother and you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J., for the fascinating summary of and thoughts on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy — including Sobieski’s role (or lack of) in the three books.

      The trilogy has been on my to-read list for quite a while, based on your enthusiastic recommendation, but its length has always left me hesitant as I eye it at my local library. Yes, the eternal dilemma of spending a certain slice of time reading, in the case of Sienkiewicz, three huge amazing novels or instead reading 10 or so very good novels, with perhaps one or two of them amazing.

      And thanks for the kind podcast P.S.! 🙂


      • — The trilogy has been on my to-read list for quite a while, based on your enthusiastic recommendation, but its length has always left me hesitant as I eye it at my local library. —

        I completely understand. One of my nearest and dearest gave me W.S. Kuniczak’s translation of the Trilogy in the mid-1990s, and I did not get around to devouring it until about 2015, based solely on its length. Of course, I now wish both that I had read it much, much, much sooner and that Henryk Sienkiewicz had made it much, much, much longer. His genius radiates on all but two of its 3,568 pages.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Did the original readers of “Huck Finn” expect Huck to decide to put himself at risk of going to hell by saving the runaway slave Jim? Almost certainly not. But now that I’ve read the book a dozen or so times, I’ve come to expect that to happen and to swim in its deliciousness.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bill! Great point about expectations of past readers vs. expectations of current readers! It certainly must have been a shock to many 19th-century readers that Huck would come to think the way he did and help Jim. Nowadays, that kind of racial tolerance is more expected, though of course far from universal in this Age of Trump.


  6. This is rather anticipated in suspense, mysteries and thrillers, but I love when this happens unexpectedly in general fiction. I recently read “Faithful” by Alice Hoffman. To avoid giving a surprise away to potential readers, I never imagined who the writer of the main character’s secret postcards would be! By the way, I enjoyed hearing your voice on the interesting podcast, Dave.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Becky, that’s an excellent distinction between novels (thriller, mysteries, etc.) in which we expect surprises, and general fiction in which surprises can be…well…surprising. I should have made that distinction more clear in my post, which was (mostly) about surprise character developments in (mostly) general fiction.

      You have me very intrigued about “Faithful”! I appreciate you mentioning Alice Hoffman again, and plan to read her.

      Thank you for the comment, and for listening to and mentioning the podcast! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. An interesting tangent is how the upset expectations trope plays out in film adaptations of famous novels. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994) starts out following Shelley’s book more closely than previous adaptations, but only becomes really interesting when it suddenly, unexpectedly breaks from the book. Aidan Quinn, who had a small role as Walton in that film, was the lead in Crusoe (1988), which was also memorable for the intriguing liberties it took with Defoe’s text. Coppola’s Dracula (1992) adds a framing tale at the beginning and ending that casts Stoker’s monster in a whole new light (not to mention Andy Warhol’s Dracula — it goes without saying that a frail, self-conscious and gender-ambiguous Dracula whose sensitive stomach has him vomiting the blood of his victims will upset the expectations of many a reader).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Daedalus Lex! That IS a really interesting offshoot of this topic. As you know, few films based on novels follow the books to the letter — and you offered three excellent, very-well-described examples of that.

      Also, it’s often the case where movie versions of mainly depressing novels make things a little more positive (“The Grapes of Wrath” being one example) or a lot more positive (as in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”). And of course, the actresses and actors in films are often better looking than the original book versions of the characters (“Jane Eyre,” etc.).

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Some great books there, Dave!

    Of course a lot of thrillers and suspense novels have unexpected plot twists–that’s part of the deal–but a couple that stand out are “Dead Cert” and “Enquiry” by Dick Francis. In the latter, just when you think you’ve got the bad guy sussed out, someone else steps into the scene.

    Liked by 2 people

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