Flip It

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My friend Beth (you may know her from the comments) wrote a terrific post that turned etiquette on it’s head. Well, maybe not etiquette itself, but certainly how people perceive the world around them. As a sighted person, it was certainly an eye-opener…yes, I do resort to pointing and facial expressions quite a bit. Seriously, go read it.

But that got me thinking about upending expectations in fiction.

John Grisham’s book A Time to Kill deals with race, specifically a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, shoots the white men who raped and attempted to murder his daughter. During the father’s trial hell breaks loose. Toward the end of the book when the jury came back to read their verdict, I knew what I wanted them to decide, but wasn’t sure if that’s how it would happen given how the town exploded. What I remember most about the book (and you’ll have to excuse me if the details aren’t exactly right, it’s been a while), is that after the verdict is read, we get a glimpse into the jury deliberation. One of the 12 angry men had asked everyone to close their eyes. Basically, he described the events of the case in such a way that each member of the white jury imagined themselves and their daughters…and then he asked the jury members to imagine the little girl they pictured as black. Changing that detail was enough open some eyes and get the right verdict.

Usually, though, upending the expected in fiction is on a grander scale and is an exercise for the reader, not the other characters. An exercise like role-flipping: cops/agents/detectives used to be all men, so let’s put a woman in the role instead. Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs, VI Warshawski from Indemnity Only and other novels and stories, and Sarah Blundy from An Instance of Fingerpost (a slow start, but great read) are good examples.

I love Silence of the Lambs (maybe a little too much) and I love strong female characters, but the “and she’s a woman” take on a character is pretty much her own cliché at this point. I think those women characters should certainly be there, but I don’t think the fact that they are women is enough for a hook or to maintain interest. It’s no longer shocking or rally-around-able or let’s-make-a-point-able.

The vampire as good guy would be another upend-er that I think has run its course as “shocking twist.” What would really be shocking is if zombies were really good and trying to save us from the vampires…or better yet, zombie as the next evolution of human kind…um, ok, back to earth.

Other than race (which I rarely see used this way and am interested in recommendations), gender and vampirism, what are the upending or role-reversal ideas that you’ve seen out there?

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9 thoughts on “Flip It

  1. bethfinke

    Thanks for the shout out, Empty Pen! Very much appreciated! Also appreciate the number of people who went to my post and understood the list (called “What to do when you meet a sighted person” )for what it is: irony. Or maybe “educational irony” if that can be used as a term. One commenter said she hoped to try to find a way to use the list in the upper-level elementary school kids she teaches – maybe there’s hope for the future after all.

  2. bethfinke

    Oh, and I love your notion that using women in so-called surprising roles is cliché at this point. I’m hoping the same will happen with characters that have disabilities. Thinking about TV roles, let’s see…the title character on House uses a cane, but I’m even more interested that some side characters are showing up with disabilities in TV shows: Artie Abrams on Glee uses a wheelchair, and Maw Maw on Raising Hope has Alzheimer’s disease, Max Braverman on Parenthood has Asperger’s and Dr.,Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation uses prosthetic legs. I look forward to a time when including a character with a disability is not such an anomaly. Stealing your wording here, EmptyPen, I hope someday characters with disabilties will certainly be there, but the fact that they have a disability is no longer enough for a hook or to maintain interest and is no longer shocking or rally-around-able or let’s-make-a-point-able.
    Wow. Didn’t mean to go on like that. Maybe I oughta write an entire blog post about this. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Have you heard of the USA Network show Covert Affairs? I haven’t watched it, but I know that the initial hook that the CIA operative’s handler is blind. I know your point is that you don’t want disability to be a hook any more than having a woman do anything should be a hook. Just curious if you’d seen the show and what your thoughts were about it.

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