The List Is Understood–But Breast Implants?

at my rehearsal dinner
at my rehearsal dinner

in the mall parking lot
in the mall parking lot

L. liked to tell people everything. J. said we should teach her a lesson. We made stories about ourselves and told them to her. She repeated them, and she was livid when she found out the truth. She didn’t speak to us for a few weeks.

Seven months later, L. said to me, “D’s such a gossip. We should make a story up and tell him.”

“And you think that’s okay?” I asked, still feeling guilty for making her cry 7 months earlier. “You think we should lie to a friend to see if he’ll talk about us?”

“It’ll be funny,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, L.” I said. “D. might get upset. You know?” She let the subject go. Or so I thought.

A few months later we back on campus from summer vacation. I noticed that certain friends were looking at me strangely. Well, that is, every time I talked to one of my male friends, I’d have to check to see if I’d spilled something down the front of my blouse.

L. did make up a story to tell D. She told him I’d had breast implants over the summer.

Another time L and I were going on a double-date. Before the guys picked us up and told her all the things she shouldn’t tell my date about me. (The breast implant story being on the list of course. Never you mind the rest.) In the middle of dinner, L. said to my date, “Marta gave me a list of things I can’t talk about.”

“L!” I said.


“You don’t say there’s a list.”

“You didn’t say that. The list wasn’t on the list.”

“The list is understood!” I said.

She turned to my date. “What do you think? Is the list understood or does the list have to be on the list?”

The guys exchanged looks and changed the subject. L. and I continued the argument in the bathroom.

In fiction, characters need to behave in believable ways. But yet you don’t want them to be predictable. Well, predictable in some ways, but able to surprise and interest you in others. You don’t expect Ahab to suddenly say, “You know, why don’t I forget this whale for a day and go on a picnic?”

Or Miss Havisham to decide to go out for a coffee with her old bridesmaids?

Or James Bond to ask a beautiful, willing female to play Scrabble and discuss his stamp collection?

Who knows what novels those would be.

How do you make a character who is surprising but doesn’t break the spell of the story?

9 thoughts on “The List Is Understood–But Breast Implants?

  1. Okay, I know this wasn’t a particularly enjoyable couple of interlocking events in your life. But God, did it sound like dialogue from Seinfeld. “The list wasn’t on the list!” “The list is understood!” Ha!

    About surprising characters: It’s tricky. Not only do you have to maintain (as you say) the spell of the story; you also have to maintain various implicit contracts you have with the reader. They mights not even be contracts YOU established, but your publisher (or the bookstore) did. For instance, a book could end up shelved — for marketing convenience — as a fantasy, even though its author never thought of it that way. Immediately this sets up expectations among readers, such that if the book and its characters don’t honor certain conventions of the genre, they may end up annoyed — or if they don’t read fantasy, may never discover the book to begin with.

    So I’d think surprises need to be veerrrry carefully weighed. (Ha again –but don’t look to Burning Lines if you’re not into surprises. :))

  2. I think the best surprises are when the character surprises the author, not when the author is trying to surprise the reader. When our characters do something unexpected, it’s because our subconscious minds have already figured out who the characters are, way beyond what the surface shows. It knows connections and motivations that our forebrains can’t see ahead of time, and so the actions seem more organic. At least, it’s that way for me. 🙂

  3. Hah. I agree with sherri, although I wasn’t thinking about that. Those little dickens take off and have lives of their own.

    But I also like your L. That’s a good character who doesn’t do the right thing, but isn’t really evil. Although, you might have felt like it when she told everyone you’d had your boobs done.Although when she told about the list, that should have been expected, it’s perfectly consistent with her character. Just not consistent with your own expectations of a friend. Maybe that’s the surprise, when they actually stick with their own character, and we can’t believe they’ve taken it so far.

  4. I like Rowena’s point- that more often than not, characters (and people in our lives) are being true to who they are- we just can’t believe it. It’s like when someone is verbally mean in the beginning and then, over time, ends up beating someone up. We may not “believe” they could do that, but the internal consistency of their actions was there from the very first.

  5. I agree with Rowena as well …great point about L…L is a great character because she makes you love and hate her at the same time. Sherri makes a great point too….when the character surprises you I think you are onto something …..JES is right on the money about Burning Lines…one after the other…collective minds making surprising things happen

    Sorry I haven’t been here in a bit…I’ve been in another world and seriously missing you and all the folks out here…hey LOVE the snow

  6. JES, talking to L. is often like a Seinfeld episode, but I love that about her.

    rowena, I really wasn’t that surprised about the list comment, but it is the pattern of how we interact.

    Natasha, thanks for coming back by.

    shelli, one thing I love about L. is that she is an endless source of good stories to share–even if they are at my expense.

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