People are People, Even in Fiction
by Lisbeth Eng
Romance writers are adept at crafting characters for their novels. A hero and a heroine are essential, as well as secondary characters, and often one villain or more. Fictional characters, just like real people, must be complex – composed of both positive and negative traits. Heroes and heroines cannot be perfect, else the reader won’t experience them as real and will not be able to identify with them. Likewise, villains should have some redeeming quality to make them believable. Very few people are entirely malevolent. Even Adolf Hitler, perhaps the embodiment of evil, was friendly towards dogs and children, as long as they were Aryan, of course (the children, that is). Novels are much more interesting when the characters reflect people who could possibly exist in the real world. Besides creating sympathy for the characters, it also aids the “suspension of disbelief” necessary for fiction. I will never forget the advice of one of my writing instructors: “fiction must be true.” In other words, it must read as if it could be true. This is even the case in fantasy, sci-fi and time-travel. Since the plot will be outside the realm of reality, the characters must possess some anthropomorphic traits, even if they are vampires, aliens or elves. This is essential for at least temporary suspension of disbelief, or the reader will lose interest.
My debut novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, takes place in Italy during the period of World War II (1943 – 1945) when northern Italy is occupied by the German army. If you read the back cover blurb, you will find one woman, the heroine Isabella Ricci, and two men, either of whom could be the hero. All three main characters possess both strengths and flaws.
Isabella is a courageous member of the Italian Resistance, risking her life for her country’s deliverance from both the occupying German forces and from Fascist oppression. Her assignment is to infiltrate German intelligence through her acquaintance with Günter Schumann, a German army captain, whom she meets by chance through a friend. Günter doesn’t know that Isabella is a partisan or a spy and pursues a romantic relationship with her. Isabella is urged by her lover and commander, Massimo Baricelli, to employ any means necessary to uncover vital information, even if it means engaging in an illicit affair with the enemy. She continually questions whether this scheme makes her an immoral woman and is often plagued by self-doubt. Yet despite her reservations and fear of capture, she perseveres out of loyalty to the cause.
Massimo encourages his lover Isabella to get close to the enemy officer. He is ambitious, and urges Isabella to become involved in an intimate liaison with another man, something she is hesitant to do. Though his goal is noble, to free Italy from the grip of Fascism, his methods are to a degree self-serving. He believes that the success of this espionage mission will augment his status in the Resistance, and enhance his recognition by the Allies, to whom he passes on the military intelligence Isabella gathers. For that, he is willing to put his lover in a compromising and perilous position.
As an officer in the Army of the Third Reich, Günter must serve an evil regime, yet is devoted to duty out of loyalty to his country. Günter is a principled man who abhors the malicious rants of his Führer. But he is also naïve, averting his focus from the worst crimes of the Nazis until confronted with evidence he can no longer ignore. He follows the safer path as a dutiful officer, rather than speak out against the Nazis and risk almost certain execution as a traitor.
I do not want the reader to know whether Massimo or Günter ends up as the hero; I prefer to keep the reader in suspense as long as possible, though some may quickly guess which man it is. I’d like to think that this ambiguity makes for a more interesting and nuanced read. But whether hero or not, each man should be viewed as an individual human being, as should all of the others who populate In the Arms of the Enemy. As fictional characters, they must be real.
BIO: An English major in college, Lisbeth Eng has also studied Italian, German and French. Lisbeth is a native New Yorker and has worked as a registered representative in the finance industry for the past 25 years. Her first novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, is available in e-book and paperback at The Wild Rose Press, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other online booksellers. Lisbeth invites you to visit her at http://www.lisbetheng.com/.
Hi, Lisbeth. Welcome to my blog. Great post. Characters must be real to our readers if we're going to keep them interested in the story. That also means we need to keep the character true to, well, character. Having her do something totally out of character will not allow the reader to suspend belief either.
Love the cover and the book sounds wonderful.
Excellent guidance on writing characters, Lisbeth. I like the suspense of not knowing who the hero is!
Thanks P.L. and Emma for your comments and thanks to Anna for giving me the opportunity to guest blog!
If there's one place on earth I'd love to visit, it's Italy. The cover is beautiful and the characters sound facinating. Best of luck to you with your book.
Hello, Anna and Lisbeth,
Lisbeth, you said, "Heroes and heroines cannot be perfect, else the reader won’t experience them as real and will not be able to identify with them. Likewise, villains should have some redeeming quality to make them believable. Very few people are entirely malevolent."
This is so true! I can't tell you how many books I've read where the main protagonists are too perfect and the antagonists are too terrible. It really damages the credibility of the story (at least, in my opinion), because, like you said, no one is perfect and no one is completely malevolent.
I'm intrigued by the technique you used in your story - keeping your readers guessing which man is the hero. Very ingenious!
I'm heading over to TWRP to buy your book, Lisbeth. The time period in history is right up my alley!
Thanks again, everyone, for your comments!
P.S. And thanks so much, Judy, for buying my book! I hope you enjoy it.
I couldn't agree more without "real" characters we wouldn't have a story.And you do your characters so well. Of course, your story won me because of the WW2 background as well.
Great advice in your blog post, Lisbeth! Thanks for sharing your writing wisdom. :-)
Thanks so much, Pauline and Margaret! I always love to hear from you both!
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