Recently, I was intrigued by the opinion of a young reviewer of Rubies of the Viper who complained that Theodosia “made bad decisions” and “acted like an idiot.” Since a different reviewer on Amazon had a similar “stupid heroine” gripe, this reaction to my protagonist was worth thinking about.
It was time, I decided, for a discussion of DRAMATIC IRONY.
After thanking the young woman for her review, I gently suggested that she do a Google search on the term dramatic irony, because it might help her better understand what’s going on in my novel and hundreds of others that she’ll read in her lifetime. She did look it up and later changed her review to reflect her increased knowledge of how an author uses literary devices (such as dramatic irony, point of view, and others) to build tension and play with a reader’s emotions.
Complaints about my “stupid” protagonist seem to be based on who Theodosia is at the start of the novel: a naive, inexperienced young woman thrust without preparation into a complex and dangerous situation. (See What Theodosia Never Learned and Not Your Garden-Variety Roman Lady.)
The reader first sees what’s happening from inside Theodosia’s head (her point of view, or POV), which provides one interpretation of events. Soon after, the reader goes inside Alexander’s head (his POV), which provides a very different interpretation of events. The POV alternates from Theodosia to Alexander throughout the novel, offering readers a shifting perspective on the fictional “reality” of the novel. Along the way, there is also omniscient narration (a third POV), which provides yet another interpretation of events.
In other words… the reader benefits from seeing the “reality” of the novel from a variety of perspectives, while the protagonist can only see that “reality” through her own POV, which is often incomplete.
Theodosia doesn’t know everything the reader knows, or even everything Alexander knows. The result is dramatic irony, a major source of tension in Rubies of the Viper and scads of other works.
Without spoiling the plot for those who have not yet read my novel, I can offer the following example:
At the beginning—the very morning after her brother’s murder—Marcus Salvio Otho begins setting Theodosia up to see him as a good guy… her brother’s best friend and a trustworthy advisor/confidant to her. As a naive, innocent, unprepared young woman who has never spoken with Otho before, she has no reason to question what he’s saying and doing. But Alexander, who has years of experience dealing with Otho, isn’t fooled. By being inside Alexander’s mind (his POV) when the reader first meets Otho in person, we get a clear picture of who and what Otho is. Theodosia has no experience dealing with rich, patrician suitors, so it’s easy for Otho to sweep her off her feet. Later, of course, she comes to see him just as Alexander—and the reader—saw him all along.
Is Theodosia stupid not to see Otho as he really is from the beginning? Read on, and we’ll address that question below.
There are actually many layers of dramatic irony in Rubies of the Viper, and they all have different effects on Theodosia… and on the reader’s emotions.
At one point, Theodosia finds out that Stefan has been sleeping with her maid, Lucilla. It’s a shock to her, but not to the reader or to Alexander. Is Theodosia stupid not to see this earlier?
And later, when Theodosia is incarcerated, she doesn’t know if Alexander, Stefan, and Lycos got away or not. The reader learns what happened to them long before she does. Is Theodosia stupid not to know this earlier?
And later, Theodosia reacts badly when led to believe that Flavia has betrayed her, but the reader knows that’s not true. Is Theodosia stupid not to realize this earlier?
Etc, etc, etc. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to give away the whole plot!
This kind of dramatic irony is a major source of tension in lots of books, not just mine. When we readers know more than the characters do, we often find ourselves cringing or saying “No, don’t do it!!!” We see disaster ahead and want to warn the characters, but we have no power to stop them from making dumb/innocent mistakes.
Now that I’ve shown a few examples of how dramatic irony plays out in Rubies of the Viper, let me offer info from other sources:
A good basic definition from Wikipedia: “Dramatic irony is the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters.”
Here’s perceptive snip (and there’s plenty more!) from TVtropes.org:
Dramatic irony lets the audience “see the whole picture when the protagonist, or even the entire cast, is kept largely in the dark.
“Fat lot of good it does us though. When dramatic irony crops up, it’s usually not to let us feel smugly superior. It’s to toy with our fragile little emotions. If we’re lucky, the emotion being manipulated will be amusement. If we’re not, dramatic irony will be present to make us cringe or bite our fingernails down to the knuckles.
“To really fit the definition though, one of the characters must make a statement, or perform an action, to fully illustrate that they are unaware of the situation. To the character, what they’re saying or doing is perfectly sensible based on the knowledge they have. To the audience though, the statement or action is ludicrous or dangerously uninformed.” (emphasis mine)
And with that, I think the question I posed above has an obvious answer.
No, Theodosia is not stupid. As the story progresses, she sorts through all the red herrings, pieces together the real clues, and ultimately uncovers the deepest secrets of **both** of the men who killed her brother. She just doesn’t always know everything the reader knows… and therein lies much of the suspense.
—except as noted, text copyright © Martha Marks—