• Is Theodosia stupid?

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—

• Nasty or Nice?

Emperor Otho

Emperor Otho

Of all the characters in Rubies of the Viper, I probably had the most fun with Otho and Nizzo. Neither one of them is a nice man. Could it be that’s the reason they were such rollicking pleasures to create and, I hope, read about?


Marcus Salvius Otho was a real man who played an interesting role in first-century history, so in my novel I had to make him as true-to-life as possible. And I think I did… as regards his overbearing personality, his foppish physical traits, his driving ambition, and his willingness to claw and crawl all over anybody who got in his way.

History has not been kind to Otho. He’s generally remembered as a bully who—with the unique exception of his time as governor of Lusitania (now Portugal)—squandered most of the golden opportunities that fate put into his hands. Equally loaded with ambition and personality flaws, he rose to become emperor of the Roman Empire only to commit suicide three months later.

A nasty man for sure, with very little nice about him.

Aulus Terentius Nizzo, on the other hand, is purely a figment of my imagination… a complete tabla rasa for my creative juices. Even his name was fun to concoct. His slave name (Nizzo)—carried over as his cognomen—is what most people in the novel call him. His praenomen (Aulus) and nomen (Terentius) came from his master, Aulus Terentius Varro (Theodosia’s father), the man who liberated him and with his name gave him a legal identity.

Nizzo first appears in Chapter 9 of Rubies of the Viper as a former farm slave—now a freedman—who runs the vast agricultural estate that Theodosia Varro has inherited from Gaius, her morally corrupt and recently murdered half-brother. And his role grows increasingly important as the story builds toward its conclusion.

From a physical point of view, Nizzo is exactly what one might expect of a former slave now in charge of an immense plantation: dirty, brutish, and foul-mouthed. He doesn’t hesitate to exercise the power he has over powerless people who don’t belong to him but are completely under his control.

He’s definitely not the kind of guy a young lady like Theodosia Varro would care to hang out with.

But his deep-down personal qualities are less easy to characterize. Before Theodosia meets Nizzo, Alexander assures her that the farm manager is worthy of respect:

“There’s a reason why your father lifted that one man above a thousand others who started exactly where he did and placed him in charge of them, even while he was still a slave. Nizzo isn’t polished, but he’s smart and tough and honest and ambitious.”

Those sterling traits aren’t easy for Theodosia to recognize, however. It takes three years and a lot of suffering on her part before she finally comes to see Nizzo for what he really is. And that’s as much as I’m going to say on that subject, because to delve further into it would spoil the story.

Suffice it to say that, while “nice” isn’t a word that anybody would credibly pin on Nizzo, “nasty” isn’t exactly the right word for him either.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Not Your Garden-Variety Roman Lady

After living with Theodosia Varro for the six years it took me to write Rubies of the Viper—during which time she quite literally had her own way with the story—I’ve developed a great respect and affection for her. The best test for me is that, after spending so much time with her already, I still find her fascinating enough to want to continue exploring her life in a sequel.

Here’s how I see Theodosia… and there are no spoilers here!

Personality-wise, she’s stubborn, impetuous, and thoughtless—with a love of horses, bright clothing, personal independence, and self-determination—but she also demonstrates remarkable kindness and generosity for an upper-class woman of her time.

Socially, she’s a misfit from birth… a half-Greek/half-Roman girl given no training whatsoever for managing the wealth and high social position that fall into her lap at the beginning of the novel. She was raised by a Greek slave nurse—a surrogate for the mother who died in childbirth—who had no capacity to prepare her to be a proper lady. Her father treated her in a way that no “ordinary” patrician girl would ever have been treated: more as a fun companion than as a future Roman wife and mother. He taught her to love books and ride a horse as well as a man, but made no provision for her marriage and no effort to ensure that she was equipped to survive after his death. (See What Theodosia Never Learned and Is Theodosia Stupid? on this site.)

Emotionally, she’s naive, unprepared, and inexperienced at first… easy prey in a society full of ambitious, money- and status-seeking men. She grows in wisdom and experience as the story progresses, and it’s safe to say that the Theodosia of Chapter 30 is a far cry from the Theodosia of Chapter 1.

In my eyes, this adds up to a multi-dimensional character who learns to hold her own despite the many forces aligned against her. Theodosia creates many of her own problems, but by the end of the novel, she proves to be clever, resourceful, courageous, resilient, honest with herself and others, willing to admit mistakes, and strong—both physically and emotionally.

As one Amazon reviewer pointed out… Theodosia “leaves several characters so appreciative of her that they risk their lives and freedom on her behalf.” I’d say that’s a pretty good sign of an appealing protagonist.

If you’ve read Rubies of the Viper, please leave a comment and let me know what you think of Theodosia Varro. Just remember… no spoilers, please!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• What Theodosia Never Learned

Only by understanding the normal expectations and restrictions placed on patrician women in Roman society can one see how profoundly different is the situation in which Theodosia Varro, the protagonist of Rubies of the Viper, finds herself at the beginning of the novel.

A Roman lady of the upper classes was trained from childhood for her primary tasks in life: to run a household, manage slaves, entertain her husband’s friends and political allies, and raise her children.

But… Theodosia Varro was given no training for any of this. (See Not Your Garden-Variety Roman Lady and Is Theodosia stupid?)

The life of a typical Roman lady of the upper classes was restricted from start to finish. She had minimal education, little encouragement to understand politics, and few opportunities for meaningful engagement with the world outside her home. While a free Roman woman was considered a citizen, she had no right to vote, hold office, or engage in any political activities.

Legally, both a woman and any property she inherited were under the control of a male member of the family: her father, husband, or son. She didn’t have the right to select her own husband, say no to her father’s choice, or wait until she was older than the customary marriage age of 12-14.

A Roman lady didn’t have a legal right to her children. She couldn’t even protect a newborn baby girl (or, on occasion, a sickly baby boy) if the father chose to allow the baby to die of starvation or exposure. If the lady divorced her husband, she had to leave her children behind.

It was common for a girl at puberty to be married off to a considerably older man… becoming perhaps his third or fourth wife. Wives were expected to bear children as often as possible, because few survived and because sons were so desirable. Women wore out fast; twenty to thirty years was the expected life span of a female who survived past childhood.

While adulterous relationships were common, only a woman could be put to death for adultery.

Unlike Greek woman, who were confined almost all the time to their homes, Roman women regularly went out in public, especially to the public baths (which were social occasions as well as opportunities for hygiene); to parties, races and gladiatorial events; and to religious celebrations. They enjoyed friends of their own class, both male and female.

A good book on this subject is Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Happy Hulk

When I first started writing Rubies of the Viper, I expected that Stefan would be the co-protagonist. He seemed to have all the right stuff: a gorgeous, gigantic physique, a happy-go-lucky disposition, and a lifelong relationship with the heroine.

As often happens in writing, however, the character soon began to exert his independence and took off in his own direction. Before I knew what was happening, the Leading Man had turned into a Hound Dog.

I guess it just couldn’t be helped.

Stefan is, to put it delicately, a chick magnet. Hardly a woman looks at him without getting ideas. Rich or poor, patrician or plebeian, free or slave… they all find themselves drawn to his irresistible animal magnetism. And he, kind soul that he is, (almost) always is happy to oblige.

But Stefan’s great physical presence hides a couple of nasty little secrets.

He’s a coward. A lover, not a fighter. On several occasions, when he has an opportunity to defend the woman he supposedly loves, he just stands there and lets somebody else come to her rescue.

He’s also a moral weakling. All those women throwing themselves at him… It’s not his fault. He can’t help himself. Fidelity just ain’t in his blood.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• A Real Mensch

If there’s one character in Rubies of the Viper that almost everybody loves, it’s Alexander. And honestly… what’s not to love?

As my husband says: “Alexander is a mensch.”

When the novel opens, Alexander has been a slave for eight years. We soon learn that he was born free in Corinth, Greece; enslaved as a young adult (for reasons that eventually become clear); and sent to Rome, where Gaius Varro purchased him as a steward to manage his estate. The idea of buying a brand-new slave and turning one’s entire fortune over to him to manage may sound strange to modern readers, but it was not uncommon in ancient times. Life then, as now, was full of ironies!

Remarkably, given his personal history, there is very little slave-like in Alexander’s demeanor or character… and therein lies one main source of his difficulties in getting along with his master and (later) mistress. Another source of conflict is—more of that irony—that they are dependent on his financial and managerial skills, even as he is legally dependent on them. (See A Master’s Carrot and Stick.)

Despite Alexander’s many admirable qualities, he is property, and as such comes into Theodosia Varro’s possession when her brother is murdered. How the two of them work through the evolving dynamics of their mistress-slave relationship is a key plot element in Rubies of the Viper.

What most separates Alexander from the broad spectrum of “other characters” in my novel is the fact that he is one of two Point of View characters. His innermost thoughts and view of events happening around him alternate with Theodosia’s innermost thoughts and view of events. So, not only do readers get inside Theodosia’s head, they also get inside Alexander’s. The play of those two separate-but-equal perspectives sets up much of the dramatic tension in the novel. (See Is Theodosia stupid?)

I have to admit that Alexander totally created himself as Rubies of the Viper came into existence. I did very little to bring him to life… just let him come out. He began as a minor character in my plan for the book and developed into the co-protagonist because of his extraordinary talents and rare (for anybody in first-century Rome, and especially for a slave) personal virtues.

Like most readers, I adore Alexander. Sharing him with the world has been one of the great pleasures of publishing this novel. I’d love to see your comments about him if you’ve read Rubies of the Viper. Just remember… no spoilers, please!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—