Fictional Characters and Believability

Jan 18, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Judy Alter

Do fictional characters have to be believable?

In a review of one of my Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, a reader wrote that the characters were just like people you would meet in the grocery store, comfortable and believable. Another reader, a neighbor, wrote me that she saw Kelly going into their favorite restaurant. I was thrilled that readers thought of my characters as real people. After all, one of our goals as mystery authors is to create characters that draw readers in, characters they can identify with.

But the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries were written several years ago, and my latest series, Irene in Chicago Culinary Mysteries, takes readers to the far other end of what, for want of a better word, you might call the believability spectrum. I call them outrageous cozies. To accept the fictional figures, diva chef Irene Foxglove and snarky narrator Henny James, as characters, the reader is called upon to suspend critical thinking or logic about people and how they behave in the real world. Thanks to Samuel Coleridge for the term, “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Irene Foxglove was never intended to be a realistic character. You won’t meet her in the grocery store or the beauty salon. Henrietta (Henny) James, her former gofer on a local TV show, keeps rescuing Irene from kidnappers and death threats, but the truth is Irene’s behavior is so impulsive, so demanding, so difficult that any self-respecting criminal would have dispatched her long ago. It takes Henny’s voice to make the reader accept Irene’s outrageous behavior.

When Irene gets outrageous, Henny gets snarky. She may rescue Irene, but she wishes, always, that “Madame” would tell her the truth—about her marriage, her spoiled daughter, her days in France, the man who threatens her. When Irene insists on addressing Henny by the full name she dislikes, Henny’s interior comment is “She, on the other hand, prefers to be addressed as ‘Madame.’ Given my druthers, I’d address her as ‘Bitch.’” When Henny thinks Irene will return to Chicago, she spends a lot of time saying, “I should call Irene in France.” The last thing I wanted to do was call Irene in France … “I don’t want to call Irene. She’ll see the chance to sweep in dramatically and take the center of attention.” In her own way, Henny is as outrageous as Irene.

After one book, Irene rekindles her love affair with the fabulously wealthy and handsome Chance Charpentier, French father of her only child, and spends her time jetting back and forth across the pond in his private jet. In Finding Florence, third and newest in the series, Irene has flown to Chicago from France in her preferred high style. Her “voices” have told her that something is horribly amiss with a person dear to her. When she learns that a death notice for Florence Sherman, her sometime friend, previous neighbor, and member of an historic Chicago family, has been published in the Chicago Tribune, she hurries to Chicago, only to find that Florence’s body is missing.

The diva chef refuses to leave until she solves the mysterious disappearance. As long as Irene is in Chicago, Henny’s successful “From My Mother’s Kitchen” TV show and her precious time with Patrick, husband of her dreams, are seriously compromised by Irene’s insistence that finding Florence trumps any other concerns. So Henny struggles to balance Irene’s demands with the rest of her life and to find Florence, dead or alive, so Irene will go back to France.

I don’t expect readers to like Irene, in the way they do a character they might meet in the grocery store, but I hope they are interested and intrigued, even amused, and I hope they see her as both flawed and vulnerable. And Henny? Who can resist her struggle for peace and happiness? She’s entitled to be a bit snarky.

Outrageous cozies may never become a major subgenre, but they can be fun. There are escape literature with no heavy moral message—and in the Chicago culinary mysteries, good food hints and recipes lighten the tone.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up last week.

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After am award-winning career as a western writer, Judy Alter turned to mystery. She is the author of three earlier series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, Blue Plate Café Mysteries, and Oak Grove Mysteries. Finding Florence is the third in her new Irene in Chicago Culinary Mysteries, following the successful Saving Irene and Irene in Danger.
Alter is retired as director of a small academic press and lives in a cottage in Fort Worth with her dog, Sophie. She is the mother of four and grandmother of seven and is an avid cook. She’s even written a book about cooking in her cottage, Gourmet on a Hot Plate.

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