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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Treatment Tuesday - Nazi Sympathizer?

This week's character assessment comes from James. He's writing a historical drama-slash-psychological-thriller during the WWII time period. Otto* is my first Nazi to take up space on the couch. Otto was raised during Hitler's early reign, and his idealistic youth's driving motive was restoring Germany to its rightful place. He enlists in the German army and goes to war against his father's will. He survives, but not without scars and disillusionment in Nazism. Stationed in Russia, Otto comes to feel affection for a Russian girl, who he later discovers is Jewish. She gets killed somehow because of Otto and Otto becomes embittered. He fights to find justification for his decisions, clings to his faith, and dies internally divided but unrepentant.

Then the story begins.

It's in his limbo stage after death that he meets a man named Peter who offers him a way out of he explains why he lived his life the way he did. Otto resists but eventually agrees to sit down, and at length, he reaches catharsis, accepts forgiveness, and is taken into Heaven.

James wants to know: Since this character is a Nazi, how will I be able to confront a stereotype and challenge what people think about God's forgiveness? No one is beyond redemption, but people don't quite grasp that God will forgive anyone for anything, even people with beliefs we demonize.

This will be a challenge to write well, James. Well, actually the challenge will be to write the back cover copy well enough so that people even want to buy and take home a book about a Nazi. 

When I say the word "Nazi" and ask you to free associate (say the first word that comes to mind), the first word that likely goes through anyone's head is Hitler. Hitler was associated with the mass execution of Jews, concentration camps, Aryan Nation....none of this is positive association. To add even more difficulty to your plight, you've got a character who's gung-ho Hitler, at least initially.

I'm not advocating not to write this story at all. I'm intrigued by the concept, and I think others will be, too. But you'll have to be very careful to use people's perception in your favor. Psychology can help with this.

Public opinion about Nazis is largely hatred, disbelief, and some ignorance. It's the ignorance you can play on. I would only hope that there were some people in Hitler's regime who didn't agree with him 100%. Some people who risked it all to save Anne Franks. That's the beauty of fiction...take us to a time, place, and era and show us something we don't expect to see, make us feel something (sympathy) for a Nazi we don't expect to feel.

If you make this Otto a regular guy, with dreams and vices like the average Joe, he'll be someone others can relate to. Not many people in today's age can relate to Nazism. There is the neo-Nazi movement in America (if you really want to be disturbed, check out their website), but by and large, this kind of nationalism hasn't been experienced by people today, unless you count the swell of national sentiment after 9-11. If you could capture that positive feeling of unity and somehow bring readers around to understanding that that was where Otto was coming from, it could work. I could relate, even as I swallowed my bile about him being a Nazi and experiencing the same thing I felt.

I know you didn't ask for that little bit, but consider is a freebie. :)
Really, a book about a Nazi should be no different than a book about a prostitute or a hero who robs banks.  But because the word Nazi will be in the book blurb somewhere, you've got to quickly cover major ground in getting the reader to buy in to the concept, since Nazi is one of the most hated terms in all the land.

How can you do this? Here's a few suggestions:

1) In the back cover blurb, I'd mention his disillusionment very quickly. No need to go into his idealistic youth...not on the cover. Unless you're wanting it to be a secret that Otto is dead at the beginning of the book, I'd start off with the old, bitter Otto...the one who wished he could have done some things differently. We can all relate to that. 

2) Show Otto in a very human moment in the very first scene of the book. Readers who get past the blurb usually go to page one. If your page one has Otto engaged in a battle against Russia or blinking at Hitler with adoring eyes, they'll throw it back immediately.

3) Use Otto's introspection to your advantage. You will need to use this cleverly, since it looks like the book is sort of an interview between Peter and Otto to determine if he can leave his limbo state. So Peter will likely be asking questions and Otto answering (or refusing). If Otto's introspective thoughts bring into question his blind allegiance or whisper at a regret he feels for the death of the Russian'll grab your readers. We all want to read about that stuff because we've all questioned and regretted. It's universal experience, while Nazism is not.

You know, I feel compelled to mention a book by Francine Rivers, Redeeming Love. Everyone knows that this book is a fictionalized account of Hosea and Gomer, and everyone knows that Gomer was a prostitute in the worst kind of way. This book has been in the top 25 for over ten years. And people knew exactly what it was going to be about before they bought it. Here's her blurb with my interjections in red:

Can God’s Love Save Anyone? (the overarching question...very intriguing)
California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep. (sets the overall tone) Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. (wham! non-prostitutes can relate to this, and it hints that she's not thrilled with her occupation) And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside. Then she meets Michael Hosea. (the sentence that keeps us reading the rest of the blurb)
Like you said, your novel would be a perfect example to showcase how even the very worst sinner can be forgiven. I wish you the best with it. Any additional questions, please leave them in the comment section.

Q4U: What about you, readers? What would make you pick up a book about a Nazi? Please leave constructive comments that James can use in his characterization.

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Misha Gerrick said...

Hmm... I think I might if the character intrigues me. I am a little weird that way.

Still, I agree that he should start with the disillusionment, because I won't pick up a book that might want to preach the pros of a system that destroyed millions of lives.

Shannon said...

I would certainly be intrigued. I haven't read any books with Nazi MCs, though I have read ones with German soldiers. I think the hardest part will be showing his perspective without make it seem like the author is condoning his beliefs as that's what the readers will likely be quite sensitive about.

Cecilia Marie Pulliam said...

I would pick up the book without much hesitation. Having a Nazi as a MC would be intriguing for World War II history buffs like me. Then, add the fact that Otto is dead, wow. I'm hooked.

As a note, those of us who read a lot of history would not immediately think the use of a Nazi MC as glorifying the Nazi system. I would think of it as an inside look at a powerful period of history. I personally love his idea.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.