Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction

Often I am asked how much actual ‘truth’ is included in one or other of my novels. Was Heléna, the heroine of my first two novels, a real person? Could Laura, the main character in my third novel really do the things I have her do, despite being blind? Might Jenna, the main character in my fourth novel, possibly be me, the author? And what about my fifth novel? Are the main characters people I knew or did I simply ‘make them up’?

Now it so happens my first two novels were inspired by the life of a Czech migrant woman I met years ago. Some things contained in those books are ‘true’ – and some aren’t. After all, they are novels. But I would say that the events I have been questioned about most often are ones that actually happened. Was Heléna’s husband a member of the Czech underground? Did he really give himself up for her when she was being held captive, as I describe? And what about Heléna’s son – did he really die the way I have written it? Yes, those events honestly did happen to our Czech friend and are indeed ‘true’. And when those questioning me still look a little incredulous, I assure them I am telling the truth. Even I, with my fertile imagination, could not have ‘thought up’ such things!

When it comes to my character Laura in my third novel, I explain how Laura could certainly have done the things I say she did because I modelled her on a friend of mine who is blind. And yes, my friend truly has done some amazing and courageous things, despite being unable to see at all – she was brought up to climb trees and walk along the tops of fences and jump into waterholes along with her sighted brothers and sisters, which made her extremely independent later in life. And yes, the story in the second last chapter really did happen – I was there when my friend asked what the words of a particular hymn were after hearing the melody on the radio. Without thinking, I immediately answered: ‘Oh, that’s Be Thou My Vision!’ We cried together as I read out each verse so that she could type them out using her Brailler – she had sensed God had wanted her to find out the words of this hymn, not knowing its title at all. I will never forget what a blessed, life-giving moment that was for her and how strong God’s presence was around us – and I describe that event in the book exactly as it happened.

No, Jenna, the main character of my fourth novel, isn’t me – but then again, is it? Yes, bits and pieces of things that happen to Jenna happened to me – or to friends of mine. Where does the ‘truth’ begin and end? I can’t honestly say in this case. And yes, I did ‘make up’ most of the characters in my fifth novel – but again, did I really? Even if I do not consciously describe people I have known, how much does my imagination feed on my subconscious memories?

It doesn’t matter in the end whether my readers believe certain people and events in my books are ‘true’ or not. But it does matter if they treat the underlying truths expressed in my novels as fiction. I want my readers to know the gracious love of God and to see it demonstrated in the lives of many of my characters. I want them to understand that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, truly did come to earth and die on the cross for us. This is not a fanciful tale made up centuries ago. Yes, this particular truth may seem stranger than fiction, it may be beyond our understanding, too good really to be true. Yet it is true nevertheless – every word of it. And I’m so glad of that!

Jo-Anne Berthelsen grew up in Brisbane and holds degrees in Arts and Theology and a diploma in Education. She has worked as a high school teacher, editor and secretary, as well as in local church ministry. Jo-Anne is passionate about touching hearts and lives through both the written and spoken word. She is the author of five published novels – ‘Heléna’, ‘All the Days of My Life’, ‘Laura’, ‘Jenna’ and ‘Heléna’s Legacy’. She is married to a retired minister and lives in Sydney. For more information about Jo-Anne and her novels, please visit her website, www.jo-anneberthelsen.com.


  1. What an interesting blog! Truth is often stranger than fiction.

  2. I firmly believe that the best books tell the truth even when the story is made up. I agree with you, that we often draw from forgotten experiences even when we haven't deliberately designed a character around a specific person. Thank you for sharing, JoAnne. It's great to have you in this group.

  3. All great fiction springs from a nugget of truth. The best fiction brings truth to life in story. Great post!

  4. So true, Jo-Anne! How can we help putting ourselves(and those we have come across throughout our lives)into our stories? Even including some of the not-so-nice characters, perhaps a little disguised. It makes the story ring true!

  5. Jo-Anne, great post! Thanks for sharing the true life inspiration behind characters in your stories :)

  6. Thanks, everyone! I'm glad you enjoyed my blog. And I agree, LeAnne, that the best books tell the truth even when the story is made up!