no timidity, please

I was interested to read the New York Review of Books' piece on the Millennium Trilogy. It was pretty good, including that I was amused to see they started with the Bible clue solution (the sudden and otherwise pointless appearance of Blomkvist's daughter with the key information he needs) which I mentioned as well.

I thought the final point in the piece was facile and wrong, but it was generally a good analysis. They don't give Larsson enough credit for his strengths (as I talked about in the piece linked to above), but they're also less annoyed by his consumer fetishism than I was (as I talked about here) and more forgiving of his pacing (which I talked about here).

However, the review did make one point that had not occurred to me, and I think it's a very important point.

Then Laura Stanfill wrote an excellent post about writers not being timid (titled, of course, "The Parsnip"). This was my comment:

This has been on my mind, in a way, since I just read a review in the New York Review of Books of the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and the reviewer points out that Lisbeth Salander never actually kills anybody. She tortures, she humiliates, she allows people to die when she could save them, and she arranges for people to be killed by others, but she never actually pulls the trigger herself.

Salander is so involved with violence and vengeance that it never even occurred to me that she doesn't kill anybody. The reviewer says that this is clearly manipulated by the author in order to keep the readers on her side, and I think this is a correct analysis. There is no evidence in the text that Salander has any moral compunctions against killing (quite the opposite), so it's the author stacking the deck.

There is no moral advantage to having Salander be non-lethal (nailing somebody's foot to the floor with a nail gun and then calling his other enemies to come kill him while he's immobilized is about the same as killing him, really), so it's just to placate the readers, to stack the deck.

I say, go for it, don't fudge. I have a character who has killed a lot of people. She's better now, though still armed and capable of violence, but I never downplay the fact that she's done what she's done. I think she is a sympathetic character in some ways, but in any case she is what she is, not a watered-down PG version.

Referring to starling, of course.

This is related to what I wrote about in my last post. It's a mark of authorial confidence to allow your "good" characters to do bad things and feel you can still keep the reader on their side. Confidence which Hitchcock had (in spades) and which Stieg Larsson (not surprisingly – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was his first novel) did not.

It is a real shame that he died, since the things he lacked as a novelist are the things you can learn pretty easily.


Later addition
: This post also applies to these modern vampires who don't actually kill anybody. Vampires should kill people and drink their blood to survive. That's pretty much part of the definition. Otherwise, if you're going to wuss out on that part, please call them something else.

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4 Responses to no timidity, please

  1. tsbazelli says:

    You know, I was worrying about this recently. In my mind, my characters are still sympathetic, but they do some terrible things, and I’m not sure how people will react to it. I suppose I’ll see.

    Is it confidence on my part? I don’t know. It just seemed to be what the story called for.

  2. I think you can go a long way, if you show positive progression, that the character is moving, or trying to move, in a good direction. We’ve talked about this a bit in the comments on Laura Stanfill’s post that I linked to.

    I was going to give an obscure pop-culture reference in illustration, but then I thought of a really famous one.

    Han Solo shot first.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_shot_first

    What does it mean for Han to become more heroic (willing to sacrifice himself for others) if he was heroic from the beginning? To show somebody trying to improve, they have to have somewhere to improve from.

    starling is working to improve herself, but she starts from a bad place, which I never try to downplay. And the improvement is gradual and not in a straight line, but it is the overall direction she’s going in, and I think that has a lot to do with how readers see her.

    Also, I think it depends on whether a character is the protagonist. People forgive things from Mouse that they might not accept from Easy Rawlins.

  3. sonje says:

    I think it’s one thing to have a character start out bad (or doing “bad” things) and then steadily improve. It might be more difficult to have a character start out good and then do something bad and still retain acceptance. Such an action might lead to more of a feeling of betrayal from a reader – “I thought I knew him/her! How could s/he?!”

    I also worry a bit about having the main character in the series I’m working on do “bad” things. I mean, she has a lot of bad things that she does, which she’s done from the beginning (and perhaps aren’t really bad so much as they are unwise or maybe stupid), but at the end of book #2, she does something that I consider to be pretty bad. The people who have read it don’t find her un-redeemable, so I guess it’s okay, but I do wonder if this one particular action will be a problem for some readers down the line.

  4. There was one of the Kinsey Milhone books where she is looking for a murderer, and a gangster is looking for him, too. She realizes at one point that she can’t touch him (IIRC) and she fingers him for the gangster. She regrets it immediately, but she can’t undo what she’s done. She tries to go warn the killer, but he gets the drop on her and is about to kill her when he’s called out of the room. He never returns andis never seen again.

    So, she did something really bad, but regrets it, which makes a difference.

    My other thought is that you may not be able to hold onto every single reader. Some may decide you’ve gone too far, and that’s the way it goes. So many Hollywood movies are bland and predictable because every effort is made not to have any risk of offending anybody. Heck, I’m sure there are people who can forgive starling murdering people but will get offended that she smokes.

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