Thursday, August 23, 2018

It's All About the Character

The other night I searched my bookcase for something to read that wasn’t on my Kindle. I chose The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. I had read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when it first hit big in the United States. I loved it. I’m not sure why I didn’t continue the series at the time, but maybe it was because I had seen both the Swedish and American versions of the filmed trilogy and decided to wait.

I contemplated why these books became almost instant bestsellers. The noir feeling to the stories, high degree of tension, and well-drawn characters are the elements of page-turners I love to read, but why did this particular series generate six movies and bestseller status? The answer is simple: the “Girl.”

Lisbeth Salander is without a doubt the most intriguing character I’ve ever read. She’s an anti-social, computer-hacking genius with a photographic memory who is probably on the high Asperger’s scale of autism. She’s tiny, under one hundred pounds and shorter than five feet, but she’s tough and relentless with a backstory that would defeat most people but only made her stronger.

In the second book, Salander is accused of triple murder. Almost everyone in the story thinks she’s guilty except the people who know her best. The reader roots for her at every turn. She is driven by her own moral code, but we also know that if she feels justified, she is perfectly capable of committing murder. She’s resourceful and smarter than everyone else in the book, even though she’s been painted as intellectually challenged because it suited the person doing the painting.

How many books have you read in which you don’t care what happens to any of the characters? I’ve read a few of those lately, and they leave me cold. It’s no revelation that a character can make or break a novel. That sounds simplistic because of course it’s the character, stupid, but not just any character. An unforgettable one that keeps the book alive through generations. The character can be good, evil, or anything in between, but s/he must be memorable, and here’s the tricky part―we must care. Think Scarlett O’Hara, Hannibal Lecter, Sherlock Holmes, Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, and Scrooge to name a few. We all have our favorites, but few reach cult status.

As writers, our aim is to create memorable characters to advance our story. In some cases, an unforgettable character transcends a weak plot. We’ll overlook implausible derring-do if that character makes us believe he can carry out whatever situation he or she is put in, whether it’s Harry Potter, Rambo, James Bond, Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, Katniss Everdeen, or the heroine of the series that started this blog post, Lisbeth Salander.

Nothing gives writers more pleasure than a review where the reader falls in love with our creation, or couldn’t sleep because the villain is so evil. A villain is as boring as a goody-two-shoes character if neither has depth. Why is that character evil? What made him that way? What gives our heroine the strength to overcome all obstacles put in her path? Main characters, protagonists or antagonists, must be equally well-rounded or they’re nothing more than clichéd cardboard cutouts. We need to get inside their heads.

At the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth Salander is at death’s door, but somehow I’m sure she’ll rise from the almost-dead and survive whatever hell the author puts her through. I'm halfway through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final book in the trilogy. I love this one too. I wish Mr. Larsson had lived long enough to bask in his success.


Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

9 comments :

  1. Characterization is indeed key to making a story memorable. Whether we love or hate a character, we will remember him or her based on that emotion. Our ability to create three-dimensional beings that rise from the page to invite the reader into their lives definitely has a bearing on whether that reader will become a fan who eagerly awaits our next book or seeks out previous ones. This is a great post, Polly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Linda. I've just been hooked on this very extraordinary character. It's made me more attuned to my own creations. Now how can I keep Diana (the character in my Diana Racine series) fresh?

      Delete
  2. Great post, Polly. I, too, love Salander as a character and was fully engaged from the first book, through the rest.

    Your comment about how we can overlook implausible elements of plot if the characters are engaging enough. That is the way I felt about a book I recently reviewed on my blog, The Colonel and the Bee. Just reading the book blurb one would say, "What?" This is just one part of the blurb: This larger-than-life English gentleman, reputed to have a voracious appetite for female conquests, is most notable for traveling the world in a four-story hot air balloon called The Ox.

    I thought that a 4-story hot-air balloon would stretch my believably too far, but the colonel, and Bee, charmed me and won me over.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I mean, James Bond? Who believes all that. Sometimes a book is just fun and we suspend belief to have a good time. The trick is a good writer who knows his/her character.

      Delete
  3. A novel with great characters is what we hope for every time we pick up a new book to read. The one I remember that had no characters I liked was The English Patient.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm wondering that in spite of not liking any of the characters, did you like the book. I didn't read the book but felt the same way about the movie. I didn't like it either.

      Delete
    2. I loved the movie. Did not read the book, though. I was caught up in the tension of whether the nurse was going to get caught.

      Delete
  4. I waded through the bad writing and the horrible character Blomkvist for Salander. Proof that one outstanding feature can save a poorly written novel. She should have been the protagonist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The book, the series, is all about her. Why don't you consider her the protagonist?

      Delete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.