Saturday, September 11, 2010

When Your Characters Outlive You

In an email correspondence with a fellow writer the other day the topic of fictional characters was discussed.  It intrigues me that though they are a product of our imagination they often take on a life of their own. 

Nowhere is this independent life of the character more evident than what seems to be happening lately with Lisbeth Salander, the popular female protagonist in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium trilogy, which has, as of last spring sold more than 27 million copies in 40 countries. The story has been made into three Swedish films and the American version (with Daniel "James Bond" Craig) will be out in December, with more to follow.  Lisbeth has her own page now, on Wikipedia.

I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the series, in two days.  Once I began, I simply could not put it down.  The second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, a few hundred pages longer, I read half of on a bus ride back from Boston, finishing it within the next two days.  I did not get The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (the third one), mainly because it was only available at the time in hardback and I prefer paperback.  But I did something my mate finds absolutely  incomprehensible and would never do himself, under any  circumstance--when I was in the bookstore in Vermont, I snuck a peak at the ending. So now I know how it ends. I  don't have to read it.

This is what happens sometimes when you read a trilogy, or quartet, or string of sequels with exactly the same character(s)--reader fatigue can set in.  It was not, however, with the character(s) this time.  It was with the writing.   Repetitions began occurring, particularly around certain phrases which, while amusing the first time, began to get  old after the fourth or fifth time), and the annoying (for lack of a better term) frequent product-placement-pattern.  I mean really, how many times do we have to know that Lisbeth ate Billy's Pan (frozen) pizza for dinner, or that the furniture in someone's flat comes from IKEA (mentioned several times) or the brand name, specifications and operational details of Lisbeth's camera or computer software?  Describing the entire contents of a character's refrigerator or closet or living space, item by item, made me think the author once must have worked in inventory and liked making lists of things.  (A Swedish native, also noting the frequent mention of Billy's Pan pizza in the novels, claims it actually tastes "like a month-old fish-in-chip wrapper, dusted with road salt".)

Mention a product in a novel and sure enough, the word will get around.  A blogger named Metalia uses the Billy pan pizza image to accompany a rap song she wrote about her own experience of reading the Millennium Trilogy, confessing that despite its extraordinary length and "extra crap that muddles the book," she liked it "as much as Lisbeth liked her Billy pan pizza."  (Though Larsson refers to everyone in his novel by their surname, to a score of readers Ms. Salander is simply "Lisbeth". )

The Girl Wth the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the series, was initially titled "Men Who Hate Women", and indeed, Larsson's three books are full of men who not only hate but torture, rape, kidnap, sex-traffic and murder women, described in sometimes graphic detail, evoking disturbing images.  The reader's sense of fear is heightened  (as in a theatre, being on the edge of your seat watching something terrifying unfold on the screen), when you realize a character is about to become caught up in a hopeless situation.  The mystery aspect of the novel suddenly becomes overshadowed by its thriller enactments.  The reader feels what the character feels.  But Lisbeth Salander is not Everywoman.  She's tough as nails, vigilant, usually prepared, unwilling to submit to control of any kind, not by superiors, not even by those she loves.  Ever on the move, sly as a fox, her face a purposely impenetrable mask, she lets no one know who she really is or what she thinks.  This intrigues readers.  It also frightens certain other characters in the story.  She doesn't fit the mold.  One has to deal with her differently.  Does Stieg Larsson himself find her needing to be tamed a little?

Johannes Göransson of Exoskeleton blog makes an interesting observation about Lisbeth Salamander's character, that in her fictional life, trauma and love were both used "to control her violent motility, to give her inferiority", and that while trauma "might excuse her weirdness," in the end the author has her falling in love with Blomkvist, the other main character, "to sentamentalize her" (implying either an intentional or inadvertent attempt on the author's part to make her just like every other woman?).

Lisbeth Salander is a tiny, 90-lb. child-woman, a tattooed, multiply-pierced, quirky, violent, bisexual, expert computer hacker who has a photographic memory.  She's hard to figure out, even when you know her history.  And she has become the new cult figure of a horde of fascinated new readers.  A victim who refuses to wallow in victimhood, she fights back, carefully, methodically, sometimes viciously.  Justice or revenge--she operates by her own peculiar moral code.

Her image has cropped up EveryBloodyWhere.  Websites offering dragon-tattoo T-shirts and mousepads are of course available and in no time, as with the Harry Potter franchising megablast, it would not be surprising to see Lisbeth Salander action figures and wasp-like talking dolls in production by Christmas time.   In the back of my 724-page copy of The Girl Who Played with Fire (the second book in the series), is an ad inviting you to "Win a trip for two to explore Lisbeth Salander's Sweden!"--or, you could join hundreds of others flocking to take a walking tour of  the Swedish landmarks mentioned in the books (as was done with the sites in Paris, mentioned in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code).
Stieg Larsson, the author of the Millennium books, died in 2004, at the age of 50, of a heart attack, after climbing seven flights of stairs when an elevator had malfunctioned, and collapsing.  He was a heavy smoker, never exercised, and apparently "lived on hamburgers and carried his belongings around in a plastic bag." His last words, according to a colleague,  were: "I'm 50, for Christ's sake."[1]). He died before completing the fourth book in the series (there were originally supposed to be 10), and it is possible it could be finished by someone else--his longtime partner, Eva Gabridsson, perhaps.  Some have even suggested it was she, and not Larsson, who is the actual author of the trilogy, claiming that he was not actually that accomplished a writer.   At any rate, the hubbub has not died down, and six years after Stieg Larsson has left the earth, the books' popularity continues, unabated.

From a reader's perspective, the story definitely holds one's interest.  Even readers who complain of its length and sometimes obsessive detail, agree that it's "riveting" and are compelled to continue reading.  If you're going to write about corporate corruption or abuse of women or sex trafficking, using fiction to bring these issues to public attentiion, this author has certainly succeeded.  As a thriller, with mysteries to solve and motives to discover, it tickles the curiosity, and an unusual or deeply complex character can serve as a mental magnet to entice you to not just stop at the first book.  From a writer's perspective, however, the writing is sometimes a bit  pedestrian.  All the excitement, it seems to me, is for the story, the mystery, and readers' fascination with the main character: Lisbeth Salander, and the battle over who gets final control over Stieg Larsson's unfinished manuscripts. The books' potential for being morphed into a long-term cash cow, in films and walking tours and commercial products exites a different group of people.

So here's the thing.  Apropros the subject of one's fictional characters, say you're writing, or want to write, a novel, and you have in mind a certain character or characters and a particular story you want to tell in which those characters play a part--what is it exactly you want the reader to come away with?  The way you wrote, recognition, or that your words or images resonated--or all of the above?  What happens, for example, when you, as writer, become invisible as author, no one remembering anymore who penned your brilliant creation?  Would that upset you?

I wrote a short story once in which the protagonist all but has a nervous breakdown because his fictional character will not agree to being killed off in the last installment of the author's decades-long detective series.  The writer has grown weary of writing this in genre and wants to move on to something else, but his character won't let him.  Also, the author has become jealous of his protagonist.  The character is much more self confident, he realizes, than he himself is; gets more women, has more Fun.  It turns into a battle.  His fictional alter-ego turns on him, refusing to mouth dialogue he feels is beneath his imagined elegance. This is what happens when one gets too involved IN the stories one writes, ha ha, is not just the pen penning them but when one hangs out with the characters too long, until the fine line separating the writer from the writing becomes hopelessly blurred.  My character can no longer see the difference.  The story ends with a surprising revelation, and because readers didn't see it coming, felt tricked.  They suggested taking it out, telling me you have to be careful with surprise endings; not everyone enjoys being fooled.

The problem with (some of) my stories is that many of the characters are not all that memorable.  Certainly nothing in the league of Lisbeth Salamander.  They are nobodies:  awkward, uncertain, sometimes foolish, more observers of life than participants, beings caught up in and unable to extract themselves from certain ridiculous situations; people at the end of life wondering what they could have done differently and deciding it didn't matter, ordinary people finding love in unexpected places or stumbling on an insight, dislodging a longheld belief; or saying what can't be said but felt.

My friend reminded me that our made-up characters are like our children--they do what they want. And like our children, we don't want them to get pounced on.  We downplay their flaws, don't send them out on their own until they're ready, or we feel they're ready.  And then, of course, there's nothing we can do, they either sink or stand on their own.  Will they make us proud, or be ridiculed, criticized, made to seem inferior, or praised by friends because that's what they think we want to hear?  Should it matter, what anyone thinks? Someday down the road we may ourselves realize we could have done a better job with this or that creation, and re-do it.  And it's back to work again.  Reshaping, readjusting, redefining, rewriting. 

Fictional characters are simply the vehicles to carry the story or mouth the words we want said, when you have something to say, or when you just want to experiment, see how it comes out.  You can always change the salad dressing.  The point is, it must, in the end, be at least palatable.   What one finds delectible, another might choke on.  It goes beyond mere taste, though, in writing.  Good writing, I think, is instantly recognizable.  Even if you don't think much of the venue, packaging, etc.--you know good writing when you see/hear it.

Churning out book after book, collecting accolades, doing book tours, making guest appearances, raking in the dough--how many writers fit that category today?  Even with wildly popular books, at some point it ends.  Then they wait for your next book, which will be judged better or worse than the one preceding it, and if it's not perceived as being equal or better, your limelight might fade a tad.  The problem with writing today is, you not only have to hawk your own books, you often turn out to be the sole publisher, at considerable expense, just to get them "out there."  Unless you luck out like the once obscure J. K. Rawlings, in 2003 dubbed the wealthiest woman in entertainment/show business, eleven times richer than the Queen of England.[2]  Notice it's not the richest "writer".  Her field is referred to as entertainment/show business. 

But back to Blomkvist and Salander, et al.  My assessment of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy: It definitely was a page turner.  Even readers who found it at times tedious and unbearably detailed admitted it was "compelling", and "riveting".  I concur. Had I read the second book without first having read Number One, parts of it would have been confusing.  But reading the second one so soon after the first, it just seemed like more of the same (Billy Pan pizza again!!!  And really, how many people do you know who eat sandwiches first thing in the morning for Breakfast?!  Sandwiches and coffee and pizza all the time, made me yearn for, oh I don't know, ANYTHING different, ha ha). There were different, equally interesting adventures in Book Number 2 but on the whole it was somewhat of a disappointment.  Others have told me this as well.  The 724 pages could have been whittled down a bit--to say, 500. 

Since I now know the ending to Book No. 3 (having peeked), (which by the way, cleverily leaves open the possibility for a Number 4--and by extention--5, 6, 7, ad infinitum), I can wait till it comes out in paperback--or if I think of it again, which may or may not be the case.  Despite mild curiosity about what new problems Salander and Blomkvist are going to encounter in Book No. 3,  I guess you could say I'm pretty much 'trilogied out' right now. I want to move on.

Speaking of saturation, once, in my other life, I read The Golden Bowl, based on a friend's enthuasiastic recommendation, and thereafter in the course of one summer in Toledo, Ohio decided to read every novel Henry James had ever written.  Making a list, I got them out of the local library and began.  After about the eighth or ninth book, however, I experienced a sudden bout of sentence overload.  I blame that summer Jamesian reading marathon for my seemingly ingrained tendency toward verbosity. I could not plow through a novel by Henry James now without groaning (sorry, Henry).  I loved his subtle weaving of words, the delicious way he skirted meanings and played out nuances, linking intricate threads of words in which the reader gets enmeshed and carried thickly along.  But in the end, it tried my patience. (I am not good at 1000-piece puzzles, either. I'd rather climb through a forest thicket shoeless than sit working on a puzzle for four hours.  (Finding hidden or purposely obscured information--now that's a different story; à chacun son goût.)  I think it was the what seemed to me pointless curcuitry of getting to the heart of a thing that did me in, regarding Henry's novels.  Some people circle around a thing; others plunge directly to it, disregarding the sign that says: "Go this way".  This is typical of Aquarians.  If told to go right, for example, they say, "Can I go left instead?" But that is neither here nor there.

And so it goes, as Vonnegut says.   Said.   He doesn't seem gone, somehow.  Every writer's dream:  Not to be out of the mind of readers. ( I wonder if he's still giving them hell, wherever the heck he is.)


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