There’s something about Lisbeth

After reading the Claire Messud interview in which she called out the interviewer for asking if Messud would be friends with her new protagonist, Nora Eldridge. The interviewer was pointing out how unlikeable the character was, and it got me to thinking about major characters that I liked in spite of their likeability. Two characters immediately leap to mind.

Lisbeth Salandar

First, from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, is Lisbeth Salander. If I were ever to meet this character in real life, I know that she would drive me nuts. She’s prickly, uncommunicative, and highly damaged. And yet, one can’t help but be drawn to her. In the last book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, even Lisbeth’s allies question why they would drop everything to help her. To me, it illustrates the importance of perspective. While Larsson doesn’t actually take us inside Lisbeth’s head all that much, we do see the events that shape her motivation. We see why she’s prickly and damaged and untrusting. The other thing that Larsson shows us, that makes us like her, is that he shows us her sense of honor. She would be hard to live with, but you know that she’ll do the right thing (according to her code, which doesn’t always coincide with conventional law) no matter what the cost. The moment I knew that Lisbeth would live in my memory for a long time came in the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. After her so-called advokat assaulted and raped her, Lisbeth takes her own creative revenge. She doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t sink into a depression. She doesn’t blame herself. She systematically gives that advokat what he deserves, because she knew that the police wouldn’t be able to satisfy her need for justice–quite apart from the whole betrayal that happened when she was young.

Ignatius J. Reilly

The second character that I know would drive me nuts if I ever met him in real life is Ignatius J. Reilly, from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Characters like Reilly, grotesques, don’t appear in fiction much any more–certainly not as main characters. I think you’d have to go back as far as the nineteenth or eighteenth century to find his like. He’s probably crazy. He’s definitely selfish and deluded. And yet, the story wouldn’t exist without him. He’s a catalyst. I stuck around, in spite of his flaws, because he’s just so entertaining to watch. Unlike Lisbeth, who you understand because you get to see her side of the story, the appeal of Reilly is the chaos he sows around him. I don’t know if you could ever like him personally, but he’s the sort of character that makes life just that much more interesting. He’s an original.

I think a novel or story stands on three legs: a character you can bond with or understand, an interesting plot, and skillful writing. Without one of those three, a story will fall flat. But this formula can be manipulated. A great writer can turn it on its head and give us, say, a Holden Caulfield or a Lisbeth Salander or an Ingatius J. Reilly. An interesting plot can (sometimes) be the small lives of a couple falling out of love or an imbecile blundering around the French Quarter of New Orleans trying to find a job that pays him for doing nothing. I suppose the only one that can’t be messed with much is the skillful writing. It takes a lot forms, but you have to be able to write to make a story fly. Good characters and plot can only do so much.


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