Creating Character: Lisbeth Salander


Stieg Larsson has given the world an original, unique character who’s an individual and totally human: Lisbeth Salander. I finished the third book in his trilogy this morning: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I now see this trilogy as one long novel with three sections which is similar to how I think of my Perceval series. It’s possible to read each novel on its own, but to enjoy the true richness and depth of Lisbeth Salander and her predicament in Stockholm, it’s really better to read all three novels in order. (Recently, I read in a Publishers Lunch Deluxe newsletter from Publishers Marketplace that the manuscript Larsson left behind is NOT the fourth novel in the Salander series but the fifth which is the reason it probably will not be finished or published. Although anything’s possible.)

The best kind of characterization is a process, much like in real life meeting someone and getting to know him or her is a process. Needy people tend to dump on new acquaintances in an effort to create instant intimacy and/or friendship. Salander is the opposite. Yet, readers still need to get to know her in order to identify or relate to her, her life, her situation. Usually, a novel begins with the main character, but Larsson began this trilogy with a prologue introducing the Vangers, followed by Blomkvist’s libel trial. Blomkvist turns out to be a VIP in Salander’s life, despite his womanizing ways, and his situation in the first novel ties to Salander’s situation in two ways: men who hate women and use them; men who love and respect women. Salander herself comes into the story through Dragan Armansky and Milton Security — how he sees her, the way she has responded (or not) to him, to the jobs he gives her. We learn she’s a whiz researcher with a talent for hacking. We also see through Armansky’s eyes that she’s unconventional in her dress and behavior. He’s interested in her, curious to understand why she is the way she is, and through his curious eyes, the reader is curious. We see Lisbeth in a business meeting with Armansky and a client, and her abrupt manner, her antisocial responses. And yet, the next time we see her, she’s with her mother in a nursing home, and it’s a much different Lisbeth.

Larsson gives readers two extremes of Salander’s personality so that we can see she is a flawed human being. Something in her life has made her the way she is. Lisbeth herself generates curiosity about what that something was. The seed of her motivation is planted in the reader’s mind when her mother confuses Lisbeth with her sister in that scene in the nursing home.

As the story continues, Larsson introduces other elements of Lisbeth’s life and personality, always in response to a situation or another character. We see her through Blomkvist’s eyes, through her guardian’s eyes, through Frode’s eyes and the Vangers in the first novel. With the Vanger mystery solved she helps Blomkvist in a scheme that also helps her life situation, something the reader learns at the beginning of the second novel. Here we learn that Lisbeth regards morality as being mostly gray. But she gravitates toward the side of protecting the weak and those unable to protect themselves. We see her resourcefulness and determination. We also see her recklessness and rage. She does not ask for help to confront her father, she does it alone with dire results. Larsson again shows us Lisbeth through other’s eyes, but even more we see her through her mind, her thoughts.

By the third novel, we know she’s one tough cookie. In the third novel, though, she has changed. She allows people to help her — wary and reluctant, but she does. She has learned. Unfortunately, the beginning of the last novel focuses far more on Blomkvist and Berger, and is slow on action with Lisbeth, for good reason. Blomkvist works on her behalf and sets in motion the vehicle of Lisbeth’s triumph. As Lisbeth heals from her physical wounds, her psychic wounds are also healing as she begins to work with other people who want to help her. How do we know? Larsson shows us with her thoughts, with her actions. Characterization best serves characters and the story when the writer accomplishes it through action and point of view, giving it depth by including the responses of other characters.

Lisbeth and Blomkvist are almost, almost two sides of the same coin. They are each investigators, researchers, committed to exposing wrongs. They make a great team, each bringing different talents to the task. I applaud Larsson for staying away from a “Hollywood” ending to this trilogy, although he may have had other things in mind for subsequent Salander/Blomkvist adventures. I’m glad that they are friends. I think, knowing how loyal these two characters can be to the friends they care about, they will always be friends.

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