Tag Archives: Lisbeth Salander

Writing Fiction: Details, Details

Apparently, at the microscopic level it is possible to see that print rests on top of the page.  Similarly, I can read a whole chapter without ever quite getting absorbed by it.  But this is what I hope for: the point when it becomes immaterial whether I am reading a book or a Kindle.

One of the ways in which writers achieve this is in their use of detail.  In the discussion of character I quoted from Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea.  The full list of what she buys is, ‘Two Karlanda sofas with sand coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs, two round side tables of clear lacquered birch, a Svansbo coffee table, and several Lack occasional tables.’  It would have been easier to tell us that she went to Ikea and bought some furniture, but it doesn’t engage in the same way, the list somehow adds to character and puts you next to her.

In Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh could have written, ‘There were many choices on offer for breakfast but Adam and Nina ate frugally.’  Instead he writes, ‘Adam and Nina breakfasted alone in the dining-room.  There was a row of silver plates kept hot by spirit lamps which held an omelette and devilled partridges and kedgeree and kidneys and sole and some rolls; there was also a ham and a tongue and some brawn and dish of pickled herrings.’  A bit heavy, but in my pre-vegetarian days I’m sure I could have tackled it.  Not only does this give a clear description of an unnecessarily excessive breakfast in an English country house, but also sets up the bathetic joke at the end. ‘Nina ate an apple and Adam ate some toast.’

Stephen King, when writing about his hero’s alcoholism, could have said, ‘His hangover made him feel nauseous.’  Instead, ‘His stomach gave a liquid lurch.  He burped up a mouthful of sour gunk that tasted of whiskey and swallowed it back.’  Yuk.  And say no more: drinking ain’t fun.

Dickens is a little different.  He often piles on repetitive detail (fog, fog, fog; stone, stone, stone) as a metaphor for some moral condition which surrounds the characters.  But occasionally, he just lets you have the scene.  ‘A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.  It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.’ (Tale of Two Cities) Which really makes you feel that you’re with the characters as they follow their carriage up a muddy hill.

The final example is from a book that is almost totally a description of details.  In Life, A User’s Manual, a Parisian block of flats is described in almost obsessive detail.  The furnishings, the knick-knacks, the works of art and books.  But hidden in them are clues to the characters of the occupants.  This is from the description of the ‘witch’s mirrors’ that the evil Winckler has made, ‘He finicked over each frame for days on end, cutting, fretsawing endlessly until it was an almost immaterial piece of wooden lace, in whose centre the small polished mirror looked like a metallic glance.  An icy eye, wide open, full of irony and malice.’  Which reminds me, winter’s on its way.

I have nothing wise to say about all of this.  Other than the fact that details are part of the art of writing.  Which I would do well to remember.

Character: Altered Ego

Early in The Girl Who Played With Fire Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea.  She buys ‘two Karlanda sofas with sand-coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs’ and at least five other tables.  There is something so fascinating about the character that for me she could have carried on to Lidl and I’d still have been wondering what she was going to buy.  Soon after, she disappears for most of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist takes over and the novel goes flat.

Blomkvist is a cypher for the author Steig Larson.  By rights he should be interesting: a campaigning journalist risking his life to get to the story and bring the baddies to justice.  But he’s not.

Why is it so difficult to write an interesting character that is based on yourself?  It is, after all, the easiest way to create one: just walk yourself through the action.  The trouble is that the result is often unsatisfactory.  Even Dickens seems to have struggled with this.  Some of the male leads in his later novels suffer from a sort of flatness: John Jarndyce (Bleak House), Arthur Clenham (Little Dorrit), John Harmon (Our Mutual Friend), are melancholic do-gooders, and contrast with more interesting leads like Pickwick, Oliver Twist or Scrooge.

When you set out to write a character based on yourself it is a little like sitting inside a washing machine: thoughts, experiences, feelings, opinions, churn around you, and the character can end up as a confused version of what you think of yourself.  Those that you regard as different are much easier.  You are now outside the washing machine and distance brings perspective.  You can point and say, ‘Look! shirt, socks, pants.’

Any character is likely to reflect some aspect of its author.  But with characters-at-a-distance, it may only be a single aspect; a shard in which, if you look hard enough, you might see a likeness.

One of the things that makes Silence of the Lambs so interesting is there are two great characters: Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector.  For her the interest is always, how is this person from such tortured beginnings going to solve a case with so many people getting in her way?  For him, it’s who is this person?  Tell me the details of how he lives in his flat in Italy; tell me what it’s like when he has to sit next to a noisy, smelly kid on a crowded flight.   Most of all, tell me what happens every time the two of them meet.

I think it is fairly safe to assume that Thomas Harris is neither a young ambitious woman nor a psychopathic cannibal.  But perhaps that very distance enabled him to create characters that reflected some aspect of his own psyche without the character getting overwhelmed by it.

One of my favourite Dickens’ characters is Bradley Headstone in Bleak House.  He is murderous jealousy personified.  It is a weighty, lumbering emotion, summed up perfectly in the name.  The way he is written turns him from a standard villain to someone whose own suffering brings a degree of empathy.  Dickens biographies suggest that he could be subject to such feelings.

As ever, I’m trying to work out an issue that I’m facing in my writing.  On two occasions, agents have commented that they liked the elderly woman in my second novel, but not the man.  And that’s the one that’s based on me.  The main character in my current novel is also based on me.  So how do I save them from being flat?

The subject of another post, I think.  But, in the meantime, if you have any ideas let me know.