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.