Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Some characters have a lot of sex

This is pretty incontrovertible, but I'm thinking specifically of fiction here. The thought is prompted by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which I recently finished. Before he became bestselling novelist, Larsson was also a crusading journalist. His protagonist, Blomqvist, is also a crusading journalist. Blomqvist is a rumpled middle-aged man, beginning to run to seed (hey, aren't we all?). This doesn't stop every bloody woman in the trilogy finding him devastatingly attractive: most of them end up sleeping with him. The age range of his conquests runs the gamut of early twenties to early sixties, and he even gets a complaisant cuckold to give a nod of approval to his relationship with a long-term mistress. There's clearly a strong element of wish-fulfilment here (or, less plausibly, autobiography). Larsson no doubt had a lot of fun in this aspect of the trilogy but as a reader I found it somewhat irritating. Might the series not have read better if somewhere in Scandinavia there was a woman who found Blomqvist a seedy lecher? I enjoyed the series (although I found each book progressively less interesting) but this rather crass insertion of the author* did jar.

It's something we all as writers need to be aware of; it's very easy to put a "Mary-Sue" in your novel. One of my readers noted that all the women in The Last Free City are implausibly beautiful (although even my protagonist, a notorious womaniser, doesn't sleep with all of them). There's a balancing act between creating an attractive fiction, the expectations of your genre and what you can pull off in the way of rounded characterisation. The writer needs to have a degree of empathy, of identification, with all his characters; there is a real risk of becoming too close to the protagonist. There are several amusing online tests to determine of your main character is a Mary-Sue, but if you're a heterosexual male the only questions you need to ask are: "Are woman attracted to your protagonist as a matter of course?" and "Does he sleep with most of his female acquaintance over the course of the novel?". If the answer to both is "yes", you probably have a Mary-Sue on your hands.

The Millennium Trilogy, of course, is one of the publishing success stories of the decade, but what makes the books quirky and distinctive is Blomqvist's co-protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the emotionally-damaged computer hacker. Salander is as implausible (in a different direction) as Blomqvist, but she is such great fun that the reader embraces the implausibility.

My piece of advice for today is this; if you're going to put yourself in your novel (not necessarily a disaster), try to make sure you don't sleep with too many more people than you might in real life.

* "Mary-Sue" is the term often used
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Faye L. Booth said...

Have you seen this test?: http://www.ponylandpress.com/ms-test.html

I've been worried about one of my WIP characters' Mary-Sue quotient as we do share a rather pervasive trait and I have a horror of creating author surrogates, but mercifully the test says she's still in non-Sue territory. It helps that she definitely is not all-conquering, all-admired and nobly empathic...

Mitch said...

Granted, most of the female protagonists in 'The Last Free City' were of distinctive beauty and character. But it remains a fact, that most of them were also much more intelligent and sensitive than the male protagonists, especially this womanizing poet. And all of these ingredients added up to a highly entertaining, if not excellent novel.

Tim Stretton said...

Faye, I think if it occurs to you to ask the question, you're probably safe.

Mitch, glad you enjoyed the book. I think you get a bit more latitude over feminine beauty in fantasy, and the set-up where the women are more sensitive and intelligent than the men is hard to botch.