Thursday, 24 February 2011

Our need for unsympathetic characters

Two of the current top-billing books are by Larsson (The girl who kicked the hornet's nest) and Child (61 hours). Both of them have protagonists of dubious character: one is a violent, borderline pathological misfit who hacks into people's private systems with impunity as easily as you and I breathe; the other is a drifter of dubious origins who can be a cold-blooded killer when necessary. Yet as readers, we really 'root' for them, want them to succeed, kill the bad guys, etc. Why is that?

When I first added characters in The Eden Paradox, my 'heroes' were exactly that. The net result was way too dull. So I gave some of my characters 'darkness'. One of them, a female villain, became an instant hit with my readers, and when I killed her off, they shouted 'No, bring her back!' [Well, you'll have to read find out what I did].

Anyway, my theory as to why we want characters who have a basic morality but bend and break the law to exercise it, is that civilised life today comes at a rather hefty price. It's pretty stressful, and we are sometimes tricked or outraged by 'normal life' whether it's someone tail-gating us or cutting us up on the road, or an insurance company that finds a way not to pay out when you finally need it (that's me, today, by the way - another story), or back-stabbing by a colleague at work, etc. During all these stressful vignettes in our non-fiction lives, we have to play by the rules, and swallow our anger or take it down the gym. Unlike Salander and Reacher (Hornet's Nest / 61 hours), we can't react with a vengeance and just disappear from the law.

So, it feels good when Jack Reacher, having worked out who the baddy is, instead of arresting him and watching him find a good lawyer and somehow get away with it, instead shoots him between the eyes.

Salander usually manages to find her enemies killed without her actually pulling the trigger, so her author Larsson keeps her 'sympathetic' for the reader. Even so, most of us wouldn't actually want Salander in our lives. Except at bedtime.
In a book.

Fiction has its uses. In a crazy world where we sometimes feel out of control, or even victimised, it can be good to occasionally read about heroes who take on the system... and get away with murder.

And if you're not convinced, read Looking for Hell, under Stories.

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