Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing. (Warning: this contains spoilers.)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series became a worldwide phenomenon, in part because of its unique heroine, Lisbeth Salander. She's described as surly, violent, anti-social and uncompromising, and yet she is also fiercely loyal and an inherent protector.
Salander is a great example of how to take a character who could be unlikable and make sure that audiences are rooting for her. When we first meet her in her boss's office, it's made clear that she operates on her own schedule but delivers impressive results. "Her reports could be a catastrophe for the individual who landed on her radar," digging up any and all skeletons from their graves.
The author describes her as a "pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle.... She was a natural redhead but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers."
The description paints a vivid picture of Salander for the audience, letting them clearly picture her in their minds. Her small size is continually referred to throughout the novels, reminding people that despite her larger than life personality, she is the tiny David to her enemies' Goliath. By presenting her as an underdog, Larsson creates sympathy for her. And by explaining that she has amazing investigator skills, the audience is encouraged to admire her. Together, these two things offset Salander's sullen crankiness but wouldn't be enough to make people root for her.
Larsson transforms Salander from an interesting secondary character to heroine by putting her in harm's way. But he doesn't make her into a simple victim. When her guardian forces her to give him a blow job, she arranges to videotape their next encounter, with an eye to using the recording as protective blackmail. When he brutally assaults her, she doesn't go down weeping, fight futilely or involve the authorities despite having the assault on tape. Instead, she waits until she has sufficiently healed and then goes on the offensive, assaulting him in turn and tattooing a warning across his chest. Then she forces him to commit to a two year plan to arrange for her to be out of his care and threatens to contact the police if he causes even a hint of a problem.
Salander's tactics are unusually well-thought out. Throughout the series, she never forgets a slight, but clearly agrees with the sentiment that revenge is best served cold. She's self-reliant with a deep distrust of authorities, but also a deep level of compassion for the victims. She doesn't hesitate to attack a sadistic killer to save Mikael, and when faced with a conspiracy to bury the killer's identity and actions, insists that the killer's victims be identified and their families compensated.
Unlike many action heroes, Salander never takes an emotional leap of faith and hopes it will all work out. She calculates, plans and persists despite seemingly impossible odds. She even manages to steal the fortune of a corrupt businessman in an untraceable way, giving herself sufficient funds to achieve independence.
She has a photographic memory, almost magical hacking skills and enhanced pattern recognition. She solves problems and defeats the bad guys with her brains, but isn't afraid to resort to her fists. Or a golf club. This makes her an interesting role model for young women, a kind of anti-princess who doesn't wait for princes or dwarves or anyone else to rescue her. She's a direct counter to the typical message which encourages females to be patient, understanding and not make a fuss.
Larsson created an iconic character by imagining an adult Pippi Longstocking. He imagined she would be an outsider, possibly even viewed as a psychopath. Like Pippi, Salander fights against a world that seems to be stacked against her. She is an avenger, a protector and a watchful eye in the night.
Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines? Sign up here and you'll never miss a Heroine Fix.
Next month, I'll be looking at the deceptively mild but ruthless Stahma from the short-lived television series, Defiance.