A couple of years ago, I read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. You know, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Well, truthfully, I didn’t exactly read the trilogy. I read the first two books and ditched the third after about fifty pages. In this post, let’s talk about what Stieg Larsson got wrong in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Normally, I am the type of reader to see a story through to the end once I’ve started it. However, there are certain things that I expect of the authors that I read. One of those things is to be entertained by complex characters, and another is to not be hit too much over the head with the author’s opinions. It’s fine to have an opinion, but no one wants to feel like they’re being lectured.
While I enjoyed the first book, and made it through the second, the third frustrated me to no end. Granted, the author died suddenly before the first book was published, so I can’t imagine the editing process had gotten that far on the third. Still, you can learn some lessons from my frustrations with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Give Your Characters Complexity (Even Your Villains)
Sometimes there’s a time to make it very clear to your readers that a specific character is a bad guy or a good guy. However, this is where the old adage of “show, don’t tell” comes into play.
In the third Millennium book, there is a police character who is clearly not a nice guy, and you can tell from the minute he’s introduced that he’s going to be a problem. This is fine, but I took issue with how it was presented. The officer uses homophobic language, has a violent streak, and is incredibly misogynistic. Again, these are all fine characteristics to show, but I felt like the point was hammered to death: THIS GUY IS BAD. HE’S A BAD GUY. SEE ALL THE BAD THINGS HE SAYS AND THINKS?
The takeaway here? If the character had been less aggressively terrible, and maybe enjoyed making brownies every once in a while, he would have been a more interesting character. I like my characters to be more nuanced and layered, and beating your readers over the head with the fact that a character is good or evil (this works both ways) will try their patience and potentially lead to them abandoning your work in frustration.
Be Careful with Setting Agendas
Misogynists are crappy people.
That’s my main takeaway from the Millennium series. The reason that it’s my takeaway? It was a prevalent theme in all three books. This is a fine takeaway to have. However, the presentation of the moral got less and less subtle as the series went on. The first book dabbled in some creepy misogyny early on, but you don’t really get the full effect until the climax. The third book hits the ground running, although some of that is residual from the conclusion of the second book. Either way, Larsson’s personal experiences and convictions very clearly influence his writing, but the delivery wallops you in the face.
The lesson: morals are fine to have, but temper your enthusiasm for your soapbox issue until the timing of the story makes sense. Larsson does a much better job in his first book of bringing his distaste of violence against women into the storyline by giving it context with his characters and the plot. By the time I hit the third book, I was frustrated with the violence-against-women storylines. (Note: Actual violence against women is bad, always.)
It’s unfortunate that Larsson passed away before the first book was published, because I think the next two books would have turned out differently. He would have had the chance to get reviews of his first and would have been able to tweak the next two accordingly. He would have had time to make content edits, and I bet he would have ended up with more rounded and nuanced characters. We can learn from Larsson’s work though, and edit with a careful eye.
Stieg Larsson, may you rest in peace. For the rest of us, it’s time to get back to writing.
Did you like the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series? Why or why not?
Since we like contradictory practices here, pick one specific personality trait or adjective, and compose a character with only that trait. They have no other distinguishing personality tics; just the one you’ve chosen. Write about that character for fifteen minutes, and post your practice in the comments.
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