What Do a Pedophile, a Polygamist and a Tattooed Girl Have in Common?

The Girl With The Dragon TattooWith the recent release of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" I've been thinking about some of my favorite fictional characters. Because, naturally...or not, Lisbeth Salander ranks right up there as one of my favorite female fictional characters of all time. I know that Stieg Larsson's gritty series with its share of graphically violent content doesn't suit everyone's taste. Furthermore I imagine the movie image of the dark, pierced and spiky-haired Swede might leave many folks cold, wondering what there is about her that could possibly appeal to anyone. And yet, several months after I finished reading Larsson's trilogy this married, advanced-age mother of two grown men still sometimes wonders what Lisbeth might be up to.

The Girl With The Dragon TattooYes. That's what I do. When I befriend a fictional character in a book we become bff's [Best Friends Forever]. For instance I can't recall how many years ago I read Nabokov's "Lolita" but to this day during the occasional idle moment I wonder what my old buddy Humbert Humbert is up to. Yes. I have to admit that a true rat bastard like Humbert is an odd pick as a favorite character, much less as a friend. After all, who could like a pedophile? Truth? Nobody. And maybe, in this case, friend is the wrong word. I think ours -- Humbert's and mine -- is more a student/master relationship. See, he's a terrific liar. Okay, he's a filthy, scum-of-the-earth pedophile. But he couldn't be such a scumbag if he wasn't a master of prevarication. From page one Humbert grabs and holds my attention with the utter abandon with which he lies to me. And to himself. There are times when he has both of us temporarily convinced that he's not as big a bastard as we thought.That takes real talent for lying, a gift beyond measure. He leaves me in awe because I wish, as a writer, I could lie as beautifully, as convincingly. All writers are liars. Otherwise we couldn't make stuff up. So I can't help but admire someone with his Olympic-calibre genius. In the end maybe it really is Nabokov I admire. No. It's Humbert because I feel like I know him. Nabokov is a stranger. I can admire Humbert but I don't like him and I sure wouldn't trust him. Not one whit.

The Girl With The Dragon TattooLest you begin to wonder about my priorities (right about now if I were you, I would) I do have other, more mainstream, fictional favorites. Golden Richards, the main character in a book called "The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall comes to mind. Okay. Come to think of it, notwithstanding the cable television show "Sister Wives", a polygamist is not truly all-American mainstream. But he's no pedophile. Nor is he a living-outside-the-law goth tech freak. Golden is deeply religious, a devoted family man. He is also perpetually puzzled -- for a man with multiple wives -- by the nuances of male/female relationships. In fact I think one of the reasons he has taken so many wives is so he doesn't have to actually be there for any of them.

But he couldn't be more misguided. And that is part of what appeals to me. Who among us hasn't embarked on a misguided path at least once in our lives? I know I have. I have felt as though the universe was guiding my steps in one direction only to learn, later on, that I misread the signals. So I can identify, not with Golden's polygamy or his religion, but with his bewilderment and his need to grope around for the right track.

What makes a memorable fictional character for me? It happens when a character is truly human, 3D, a messy pile of good and bad. I like it when a character is a complicated well of good intentions that can pave the way to hell...but might also find their way back.

-- Donna M Chavez

In addition to reviewing and blogging for BookBrowse, Donna is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and reviews books for Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She is also a freelance writer with numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, and is a writing coach. Visit her at thewritecoach.com.

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