Recently, I read two popular contemporary thrillers in which the authors portray main characters of the opposite sex. Tana French writes her first novel, In the Woods, from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective in his early 30s. Stieg Larsson, in his bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, closely follows the perspective of Lisbeth Salander, an angry, brilliant 25 year old computer hacker.
I’m particularly interested in writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex, because in my novel Dodging and Burning, I’ve created two female characters, through who the story unfolds in first person accounts. Also, one of my strengths as a writer is that I write women well. I’ve always believed that imagination and empathy have no boundaries, that there’s no type of character—race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, etc.—that’s off boundaries for a writer.
However, I do believe that to be able to write from a perspective that’s not your own you need to study and learn about that unfamiliar perspective. One of the reasons I write women well is because I grew up around strong women, because I was once married to complex and thoughtful woman, and because I’ve read a lot of literature written by women.
So, when I was reading French’s and Larsson’s novels, I couldn’t help but evaluate the degree to which each author succeeded at portraying the opposite gender. First, I should say that I really enjoyed reading both of these books. Both were gripping mysteries and both kept my attention.
French’s prose style and rich character development were particularly impressive and, perhaps, that’s why her Rob Ryan was so convincing. His relationship with his female partner Cassie Maddox, at times, seemed too platonic, his true feelings for her were a little too buried to be believable. When they do sleep together, he seems shocked and emotional about the event, and as a result, their friendship disintegrates. Although this behavior seems atypical of a man—which, I’ll admit, although I dislike gender stereotyping, gave me pause—French takes time to convince us that, indeed, Rob isn’t our usual male detective. He can be sensitive and distraught about a one night stand, and it can lead to deep reverberations throughout his life. I found this refreshing.
Larsson’s novel, on the other hand, for all it’s complex and exciting twists, is too dependent on stereotypes. His two heroes seem more fantasy than reality. Mikael Blomkvist, who drives the plot nicely, rarely emotes and offers us little of his background, and for some reason, which I couldn’t make out, women just throw themselves at him. He sleeps with almost every significant female character. That seems pure heterosexual male fantasy.
However, Lisbeth Salander bothered me more. At each of the major sections of the novel, Larrson offers us a statistic about violence toward women in Sweden, suggesting that it’s a serious problem and that his book will help to bring awareness to this problem. Obviously, he wants us to know that he in sensitive to this issue, but why then, do I find Lisbeth’s reaction to the sexual violence visited on her so unbelievable?
Several days after she’s been raped, she retaliates with an equally brutal attack and rape. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about good characters’ who do morally ambiguous or questionable things. But Larsson doesn’t take the time for us to understand Lisbeth’s reaction to what happens to her. Her revenge is served up cold, and we’re meant to cheer her on. “Give that evil man some of his own medicine!” But this erases our ability to question or have complex feelings about what she does. No doubt, the man who rapes her deserves to be brought to justice, but if we don’t understand Lisbeth, if we don’t see some fall out from her rape or even from her vengeful act, then we have trouble seeing her as a fully realized character. She’s more of an avenging angel than a complex character, and I’m not sure that helps us understand the real emotional devastation that can occur because of sexual violence. I just don’t think Larrson gets it right, and I find his book as a protest against violence toward women fairly hollow.