I just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a compelling read. Not my usual fare, but it certainly kept my attention for 600 pages.
What bothered me is something that tweaks me in a lot of popular novels. The “Girl” of the title, Lisbeth Salander, is a young hacker of unusual abilities; at one point Larsson has her assert that she is probably the best in Sweden. Throughout the novel, we see her excel at just about everything she attempts, thanks to the technical skills and a photographic memory.
But. We also learn something of her very troubled past. In all of this, we never discover how she developed any computer skills at all; actually, there’s no sign of her learning anything in her years as a sullen ward of the state. Basically, we’re looking at Good Will Hunting with sexual abuse.
I know that we’re talking about fiction, and Larsson could make Salander into anything he wanted. But why not give us some kind of believable background? It’s well enough known to be a cliche that to become world-class at something, you need a lot of practice–the standard number is 10,000 hours. Maybe someone in her past got her started down the road, and that’s what she did at home while she was barely passing classes in high school? It’s easy enough to invent a plausible story, so why make us suspend disbelief where we shouldn’t have to?
The character type is a popular one. I suppose it’s more appealing to read about someone who magically became great at something than it is to read about those 10,000 hours. The myth of the “native genius” is tough to discard. I remember being similarly annoyed by a character in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a boy with a magical voice and a sudden aptitude for Italian arias.
Once we discard that myth, though, it opens up what is (to me, anyway) a more engrossing mystery. If you assume that anyone who is world-class at something must have put in the hours, must have been motivated by a spark at a young age, must have gotten some quality coaching along the way, it’s fascinating to hunt for why that happens.
A great example is football player Michael Oher, made more famous thanks to the book and movie The Blind Side. Athletes are the ones most commonly subjected to this treatment–fans really want to know what makes them so good. In addition to telling a page-turning story, Michael Lewis took on that mystery. Eventually, Oher revealed details of his troubled youth … but one in which there was plenty of informal coaching. You might be born with the right body type (as Oher unquestionably was), but there’s always–always–more to it than that.
I don’t need novels to revert to Horatio Alger stories; the work (and the subsequent rewards) don’t need to be the plot itself. But if you have the power to create a character’s past, why not generate a more realistic one? It could be every bit as interesting as the alternative.