With only five days left until series four of The Bridge premieres in the UK on BBC Two, we’re going to be marking the occasion with Bridge-related content every day this week.
In this opening instalment, novelist Joshua Winning takes a look at the challenges of writing a lead female character who is nuanced and unconventional.
One of the great things about The Bridge is that its heroine, Saga Norén, isn’t traditionally likeable. She’s distant. She’s ‘different’. She plays by her own rules.
Funnily enough, those were defining features of classic noir detectives back in the day, but most of those were guys. In the past decade, Scandi noir – and in particular things like The Millennium Trilogy with Lisbeth Salander, The Killing with Sarah Lund and, of course, The Bridge – have helped to change that and show that, hey, women can be equally as complex and interesting and not necessarily desperate to be liked. It’s the subversion of the unconventional and volatile central figure that makes Saga and her contemporaries so good to watch – they’re fresh and new, but familiar, too.
What happens when you actually sit down to write one of these characters? You know you want to create a nuanced, interesting character that doesn’t play by the rules. You have a blank page, but you don’t want your character to be clichéd or unconventional for the sake of it.
It takes guts to resist shaving down the hard edges of your characters. I struggled with that while writing the heroine in my thriller novel Vicious Rumer. She’s 19-years-old, and she’s abrasive and sarcastic because she grew up in the shadow of her mother, a mob assassin whose legacy still haunts her.
Early on in the writing process, I made the conscious decision not to try to make Rumer likeable. That would be doing a disservice to the character, and imposing my own doctrine on a character who very clearly doesn’t care what you think of her. Rumer had to be flawed and spiky – that’s what made her interesting.
Far more important is inviting audiences to empathise with your character. You do that by showing them why the character is the way they are. How do they talk to people? Dress? Stand? Saga Norén is shaped by her environment – she doesn’t understand social etiquette and she categorically cannot lie. She calls a knife a knife. And we love her for it.
Interestingly, I’ve found that creating a character who doesn’t give a flying youknowwhat what you think actually tends to endear readers and viewers to them. Now, Saga Norén is celebrated for her quirks – and my readers seem to really vibe with Rumer’s give-a-shit attitude.
Complex female characters proliferated cinema in the ’30s and ’40s (see Female, Mildred Pierce, The Philadelphia Story), and we’re enjoying a purple patch in the crime genre where female characters have never been more varied, flawed and compelling. For that, I’m eternally grateful to The Bridge – and to Saga Norén.