In fiction, characters who show themselves to be strong are considered to be appealing to readers. But what exactly counts as strength and what doesn’t?
When it comes to female character this is an especially contentious subject, the main criticism being that “strong women” in books and movies are often just aping what a man would do.
Violent, aggressive, uncompromising, these are all seen as male traits.
But the thing that make a strong character strong, and makes for a weak character when absent, is the same for males and females. And it has little to do with how badass someone is.
At its heart, strength of character comes from the ability to make choices for oneself, and then to act on those choices. Someone who takes control of their life is considered to have strength of character.
Or to put it another way, if someone is always doing what they are told, what others think is the best for them, if they give up on what they want and let others have their way, then they are considered a weak character.
However, self-determination is not a very big deal if no one is trying to stop you doing what you want or if there are no consequences to your action.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is easy; the solution to the problem is straightforward; the enemy is weak and quickly defeated. But none of these scenarios will provide for much of a story, nor will they demonstrate strength of character, because these sorts of scenarios don’t require strength to accomplish.
In fiction, what a character believes in, what principles they live by, how loyal or trustworthy they might be, these facets are only pertinent to the story when they are tested. If the reader doesn’t get to see what the character has on the inside, then inside is where it stays.
Now, one of the clearest ways to show that a character won’t be denied is to use violence. You say I can’t, I punch you in the face. Your ten friends say I still can’t, I punch them all in the face. No matter how many people say no, I say yes and I use my fists to prove it. Obviously, I do what I want.
But physical strength doesn’t automatically indicate strength of character. If Tony is a great fighter who always dominates in a brawl, but he’s a goon who follows orders and does what he’s told, then is he considered a strong character?
However, this can easily become muddled. If Tony and his boss have the same goals, then that can mask Tony’s weakness. It’s only when Tony doesn’t want to kill a child, and his boss insists that he does, that we get to find out how strong Tony is or isn’t. Which is why conflict is what reveals strength. People at cross-purposes where not everyone can have what they want leads to the strong being revealed.
Again, the most simplistic way to create conflict is through violence and physical confrontation, which is why it’s the most common form we see, but it’s not the only way (just the most obvious).
What makes Katniss Everdeen a strong character isn’t that she can kill small animals with a pointy stick, or even that she kills a lot of other children, it’s that she chooses to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games. No one makes her volunteer, she would rather not go, it won’t be easy for her to succeed, but she does what she has to save what’s important to her.
So while a lot of attention is paid to how a character behaves in pursuit of their goal, whether they use male or female traits, are they prepared to kill for what they want and so on, that has little to do with whether they have strength of character. That aspect should already have been established when things were set in motion.
Is your character a highly-trained military type who is better at killing than everyone else? Then going into a war zone with a bag of guns isn’t a particularly difficult choice.
Is your character backed into a corner with no option but to fight back? Then they’re just doing what anyone would in that situation.
Does your character take enormous risks that always pay off? Then you’re just using your powers as the writer to make them invulnerable.
Strength comes first from choices made, and it should be obvious to you as the writer when a character is faced with the kind of choice that tests their strength and when they are just rushing down the path of least resistance.
When it comes to establishing a strong character, there are three basic things to take into consideration:
1. You need a scenario that gives the character an opportunity to show their strength. The readers have to see it to believe it. And often the best way to do that is not just a situation where things might go wrong, but where they do go wrong.
2. The character must choose to do something that isn’t easy. This means you have to engineer the situation so there are easier options but the character rejects them. Their reasons and motivations for doing so are also important and are what allow readers to empathise with them.
3. They need to act on their choice and follow it through. Anyone can say they’re going to do the difficult thing, they can even mean it, but it isn’t until they actually do it that they show their true colours. If you let things come good through luck and coincidence, then you’re cheating the character of their chance to reveal themselves.
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