Monday, 14 October 2013

Strong Character Is Strong?



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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23 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Strength is the character doing what it takes to achieve a goal whether it's easy or not. Or whether it's comfortable or not. It's about showing internal strength.

D.G. Hudson said...

I liked this post. Strength isn't always visible. There are inner strengths which relate to the type of person the character is portraying. That's where I find observation and body language come into play.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

For me, a strong character just has confidence. It doesn't matter what the confidence is about. You can have strong villains (they are confident in the skewed way in which they view the world or their own motivations). Daenerys Targaryen is an example of a very strong female character. Her conviction to attain the Iron Throne is unwavering, and she'll do anything to attain it. She still has compassion for the weak though but compassion in itself, does not make her a weak main character.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I enjoyed this post. I just finished a book where the heroine didn't seem strong to me. I couldn't understand why the hero was attracted to her.
Michael gave a great example.

mooderino said...

@Alex - although makes for a better story if it's not easy.

@DG - glad you liked it.

@mike - it's what you do with that confidence or compassion that proves if you're strong or not, in my opinion.

@SG/K - I think readers can sense when a character isn't living up to billing, even if they're not sure what's missing. I often don't believe in a character even when they win every battle.

Diane Carlisle said...

This is one of the reasons I think having a flawed character works. There's more likability in a character who struggles and succeeds when they are flawed. It comes across as strong willed rather than just strong. A character doesn't need to be strong to be liked, but a character must be liked in order to be considered strong.

mooderino said...

@diane - I'd say some level of admiration is required.

Trisha F said...

There has definitely got to be conflict to test any character - otherwise they're just too boringly perfect. :) Great post!

Beverly Diehl said...

Just got into a discussion re: the condom discussion in romance. If (contemporary) characters are going to get physical, they need to use condoms - and if their partner has a "what the hell, let's skip the latex" attitude, they need to have the STRENGTH to say, wait a minute. If they don't, they're not demonstrating strength.

OnlyWhenJen said...

I really liked reading this! These are great things for me to think about while I create scenes in my book to continue and reveal my character to my readers. =)

jgl said...

Great post. For me, I would rather see a character who is unsure of what is right or wrong, as well as unsure of what he or she wants -- at least in the beginning. I like my characters to have a heightened sense of humanity and social justice while living in a world full of nuances.

mooderino said...

@Trisha - I agree. Assuming its obvious isn't enough.

@Beverly - that's certainly one (very specific) example.

@Jen - glad to be of help.

@jgl - I don't think a character has to start a story fully formed and sure of himself, in fact it's often more rewarding seeing them become the true them.

Lexa Cain said...

I adore strong characters and completely agree that it's their moral convictions that make them strong not their ability to swagger or fight like 007 (I hate that character). Great post!

Lexa Cain said...

P.S. I can't find a contact email for you that works. I'd like to ask you a quick question regarding craft. Would you please contact me at: laura.6eg(at)gmail.com

LD Masterson said...

You're right, there's a world of difference between strong and kick-ass.

mooderino said...

@Lexa - have sent you email.

@LD - although there's nothing wrong with a little kick-ass.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Good topic today, Mood. I agree, strength isn't brute... it's in our choices....

nutschell said...

Strength comes from choices made. I love that line! ANd yes, it's true. It's really what a character chooses to do in a situation that defines him. Another stellar post, Mood!

Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@Michael - hard choices make for tough decisions.

@Nutschell - thanks very much.

Shah Wharton said...

So, we show strength through conscience more than muscle, through cognitive choices more than physical action. Thanks for another great post. X

shahwharton.com

mooderino said...

@Shah - you're very welcome.

cleemckenziebooks said...

I definitely agree with what you've written here today. I was thinking that even the deranged characters like Ahab and Don Quixote or the reluctant heroes like Bilbo show this kind of strength. This is why they're memorable.

mooderino said...

@lee - deranged characters tend to have the strongest convictions. Not always a good thing for those around them, but interesting for readers.

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