Strength of Character

I spent a recent evening chatting with a group of writers about the public’s desire for strong female characters. The simpering, helpless, man-dependent archetype of the past is no longer the paragon it used to be. If any of our female protagonists swoon into the arms of their brawny rescuers, they better be seriously ill or recently wounded in battle. Encountering a spider no longer qualifies as trauma.

Then our conversation took an interesting turn. Someone shared an opinion that the presence of kindness and compassion in a female protagonist might make her appear “weak.” The unspoken implication was that a female character is “strong” when she is more like the stereotypical caricature of a man – as emotionally sensitive as a block of wood.

Yes, I’m talking stereotypes here and the wind blows both ways. Some believe that gentleness “weakens” a man as much as the lack of it “strengthens” a woman. It’s an antiquated mindset that persists on many levels and is slow to evolve.

Pixabay image

Of course, the souls who populate our books must be true to their natures. Both male and female characters (like the rest of humanity) fit into a broad spectrum when it comes to emotional intelligence. Expression can be passionate, volatile, ambivalent, or completely shut down. On top of that, consider that feelings are fluid and slide all over the place along the love-fear continuum.

Emotional texture is one element that puzzles together a character, no different than physical appearance, skills, aptitudes, and social competencies. An emotional undercurrent is one way to enhance complexity, but it’s not necessarily indicative of a character’s strength.

peopledothowstuffworkscom

Mother Theresa, Time.com

I’d argue that what makes characters “strong,” regardless of gender, is their determination to act upon the world rather than react to it. Kind and compassionate people fall as easily into this definition as ruthless overlords and heroic champions. Strength is demonstrated by conviction, how actively they pursue their goals, overcome their flaws, and engage both the internal and external obstacles that block their paths.

Happy Writing

31 thoughts on “Strength of Character

  1. Adam says:

    A powerful post, and I think your point is well said. It’s so easy to simplify things into a binary system like strong and weak, but strong how, and weak how? Most of my favorite characters pay a price for their strengths. Sherlock is incredibly astute, but he also has his blind spots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love complex characters and completely agree with you that single-dimension characters are not as interesting. Characters with flaws (or prices to pay) are much more real to me as a reader. That applies to protagonists and antagonists. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        Somewhere I read about a process for character creation that suggested “Start with a defining characteristic, and then add a secondary trait that cuts against it.” I think that’s a very good technique. I think every good character needs at least a few conflicting attributes/forces within their psyche.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s also an interesting technique to use between characters – have the main protagonist and his/her buddy clash in some way, while having something in common with the villain. Creates all kinds of opportunity for tension!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Adam says:

            Indeed. Going back to Sherlock Holmes, there’s the way that both Sherlock and Moriarty are bound by their shared perspective on the predictable and illogical nature of most people, something Watson does not share with Sherlock.

            I’ve always been struck by the idea that a good villain should be a sort of dark reflection for the hero.

            That’s why I think the Joker in particular has such staying power. Where Batman is a stoic agent of order, the Joker is a light-hearted agent of chaos. It’s interesting to consider how most stories cast the villain as the dark and serious character.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. *stands up and cheers*

    I don’t believe making characters feminine makes them weak. I want to be a strong woman, not a poor copy of a man, and I try to do the same with my characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. karen rawson says:

    I love your definition of strength as determination to act upon the world rather than react to it. All too often, kindness and compassion are underrated strengths. Sadly they’re often exploited. But in that particular strength is the power to change the world.

    Well said.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I totally agree that there are different ways of showing strength. I’ve seen many strong women. You can be stong without overdoing it. That goes for men as well as women. Men and women can cry and still be strong. Actions speak much louder than words. Well done. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Suzanne. When writing this post, I thought about the great men and women who changed the course of history through active expressions of compassion and empathy. There are quite a few of them and not one of them were “weak.”

      Like

  5. Ocean Bream says:

    All the strong book characters I grew up with were women. They were hardworking and ploughed on through life despite the times. Take Marmee (Mrs March) from Little Women for instance. the sturdy rock of her family, bringing up four girls during a war. She isn’t the stolid manly hero we might assume a ‘strong’ female character would be but to me she demonstrates a strength that is unique to women. Emotional strength, as well, no doubt, as physical strength.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Literature is loaded with powerful women, and yet those old biases equating emotion with weakness persist. I think that’s why the conversation had such an impact on me. Emotional fluency is part of a woman’s strength. The many faces of kindness and compassion are active and powerful agents of change.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. philipparees says:

    Hear hear! And not just in fiction! My daughters need to read this, if only to identify the difficulties in finding partners who are not threatened by independence. They are clearly not alone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree! It bothers me that both men and women get stuck in these old stereotypes that are so limiting. Fiction does mirror life, doesn’t it? That’s one of the things I love about writing and books.

      Like

      • Ana says:

        I am so tired of emotionally one dimensional characters. About time authors get inventive hehe. Must be easier said than done, though!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m with you on that. I favor character-driven books, so an author’s efforts to flesh out each character is greatly appreciated. But there are readers who prefer plot-driven, action adventures where – other than a few protagonists – everyone just serves the plot. I enjoy those too, but they don’t capture me as deeply.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ana says:

            To be honest, I crave real characters, if you know what I mean. With all the nasty, ugly characteristics of real people. Good guys who make bad choices and can even get mean and know they are doing something bad but still do it because they are not perfect; bad guys who have humanity in them and believe in what they do, etc. So not the stereotypes, as you put it.
            It’s hard to find that because readers do prefer plot-driven stories as you said, but after a while it’s just not enough, at least to me. Those are not the books I remember.
            For instance, I recently finished a book which had one of the best world building I have ever read. However, I know the book won’t stay with me for long because the characters were not memorable. Good characters, along with good plot, is what makes me want to revisit a book.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I know exactly what you mean! I perused your blog’s reviews and will definitely check in when I’m ready for a new read! It’s great to have a resource that appreciates the same sort of books.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ana says:

                Thanks!!
                I never thought creating a blog would help me find people who have such similar tastes, to be honest.

                I have tried to make Ana’s Lair dynamic by adding different ways of browsing: You can look by specific titles/their book cover, authors or just click the tag for the category you prefer. Hope that helps!

                Liked by 1 person

            • Andy McKell says:

              People in real life are complex, strong at certain times, less so at others, depending on circumstances, freedom of action, importance of the issue at hand… A vigilante might be gentle with his children, but tough on the bad guys (or the good guys or both). A tough manager might let some mistake pass from a good worker or if s/he’s worried about family matters.

              I am trying to feature “strong” women in my stories – not kick-ass teens in tight leather, or male stereotypes with female names, but intelligent women with strong personalities who push the story forward by strength of character without losing their femininity. I hope it works 😉

              Liked by 1 person

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