Writer’s Toolkit: Strong v. Weak Characters

Posted: February 14th, 2014 under Craft.

I recently followed a link from Twitter and found myself at a site listing “women who will kick your ass” to go along with praise of a particular book.   All the other kick-ass women were in movies or TV shows, not books, which I found…annoying.   But still.   Once more the “strong woman character” is interpreted by a media outlet as “kickass” and (as comments on the chosen characters showed) not just “kickass” but “badass.”    For that writer, in that instance, a strong woman character had to be both physically strong and aggressive, and psychologically, morally, glad to be bad, at least part of the time.  

If you sense disagreement oozing through that paragraph, you’re right.   Because, although most of my female lead characters are in fact physically strong and aggressive,  those aren’t the only strong  characters (male or female) I recognize or the only ones I write.    I don’t define “strong” by physicality or dominance behaviors alone…but on another axis that has to do with that lit term “agency,”   yet is not defined completely by that term.

For the writer who wants to write strong characters, this is an important distinction.  You don’t get a strong character (in my terms) by just creating a big strong aggressive person who does whatever he/she wants whenever he/she wants to do it without regard for any social limits.  That’s not a strong character.  That’s a sociopath.    A sociopath can certainly have a big impact (literally at times) on others, even whole cultures and whole galaxies…but cannot be strong in the same way as a character with conflicted motivations, with internal weaknesses.

A strong character is strong in character.   Not necessarily in body.   Not necessarily in vastly superior intelligence.   Not necessarily in the desire to dominate and rule others.   But in personality/character sufficient to show the ability to make decisions,  accept responsibility for consequences of those decisions, and endure through the various trials writers dump on their characters.

So Ofelia, in Remnant Population, is a strong character, even though she’s old, physically weaker than most of the other characters in the book,  not well-educated or powerful in any obvious way.    She is stronger in character than most of the other humans in the book, and represents one type of strong character.  Paks is obviously another type of strong character–the kind many people recognize (if they don’t insist on the “badass” part of it):  physically strong, enjoys being active and even aggressive.

But–sticking now to Paksworld–there are other strong characters, male and female, who are not, like Paks, big strong fighters.    Of course some of them are:  Paks’s friends in the Company–Saben, Vic, Canna, Arñe, for instance.   But many are not:  Gird’s brother Arin, his wife Mali, in Surrender None,  Dorhaniya and her maid, in Liar’s Oath,   the old woman who sheltered Paks in Divided Allegiance,  Master Oakhallow and  Joriam in Oath of Gold…just to name a few.   In the new books, the “lead” characters–Kieri,  Arcolin,  Dorrin, the Marshal-General–and the POV secondaries–are surrounded by other strong characters whose roles range from “cameo” to regulars.   The Kuakkgani,  some of the elves, some of the gnomes,  some of the servants…the strong characters among them are plot-movers in their own way, showing agency and “coming alive” as more than mere stage dressing.

Strong characters in multiple roles enrich a story in several ways.  First, they make the strong protagonist character more believable by showing that strong characters exist in that fictional setting.   It’s not Superhero among mere common people.   Second, even minor characters with agency produce complex plot development.  They do things…make things happen…that the more prominent characters react to.   Dorhaniya’s presentation of the altar cloth was a pivotal event for Gird and Luap…she is why Gird began to soften his attitude to magelords, for example.    Surn’s conversations with Beclan, her teaching him to mend and knit,  changed him.   Chance encounters do change lives, and minor characters with agency feel less like the writer forcing the plot through an artificial course.

Most of us, in real life, recognize strong characters who aren’t ruling kingdoms or corporations, clobbering or shooting people,  standing on a stage receiving the applause of thousands.   We recognize “strength” in those who endure hardship without crumbling–single parents with a disabled child,  a person living with constant pain who nonetheless gets things done.  In fact, “getting things done” is a major component of a strong character.    Gabby Giffords, in a speech at the Makers conference, said  “Strong women get things done.”  That’s also true of strong men.

What they get done can vary and (in the case of women, particularly) some of what strong people get done isn’t valued highly by society until it goes missing.  Strong characters hold society together and support it…they are the glue that holds relationships and families together, not just the blow that breaks things apart.   They may be the very poor, the malnourished, the sick, the lame, the scared…but the “strong” part comes with their determination to keep going until they drop.  When challenged by something, they find ways to keep working for survival and other goals…they find a way around obstacles that does not permanently deflect them from their goal.   If they fall in a river, they don’t just drift along or passively drown–they strike out for something–the shore, an island, a goal of some kind.

In contrast, the weak character shows no ability–or much desire–to push past difficulty.   We see this in real life.  The person with ability, with physical strength, with opportunities…but they make little or no use of any of it.   If there’s a pothole, they turn aside.   If there’s a barrier, they turn aside.   In real life, if you ask, they either don’t have any goals, thinking them useless or hopeless, or they insist that it’s too hard to pursue them.    They will bounce along the stream wherever it goes, complaining when they hit rocks or get stuck on sandbars, but they don’t pick a direction and go for it.   They may appear hardworking (if they’ve decided to just do what they’re told…) or lazy (if they don’t see any reason to work.)  A writer who chooses to show the strength of a character who is not easily recognized as strong by the average reader…not a warrior, not a famous/wealthy/politically powerful person…needs to make it clear to readers how this character is strong, and show that early in the story.    If that character is to be the protagonist, or a major secondary character,  the strength must be there–at least in thought–all the time, even when the character is near failing in adversity.    If the character is minor, there’s not time to show as much complexity–the character must immediately be recognized by a POV character as a strong person.

(Why back-to-back posts?   Wednesday’s wasn’t finished until after midnight Wednesday and so became Thursday’s.    Today–I had to do one today because this is Great Backyard Bird Count weekend and I’ll be busy for the next three days counting birds.  That’s if I can get my new account set up at the site, which I couldn’t do this morning.   Not sure why.  But it’s important, so I’ll keep trying.)



  • Comment by Linda — February 14, 2014 @ 10:36 pm


    All the best with your backyard birds!

    As for strong characters, thanks for standing up for the unconventional!

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — February 15, 2014 @ 12:28 am


    I started reading this post with one eye on the iPad and one on the TV. Sera Ophelia popped into my mind as soon as I got to the fourth paragraph. She is my favorite of all your characters, because of her strength.

    The strong, quiet folk whose influence is recognized only when they are gone are also courageous in the sense that Master Oakhallow talked about with Paks. They do what needs to be done, because it needs to be done.

  • Comment by Iphinome — February 15, 2014 @ 6:55 am


    Bird count? Valentine’s weekend… *lightbulb* Ohhhhh! I hope you have a lovely time uh counting birds.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 15, 2014 @ 10:04 am


    So far so good. The “missing” American goldfinches were on the sock feeder this morning. I’m off to get more bird feed, as the last we got wasn’t that good.

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 15, 2014 @ 10:10 am


    You have produced a number of strong characters who were not necessarily physically aggressive (thankfully). Ofelia is one of my favorites. The wife of the Ranger who lands finally in the colony of Rafaella and Ronnie in the Serrano series is another, as is Lady Cecelia. It is a disturbing development in our culture that physical aggression, even bullying behavior, seems confused with strength.

    I saw a flock of robins in our street while I was trying to clear a path for the car through the frozen slush. Do you think Spring is coming?

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 15, 2014 @ 10:31 am


    Spring is definitely coming. We have open buds on some trees and shrubs, and the limestone honeysuckle (lemon-scented) is covered with flowers. The first flock of northbound blackbirds (a mix of red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds) appeared in our yard almost two weeks ago. One dandelion flowered. Wrens and mockingbirds and cardinals are singing their spring courting songs.

  • Comment by Genko — February 15, 2014 @ 8:38 pm


    Our Daphne bush survived last week’s snow and freezing rain and looks ready to bloom any day now. There are green shoots all over the place. The birds are singing everywhere — usually happens right about this time. And we’re finally back to warm rain, proper Oregon weather.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 15, 2014 @ 11:38 pm


    Genko: What’s a Daphne bush?

    GinnyW: I’m glad you recognized Prima as a strong character–I wanted very much to show that the women, though oppressed, were not weak and that their skills were valuable even in changed circumstances. Brun had been too traumatized to take anything positive from the experience (at least overtly) but Raffa hadn’t, and could learn from Prima.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 16, 2014 @ 6:29 am


    Daphne Bush – next candidate of a certain political party.

    Actually it is a very pretty flowering shrub.

  • Comment by Lise — February 16, 2014 @ 1:57 pm


    I also really like how characters in your books are strong in different ways, but also how every strong character has weeknesses also. It makes them very real.

    The only sign of spring around here is thin squirrels coming out of hiding. We got another snowstorm this week, but the weather is getting milder (more -5°C and less -25°C). Also, the sun is a bit higher.

  • Comment by David — February 16, 2014 @ 3:57 pm


    One of the reasons I read SF is that strong women are common. The David Weber books, Paks and Vatta, inter alia. I have given these books to teenage boys, as an example of what women can do.

  • Comment by Genko — February 16, 2014 @ 3:58 pm


    Daphne is an incredibly fragrant spring-flowering shrub. It’s always one of the first to bloom, and smells heavenly.

    As someone with a not-terrific sense of smell, I love it. The fragrance is not subtle.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 16, 2014 @ 5:35 pm


    Genko: Aha! It’s a spurge relative–that makes sense from the look of the leaves. Thanks for the ID.

    David: Glad you enjoy the books.

    Lise:Thanks–I’m glad you enjoy the varying kinds of strength in characters.

  • Comment by Richard — February 17, 2014 @ 12:55 am


    My wildlife moment, though not so far as I know specifically a sign of spring like Lise’s squirrels: this Friday, last day of my holiday in the Alps (Italy’s Brenta Dolomites), at ten a.m. on a bright sunny day saw a little brown ball ahead of me, bobbing across the busy ski run. Everybody else went on past but I stopped to watch. It was a shrew, mouse or vole (I don’t know the differences well enough to classify it) that foraged for a couple of minutes around the branches just above the snow surface of a young pine tree (or such) – then came back to where I was standing quietly just six feet away and started exploring (half climbed onto!) my boot (plastic ski boot). Then someone a little way off spoke loudly, it went on its way and I went mine.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 17, 2014 @ 7:01 am


    Unfortunately, weak female characters tend to be in “women in trouble” type books which I won’t read.

    By only having strong men, an author throws away half of her resources.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 17, 2014 @ 8:16 am


    Richard: What a wonderful vignette & observation! And a lovely experience for you, I’m thinking. Master Oakhallow would be favorably impressed with you. If you can find a field guide to European mammals before your memory of the encounter fades, you may be able to clarify the mouse/shrew/vole part at least. In the US, mice are long-tailed (tail at least as long as body) with prominent ears, voles are short-tailed (tail much less than length of body) with longer fur and shorter ears (but usually quite visible, just not prominent), and shrews are mouse-sized with tiny ears (sometimes invisible in short fur) and extremely pointy heads…tail length varies with species. Voles look “plump”, compared to mice (partly due to the longer fur), but have a similar profile, barring the less prominent ears. Shrews have have an almost mole-like profile, though much smaller. Shrews are extremely active, always “busy”; mice and voles are more likely to “freeze” for a few moments and show caution.

    And then I threw caution to the winds and started looking up Italian mammals to see what might be where you were. So far I’m just in Wikipedia (and you know how reliable that is!) but it’s a place to start. Check out the alpine shrew. It’s supposed to be nocturnal, so a bright sunny day is probably not the time you’d see it out. There’s an alpine field mouse listing (no picture.) Found some images but was unable (my computer problems) to access the pages given. You might be luckier.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 17, 2014 @ 8:37 am


    Jonathan: You have opened a can of something (maybe not worms) that arouses authorial curiosity…but writers have no real right to question readers too closely, so don’t feel you must answer or justify answers. Yet writers want to understand readers and their reactions in order to write more satisfying stories. (Or, in some cases, in order to write more unsatisfying stories, stories that directly assault readers. But that’s not my goal. Usually.) Since writing adventure-based stories always involves putting characters in trouble, I’m interested in what defines, for you, a “woman in trouble” story v. a story in which a woman is in trouble (as all my female protagonists have been at one time or another) but you see the story as something else. Does a “woman in trouble” story always equate with a weak female character? Similarly, how do you react to “men in trouble” stories: do you read those, and if so, do you perceive the male character as weak? Do you use the same criteria for both, or are there hot buttons that for you signal “this is a weak character” at a different level by gender?

    One of my difficulties (internal, not technical) in writing bad guys, like the politician who took over after Brun’s father was killed, in the Serrano/Suiza books, is deciding whether a fatal flaw like his makes a character weak, or just a bad strong character. Are the Marshals who oppose the Marshal-General on the matter of magery re-appearing weak characters or strong ones? I look at the people I disagree with politically, for instance, and to me some of them look weak (they’re being influenced easily by whoever has the most money or yells the loudest) and some look strong (they appear to have genuine convictions, albeit not based on facts.) But I don’t know how readers divvy up character definitions. An editor once rejected one of my stories on the grounds that the characters were weak (not how she said it, but what she meant) when I thought they were strong, so…I’m always curious.

    But again–this is writer curiosity, and may be too intrusive. If so, apologies.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — February 17, 2014 @ 1:17 pm


    A woman in trouble story is the murderer who tortures the poor girl for thirty pages. Paks was in trouble but you did not describe an attempted rape for pages and pages. Rogers and Ebert first drew my attention to this type of movie and writing. Maybe I don’t like realism – in your novels, bad things do happen and sometimes you give some agonizing detail but I can always skip that part if I think it is really bad. The business in the woods when the Sargent draws the sword into himself for example or the torture of Paks.

    Weak men are generally not that interesting for me – they also have to be written very well. But anyone can set a sadist in pursuit of a girl.

    Perhaps I’m not expressing myself that well but I really dislike the man beating on the woman just because he can. Note, I have two daughters and one granddaughter.

  • Comment by Eir de Scania — February 17, 2014 @ 1:48 pm


    Yes,it’s mice = long tail, vole = short tail and shrew = funny nose (they are actually called beakmice in Swedish) in Europe as well. 😉

  • Comment by Genko — February 17, 2014 @ 3:37 pm


    In general, it seems that novels celebrate trouble — that is, that is what moves the story along. I confess that I sometimes find that tedious. And really object to the woman-as-victim plot that gets overdone. I also do skip over some of the more violent bits on subsequent readings. Still, change, sometimes uncomfortable change, marks our lives, and moves things along. I remember a movie (think it was an earlier Batman movie) that was recommended, and found it objectionable because the female character started out reasonably smart and capable, but reverted to a victim to be rescued, spending a lot of time screaming, for the second half of the movie. Maybe this feeds male fantasies of sadism and/or rescue, but it leaves me at best bored and at worst offended, sometimes even outraged.

    I know you weren’t asking me, exactly, but I figured I’d toss my two cents in.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — February 17, 2014 @ 6:26 pm


    Given the behavior of the animal and the habitat Richard describes, my money is on “mouse”. Voles tend to be meadow folk, sticking to “runs” tunnels/paths in grass or through the snow. Shrews are insect eaters almost exclusively, living to eat and eating to live. No time for curiosity.
    When out trapping mice in Illinois woodlots for a population study, I’ve had similar encounters with very calm, curious white-footed mice (Peromyscus).

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — February 17, 2014 @ 7:03 pm


    Richard, dusted off my German, pulled out the mammal field guide for Middle Europe, and found a Snow Mouse (Microtus nivalis) that lives only above treeline, is active in the daytime, and prefers south facing slopes. Field mice (Microtus spp.) also might be seen on snow, but if snow is deep, they’ll be in tunnels. Microtus is the genus for voles (aka field mice), the small eared, shorter tailed, round mice Elizabeth mentioned.
    Two candidates for long-tailed, big-eared mice are House Mouse if there were human habitations nearby, or Forest Mice which are nocturnal.
    Neat encounter to have!

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 17, 2014 @ 10:12 pm


    Late afternoon, while counting birds near the most distant wildlife watering station, a squirrel almost ran over my foot going to the water. I had been sitting very still for quite awhile by then, and it was a thrill to have the squirrel far more interested in getting to the water than in what that funny brown lump in its way was.

    We’re still missing some species we usually see in winter (but haven’t yet this winter: Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Field Sparrow) but I picked up Harris’s, Song, Savannah, and Fox. I have never seen a Fox Sparrow on the place except in the far west end, near water (when we still had water in the creek, I would occasionally see one near the creek. Now the only water is the wildlife watering station we put in.) They’re the biggest, and shyest, of the winter-resident sparrows. Usually we get White-crowned and Lincoln’s sparrows in the back yard (and occasionally Harris’s and Field) but the rest stay out on the land, one place or another. Some of them will come to water in the dry woods on the rocky hump; the rest stay strictly to the woods area. The ruby-crowned kinglets sometimes come to the house yards, but otherwise are only in the creek woods (still called that, despite the creek being dry for several years now.)

    Meanwhile, my husband spotted a peregrine falcon in our yard after I’d headed out on the afternoon bird hunt. Lucky!

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — February 17, 2014 @ 11:40 pm


    Lucky for sure and totally cool.

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 18, 2014 @ 11:11 am


    Sigh. We had three inches of snow this morning. Spring is in the air, but winter is putting up a serious fight. The previous thread has reminded me how important setting is. The same mouse/vole/shrew that is engaging in the field is a pest in the house. A squirrel is charming in the woods, but a menace in the roof.

    The bird count sounds wonderful.

  • Comment by Richard — February 18, 2014 @ 4:32 pm


    Elizabeth, Eir, Nadine, Thanks for the info and pointers. Vole (genus Microtus) best fits what I remember, possibly a pine vole (subgenus Terricola) of one species or another. Maybe not the snow mouse aka European Snow Vole because Wikipedia tells me that has pale grey fur tinged with brown and runs with tail erect, whereas the animal I saw was fully brown and left tracks of feet and tail. It might have eaten a bit off the bark of the tree it went under, in which case maybe it came over to check out was I a tree and did I have any bark worth eating.

    Why did it cross the ski run on the surface? Maybe it could not get through below. Ski runs are made and maintained by driving heavy caterpillar tractors (“piste bashers”) up and down each night to smooth and compact the snow under their weight.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 18, 2014 @ 4:50 pm


    Excellent point, Richard, about why a normally sub-surface (snow or grass) moving critter might be on the surface. Just to further whet your interest (should it be less than razor sharp at the moment) there are field guides of tracks, including tracks in snow. At least here in the US.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — February 19, 2014 @ 12:18 am


    Maybe the piste basher had made the tunnels impassable. Or the critter had “tunnel fever” and just had to get out of the house so to speak.

  • Comment by Annabel — February 19, 2014 @ 7:08 am


    For some reason I’ve only just read this. I thought daphne was a type of laurel….

    Re strong characters, there are also the storylines where a weak character can become strong, or stronger, as he or she matures.

    I think of the “women in trouble” stories as the ones where the woman makes little or no effort to rescue herself, but waits for A Man to rescue her (think early Dr Who Companions, if you count the Doctor as a man; he is, I feel, definitely male!).

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 19, 2014 @ 8:10 am


    Richard, it sounds like a good identification. As to running on top of the snow, ski runs not only pack the snow, but they keep the grass cut short. In a field, tall grasses support an amazing amount of snow held up by the old stems bent over. There can be as much as a foot of air space underneath forming tunnels for mice, rabbits and other small creatures, who can feed on the seeds. The snow forms a top crust. It makes treacherous walking for humans! As a child I was fascinated by the “secret world” beneath the snow.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 19, 2014 @ 8:12 am


    Annabel: Often a character gets stronger through the story–particularly as a young character gains age and experience and ability to cope with things. That’s a fairly standard character arc for both initially strong and initially weak characters. What I mean by a weak character is one who does not have the potential to strengthen. Your definition of the ‘woman in trouble’ plot shows that clearly: the character who does not show initiative, who waits for someone else to rescue her (or do anything else that takes initiative and decision.)

    At the margins of character definitions, it can be hard to tell a strong character whose primary coping method is passive-aggressive (who has goals clear to himself, and who pursues those goals, but whose style of interacting and coping looks futile) from a weak character who is passive and either without goals or without active attempts to achieve them. The novelist should make it clear to the reader which is which.

  • Comment by Sharidann — February 20, 2014 @ 1:03 am


    Good reading, thanks for it.

    One of the things I like in fiction is seeing the growth in characters, as well as the change in personality.
    Another thing I like is the difference between perception and truth about the character of someone.
    Best example off the top of my head: Stella Vatta… Everybody but her and Auntie Grace think she is a stupid airhead… True, she did something stupid but she grew from it and is actually a strong character, albeit the perceptions other people have of her make it more difficult for her to shine, particularly after it becomes clear who her genitor was…

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 20, 2014 @ 8:05 pm


    Are weak characters hard to write? I have been contemplating some of the potentially weak characters that we have seen in Paksworld. Luap is the one we “know” the most about, and also one of my least favorite characters. Amrothlin came across as a subordinate character, but not necessarily weak, after the Lady’s death. Beclan is weak in a number of ways, but is also young. I do sense in him the same potential for self-deception that characterized Luap.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 20, 2014 @ 11:03 pm


    GinnyW: Weak characters are hard for me to write in depth. The weaker they are, the more they bother me. I keep wanting them to change (even if the story needs them to be weak.) And I know readers will not, in general, like weak characters…they’re not appealing, especially if their weakness takes the form of whining and making excuses or being passive-aggressive. In real life, such people are a pain, and readers recognize the behavior. Making them a POV character in the hope that understanding will make them palatable…doesn’t work. It just reveals how lame they are all the way through. Most people will find a strong villain more appealing than a weak good guy…except that some readers will happily accept weak female characters (nobody here, I suspect, but those who believe the natural order is weak women/strong men find them comforting.) So yes, Luap is weak. Amrothlin is weak (though a weak elf can seem strong to a human–it’s a relative thing. Amrothlin was badly damaged by his mother and his elder brother in his early life and never developed his full capacity. Back in the first books: Jenits, punished along with Korryn, was a weak character; Korryn is difficult to parse, having consented to invasion. Venner, Kieri’s steward, was a weak character, easily controlled by Achrya. Natzlin is a good weak character (good and evil are on a different axis from weak and strong) but not totally weak. She will always be a follower to someone: bad Barra, good Farin, good Dorrin. I keep wanting to pat her on the head and say “There, there” and mutter “And grow UP, will you?” The girl who wanted to be Paks’s squire in Divided Allegiance is a weak character, but the innkeeper’s daughter is a strong one. Beclan was a very immature character (which often makes them look weak at the start of a book) and was prone to self-deception having come out of exceptional privilege, but actually not much prone to self-deception now, and has faced the cost of his actions. I’ve now seen Beclan at the end of his life (unpublished story) and a segment from the near future (beyond Crown) and he’s a strong one. His father, however, Duke Mahieran, is much weaker–a “let things slide as long as it seems to work” person, much influenced by his wife (herself not a particularly strong character–she was influenced heavily by someone else.) Ambition without character is not strength. Duke Mahieran shows how it’s possible to be a weak character but have a strong reputation: rank, power, social class, and money can give a veneer of strength, and the person himself can believe he’s a strong character and act the part while in the costume…but if they’re put to the test, they aren’t. (I can name contemporary politicians and wealthy powerful men I consider weak characters.) Duke Marrakai and Duke Serrostin are both stronger characters than Duke Mahieran. Dorrin began as a stronger character than Arcolin, but he’s caught up as he began dealing more with is past. In the deep history, Falk is a far stronger character than his father and the brothers he saved. Torre is a stronger character than her father.

    At any rate, the problem with weak characters relates both to writing in a way that readers “get” them in relation to the story, and to individual writers’ own reaction to them, making that judicious use of them harder.

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 21, 2014 @ 7:51 am


    I look forward to seeing more of Beclan (assuming that unpublished story becomes published story).

    The question arose because it seemed to me that the characters we see, who become most developed become stronger as we see more of them. Arcolin is a prime example. He is weak at the beginning of Oath of Fealty – very much a subordinate who finds himself in charge and not quite up to it. Even Stammel has reservations about his ability to step into Kieri’s shoes. Yet he has developed into a very strong, and likeable! character.

    Amrothlin is hard to parse, but I perceived him as weak until Limits. Yet he seemed to pull himself together more and more as he began to gain confidence in Kieri. He is still a subordinate in that he takes his direction from Kieri, but he seems to be able to make constructive choices and contribute to the whole. In other words, I think I see hints that his mother’s death has sparked some growth in him, even at his advanced age!

  • Comment by GinnyW — February 21, 2014 @ 7:54 am


    Oh, and I need to think about the dynamic of weak character and strong social position. They go together to drive a number of fantasy plots.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 21, 2014 @ 11:33 am


    GinnyW: You’re right on both counts about Arcolin and Amrothlin. Arcolin does end up a strong character–you really see that when he argues with his king about the way Beclan’s situation is being handled, something he absolutely could not have done in OATH, and he gets stronger from there. Giving up the old fantasy of going back to rule in Horngard releases more of his abilities. Amrothlin gains some strength after his mother dies, but he’s taken more damage than anyone knows (but him and the elven king in the west.) Arcolin had normal human-type problems, and not as severe as Amrothlin’s.

    Ah, YES, the dynamic of mismatched social/personal abilities. Weak characters in a strong position that really needs strong character to stay on the right side of things…most dangerous leader, CEO, commander you can have, IMO. Worse in some ways than a strong bad one; the weak one that is going to fail catastrophically in some crisis. And because of the rank, the social position, the money, the power…the failure won’t be anticipated. The higher position leads others to the presumption that it was earned.

    [Biting my tongue not to give examples from recent and current US politics & business.]

    Beclan as a youth is a classic case of an undeveloped (and thus weak) character who because of his family’s rank and his being close in succession to the king is assumed to have abilities and character that have never been tested. (These days, some people assume that children born into privilege have zero talents or character, but that’s not true either: their privilege may still narrow their view of things, when they’re young, but they may have a lot of character that shows up later.)

    As a kid, I knew the children of several families much wealthier than ours (which wasn’t hard, but still.) Good, bad, weak, and strong were unevenly distributed across children in each family. So I learned early that weak good, strong good, weak bad, and strong bad (which were also observably in my classmates of all backgrounds) had nothing to do with parental income and level of privilege…or even parenting style. At one time I worked for a family with many children: same parents, same house, and they ranged from strong good (and genius level intelligence) through every combination of weak/strong/bad/good plus varying levels of ability.

    Which is one of the things that makes writing fiction endlessly fascinating. I get to explore what happens when all the variables are up for grabs.

  • Comment by Richard — February 22, 2014 @ 4:57 pm


    We must remember to Duke Mahieran’s credit the way he saved Dorrin’s life at the end of FEALTY, by coming up with the right legal-political argument. Considering weak/strong as an axis one would expect many minor characters to place near the middle.

    In the same book, the impression I picked up from “Kory’s” remarks was that Korryn when we saw him in the DEED had not been invaded – that came later. What I saw in the DEED was a person continually pushing to see how much other people would let him get away with, that is someone who could look strong only if those around him were weak. And who’d jeopardise – fail at – his long-term goals, whatever they were, for the sake of immediate gratification.

  • Comment by GinnyW — March 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pm


    I got the same impression about Korrin not having been invaded yet in Deed. But I also got the impression from Korrin that he felt he was naturally superior, but deprived of his natural place because of his birth. Perhaps he was persuaded to accept a Verrakai “passenger” because he wanted to be accepted by his father’s family. If so a definite counterpoint to Arcolin and Burek making their own way.

    Back to the point about weak characters in strong social or political positions. Part of what makes these characters so dangerous is that there are fewer controls and more scope for disaster. They have the resources to create a giant mess, as opposed to just a local one. Beclan has this kind of position (or he will), but he needs to learn to evaluate the impact of his decisions on others. He is still not aware of this at Kieri’s wedding as indicated by the invitations that he receives, and his brother doesn’t. Dorrin is obviously working on it, but will she have time to train him? And if not Dorrin, who?

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 3, 2014 @ 4:26 pm


    GinnyW: There’s a puzzlement for the author here, because at the time I wrote Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, I had not yet thought through the Verrakai abilities. I knew they were bad; I knew they were magelords who followed a cruel god. I did not know about transferring personalities into new bodies. In hindsight, the cues were there, but I didn’t pick up all the threads. So I can’t be definitive about whether Korryn was invaded before he became a recruit, or not. There’s logic both ways. Verrakai would have wanted to infiltrate Phelan’s merc company, both to have a spy there, and to be able to cause trouble, perhaps to discredit Phelan with the Crown. He was certainly openly, visibly hostile in Oath of Gold, at the Council meeting before Paks showed up with the sword. Hard to believe he hadn’t been up to trouble before…and for the additional reason that his niece, Dorrin, was one of Phelan’s captains. On the other hand, Korryn at 19 or 20–at most 21–is a fairly loose cannon. Why put a valuable resource–a Verrakai personality–without taking them over completely? Why make an agreement with a teenage boy? It could be done, but the Verrakaien have been involved in “identity theft” of this type for centuries–they would know it could be done, but they would also know it was easier to take someone over completely. And if a Verrakai had gone that far, there’d be no “agreement” in the later stories. There is a reasonable reason for invading Korryn later, so I’m leaning that way, but if someone wants to believe in earlier, I’m not going to argue. Yet.

    Beclan’s change is an example of the difficulty all teenagers have with judging the effect of their actions on others. Many of them can do it if they concentrate on it, one action at a time, but there’s a lot they don’t know to think about yet. The thing to remember about Beclan is that (other than being rich, the king’s cousin, and now a duke’s heir) he’s a fairly typical teenage boy…except that he has been through a traumatic experience and he did face up to what he’d done. He’s still got some PTSD going on (in modern terms) and he will have flashbacks for years…he doesn’t grow into the adult he will be overnight, and grows fastest in the specific types of interactions that caused the trauma. Sibling rivalry remains for awhile longer (and in many adults persists for decades. Roles learned early are hard to put aside.)

  • Comment by patrick — March 7, 2014 @ 5:36 pm


    I noticed several characters were described as becoming stronger through time. I’ve also seen some who normally are strong, but when beat down by too much adversity can’t hold up and retreat for a while. Sometimes they recover and are stronger (Paks before Oath of Gold) and other times can never fully regain the strength they once had. Do we consider them weak or simply broken by too great of life challenges?

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 7, 2014 @ 7:19 pm


    Good questions, patrick. As there are different views on what “strong” means, there are ideas about what “change” and “growth” mean in characterization. Here are mine:

    Any character may become stronger by exercising agency–taking control of whatever the character can. (The range of control available varies with age, capacity (physical, mental, spiritual, magical), social status, etc.) As an infant grows into a child and then later adult, that individual usually has more opportunity to develop agency and thus become a stronger character–so the typical “coming of age” story often shows an ineffective kid becoming a more effective young adult as he or she develops the skills to do so.

    Strong characters may fail, even to the point of being broken past recovery…but this is a character very different from a weak one. The failure of strength is different from the failure of weakness (and is a staple of Greek tragedy and some Bible stories.) A strong character does not quit exhibiting agency until the breaking point–is willing to risk the breaking point. A weak character doesn’t ever push anywhere near it.

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