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.)