One Major Pitfall of Writing Strong Characters

One Major Pitfall of Writing Strong Characters

One Major Pitfall of Writing Strong Characters

Writing strong characters should be one of your major goals for any type of story. But what exactly is a strong character?

This phrase is tossed around a lot (especially, it seems, when it comes to female characters), but it can be frustratingly vague. Mostly, the “strong character” seems to conjure images of physically fearless men and women bulldozing through their stories with high self-esteem and complete self-respect.

But what that describes is a strong personality, not necessarily a strong character. Inherent in that stereotype of the strong character is a big fat pitfall–one into which it’s far too easy to tumble without meaning to. Let’s take a look, so you can avoid this problem in writing strong characters of your own.

The 2 Basics of Writing Strong Characters

First things first: what is a strong character?

As I’ve discussed before, a strong character is nothing more or less than a personality who moves the plot. [1] A strong character is a catalyst. This doesn’t necessarily mean this person is physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually strong. It doesn’t mean this person is moral; it doesn’t mean this person is healthy.

A strong character is simply a dynamic character. That’s the bare bones.

However, it’s worth noting that because of its other connotations, [2] “strength” in a character often does indicate someone who possesses personal strength of some sort and is what we would generally consider an admirable role model.

Those are the more obvious aspects of writing strong characters. But, wait, there’s more!

1 Secret Ingredient of a Strong Character

Taken by themselves, the above elements might create that strong personality we talked about. But they won’t necessarily create a strong character. Why? Because they’re too one-sided.

Strength, by its very nature, indicates an overcoming of weakness. Strength with no weakness is like light with no dark. Whatever Obi-Wan may say, that just doesn’t work.

Perfect characters aren’t strong characters. They’re boring characters. As a matter of fact, we could even argue they’re not strong characters at all, since they have nothing to overcome. They have no way to prove to readers–to show readers–their strength.

How to Avoid the Trap of Writing Strong Characters With No Weakness

The solution is, of course, pretty intuitive: You just add a weakness.

But sometimes that’s surprisingly difficult.

As authors, we can be blind to the problems caused by a character’s lack of weaknesses. Either we lose sight of the character’s internal struggle or we become so enamored with our creation that we put him on a pedestal where he can do no wrong. The more time you spend writing a character, the more this becomes a danger.

Kate Beckett from Castle is a good example. She starts out as a strong personality, but one who possesses plenty of offsetting weaknesses. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s self-sufficient. But she’s also racked with pain and personal problems in the wake of her mother’s murder. She’s terrified of letting people–especially Rick Castle–into her life.

Kate Beckett is an example of writing a strong character who lost her interesting weaknesses.

That terror, hidden under all her seeming perfect polish, is what made her a great character. She was admirable in so many ways, but she wasn’t flawless. The juxtaposition between the two was her most interesting quality.

But then something happened. As the story went on (and on and on) and she finally solved her mother’s murder, her flaws and her fear suddenly disappeared. The realism disappeared right along with it.  All that’s left is a super-cop, super-wife who can do no wrong and has no doubts (even her hair got perfect).

Kate Beckett Perfect Hair

So who was more interesting: the broken cop hiding her cracks or the superwoman strutting her stuff? You already know the answer.

In writing your own strong characters, start with their weaknesses. That’s always going to be the most interesting part of any character. Then, and only then, start building their strengths around those weaknesses in interesting and offsetting ways. Give it a try!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What weaknesses and flaws have you chosen when writing strong characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Regarding “perfect characters” I’ m afraid authors simply don’t know how to properly wield them. Let’s say the perfect character is wearing the perfection as if it was a full suit of armor (The Lie). Shouldn’t the antagonistic force crack it open, blow after blow forcing the protag to face reality till our Mary Sue stop pretending?

  2. Thanks for this article! I really liked your point about how a strong character is a character that moves the plot – so true. I’m outlining a novel right now, and I’m trying to let my characters affect the plot instead of just the plot carrying the characters. It’s harder than I thought it would be, and I’m still trying to think of good weaknesses for some of my characters, but I’m learning a lot in the process.

  3. Virginia Testa says:

    I’m writing a story with a MC who’s basically more or less the same as Kate Beckett with a few differences but I really like her. She’s strong, tough, FBI agent but has a rough past because her parents died when she was 14.

    P.S. I’m in love with that TV show!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I adored Beckett in the early seasons. As an INTJ myself, I thought she was a fabulous example of a realistic INTJ woman. It’s just that the character gets messed up as the story gets dragged out in the later seasons.

  4. Andreia says:

    Thank you for reminding everyone that strength does NOT mean being a badass!

    One of my favorite characters of my creation is the complete opposite of a badass. She cries. She’s afraid of men. She’s a self-professed coward. She still gets her things done, because a) she doesn’t get a choice, b) she’s clever enough to work with what she *does* have. Since she’s slim, weak and not, shall we say, very brave, she compensates it with cleverness and underhanded tactics. :p

    I honestly think that is far more interesting than the millionth warrior princess who can take a punch like a bro and defeat men three times bigger than them because, hey, they’re badasses amirite?

    • Absolutely. Though the warrior princess may work if she remains just that, a warrior. Mine is a highly skilled fighter, smart and wicked but no supergirl: being a pure-bred underdog, she is lacking basic education, though quick to grasp new data, and worse, she is far away from her native territory so that she sometimes spoils her mission out of simple ignorance. It seems that our female readers could very well relate to her imperfections, and that scene in which she excels in fending off a gang of thugs by swiftness and innovative combat tactics (like setting her opponent’s beard aflame) was very much appreciated by them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree! Fear is almost always fascinating. It’s way more interesting that bravery, when we come right down to it.

  5. Well, they got hitched.

    It seems few writers know how to write deeper relationships than infinite flirtation (“Smallville” anywone?) without getting boring.

    So, when someone gets fired or leave the show they grab the “so happy together” TV-trope to get some meagre romance in there (I’ve seen that one so many times my eyes are bleeding!)

    If you want to see shows where they know how to write romantic relationships I’d recommend “Chuck”, or “One Tree Hill.”

    Especially “Chuck,” where the romantic development is pretty epic, going through all the phases without coping out to quick fixes. I’d call it full contact romance! (No pun intended!) 😀

    They’re even able to give “Captain Awesome” some serious problems and character flaws! How awesome isn’t that?!

  6. I have an aubt that watched Castle I’ve never watched it, but it must’ve been good. I should check it out sometime, and my character Amelia has strengths and flaws, but she gradually overcomes two of them since you don’t want a character not to overcome them.

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