Helping Writers Become Authors

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.

Castle (2009-16), ABC.

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).

Castle (2009-16), ABC.

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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