You’ll have to forgive me if I waffle a little in this one folks. I couldn’t seem to keep it as short as I wanted it and I’ve always been a firm believer in the philosophy that something is finished when it’s finished. Though I am assured that rather than it waffling, it’s more conversational. I’ll let you be the judge.
What makes a strong character in a story?
This is not an easy question to answer. Ask ten different people that very question and you would likely get ten different responses, it is a question that has plagued storytellers for many a year now; it is has also yet to be answered definitively. I ask this question as while writing my own stories I always try to have a diverse cast of characters, without making it seem like tokenism; whether I have succeeded I suppose is for other people to judge.
I think diversity in story telling is important, I think people enjoy fiction more if there is something or someone they can relate to. Whether that be a group or a person, stories are better when there is something for the reader to connect to. Whilst this can just as easily be an event, maybe something they have experienced in their own lives, I feel relatable characters are better. Maybe I’m projecting my own preferences here, but I always enjoy stories more when there are characters around that I can connect with and/or root for.
The difficulty for writers however is how to write said characters, how to include them in a meaningful way that adds to the experience of the reader. It is not simply enough to include a woman include a woman in a story, expecting women to relate to this character or indeed include a person from any under/poorly represented group and expecting them to relate to them because they share a gender or race with them. I am a white man, yet that doesn’t mean that I automatically relate to all white men in stories because of that. It’s about strength of character, and that brings me back to my initial question.
What makes a strong character in a story?
I write in the fantasy genre and should I ever change my genre, any future stories will likely be action oriented. The reason for this aren’t so important as the reason I mention it. There is often (in my opinion) a common misconception that because a character is in a story that would if the writer chose, allow them to be a fighter, that this is what makes them strong. This is to misunderstand how we measure character, do we feel that a person is strong because of their physical capabilities, their ability fight?
If your answer is yes, I would advise you to take a long hard look at yourself.
Strength of character comes from all sorts of things. For example, I feel a person’s sense of morality is a cornerstone of their character, do they have a sense of justice and fair play. How do they treat people? A person’s sense of decency and compassion is important in the character of any person. What about their strength of conviction? One could argue that a person’s willingness to stand up for what they believe in, to bring naysayers to their side is important.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. What’s important to people in life is important to them in fiction. Characters in stories can be role models for people, they can be sources of inspiration or cautionary tales, templates for the best and worst in people. One of the worst things a writer can do is write boring and bland characters, stereotyped two dimensional bores that make you want to gouge your eyes before you read any more of their ‘adventures’.
Am I being a little harsh here? Maybe, but you get my point.
I suppose really what this blog is about is representation, representation of people from all walks of life. Men and women, people from under represented ethnic groups or people with disabilities. Perhaps your hero is homosexual. Perhaps one of the characters is transgender. On and on the possibilities are endless, but it’s not just about box ticking. One of the most overused tropes in fiction is the concept of a damsel in distress, a flaky woman in need of being rescued by the plucky hero of the story.
Unless your story is specifically built so that one or more of these groups is barred from consideration then why can’t your characters be neutral. A hero that could be a woman as well as a man, be from an ethnic minority group or any of the other groups I mentioned earlier. Have them be strong, not just because they are physically strong, but strong in any way you can think of. Strong in the ways that matter to you, there’ll be someone out there who thinks the same as you. Besides, you never know what you might find out in the research process.
So, for the record, I am not planning to go on a kill crazy rampage with a Warhammer. I just needed to read about them for my book.