Why Strong Characters Aren’t All That

26th Jan 2015

A female punk doll shaking her fist at a begging Storm Trooper figurine.
The topic of strong characters inevitably arises when discussing books and other kinds of fiction. Many writers worry about whether their characters are strong enough, or exactly what qualifies as strong enough. This applies specifically to strong women, to the point where the phrase Strong Female Character™ has become cliché...

To be frank, I also think the phrase is pretty much meaningless.

Many people neglect to see that the stereotype of the supposedly weak female character—the damsel in distress, the blank-slate wife, the romantic prize—doesn’t necessarily apply to women in general. It applies to a narrow category of women: those who are conventionally attractive, abled, straight, cisgender, and white.

For many other women, the issue of representation is starkly different. When you’re constantly expected to be “strong”and “tough,”it can be a welcome relief to see someone like you portrayed as lovely and in need—and deserving—of rescue. When you’re thought of as a perpetual victim, what you crave in terms of representation might instead be a character overcoming unrelated hurdles and living an average life. When you’re seen as unworthy of love, being a romantic prize at the end of a film can mean the world.

In other words, straight-up “strength” is not the ideal for all women, and not everyone has the same framework when it comes to stereotypes.

As well, too many people define “strong” as meaning literal strength. Women will be judged by how much ass they kick—whether they can physically live up to the male characters surrounding them.

While I adore characters like Salt and Catwoman, strength is about more than simply being an action heroine. Judging characters purely by whether they align with ideals of power typically associated with men feels both problematic and simplistic.

We could measure character strength by other qualities—intelligence, compassion, willpower—but instead, I find myself wondering which traits define a supposedly weak character. Being a pushover? Cowardly? Unintelligent? Short-sighted? But what if those traits are perfectly in line with that character’s history and personality?

I would rather read about a “weak” character who’s internally consistent, realistic, and compelling, than a character who’s strong simply for the sake of being strong.

Additionally, by idealizing strength, we may inadvertently demonize or judge people who don’t fit that standard. For example, someone with a mental illness may be less emotionally resilient; someone with a history of abuse may shy away from violence; someone with a physical disability may be unable to fight; someone with a learning difficulty may process information slower than others.

When I was a child and teenager, I spent years fighting. I was strong. I was whip-smart. I was determined to persevere. It started out as a fight against my school, my classmates, my homework, and my own limitations. It turned into a fight against depression.

This is how I won the fight: I gave up.

At the age of fourteen, I quit school, sought out alternatives, and ended up happier, more successful, and better adjusted than I could ever have believed. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I can’t possibly see it as a sign of weakness.

I wonder whether strength and weakness always apply. As descriptive terms, they risk being too simple. Too binary, too arbitrary. Too judgmental. I mean, is strength pushing yourself to the very end, or is it preserving your energy so you can live to fight another day?

Or let’s take my book Otherbound, a fantasy novel about the unusual mental connection between two teenagers from different worlds. One of these teenagers, Amara, has been abused for most of her life. Her abuser forces her into various tasks and punishes her for any transgressions. Amara refuses to run away, believing that he’ll find and kill her.

People have called Amara strong for sticking with her duties; people have called her weak for not leaving.

In the novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina, the main character Piddy Sanchez is targeted by the titular Yaqui. Frightened, Piddy avoids Yaqui—and even school—as much as she can. Although she loathes her own perceived weakness, the narrative acknowledges that sometimes running away is the best, safest option. I adored that perspective.

The character Neverfell—from Frances Hardinge’s wonderfully original fantasy novel A Face Like Glass—also doesn’t fit the “strong character” ideal. She’s naive, impressionable, and easy to manipulate. Yet, I loved her for those exact reasons. Neverfell is a unique, fascinating character whose behaviour makes complete sense for her circumstances.

Although I understand what people mean when they use the terms “strong” and “weak” and I don’t judge reviewers for it—nor readers for their personal taste in characters— I wonder whether strength and weakness always apply. As descriptive terms, they risk being too simple. Too binary, too arbitrary. Too judgmental.

I mean, is strength pushing yourself to the very end, or is it preserving your energy so you can live to fight another day?

Is strength sticking by your goals, or is it adjusting those goals once you realise you’re on the wrong path?

Is accepting your flaws a character flaw in itself?

If we have to talk about strength, let’s do it this way: let’s value strongly defined characters.

As a writer and reader, that’s I want to focus on. Interesting characters. Understandable characters. Compelling characters. Human, frustrating, complex, real characters.

Because that’s what makes a story.


Corinne Duyvis

Corinne is the author of the YA sensation Otherbound. She is a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit and team member of We Need Diverse Books.

Who are some of your favourite strong characters and what makes them so compelling? Do you agree that strongly defined characters are more important than traditional displays of character ‘strength’? Join the discussion and leave us a comment.


[Image Credit: Stormy Romance by JD Hanock on Flickr]