Today you hear a lot about creating strong characters. Specifically creating strong female characters or characters of color (there was a great Freshly Pressed post that talked about this with female characters). When you get down to the bottom of it all, the question is: how do you define a strong character?
As that Freshly Pressed post pointed out, most people look at strong female characters and think of the Buffys, the Katniss Everdeens, the Princess Leias, girls who are great with a weapon and are great at taking down bad guys. And they are strong characters, no doubt about it. But being able to stake a vampire or take down an evil empire does not make for a strong character. If being kick-ass made for strong characters, then all any protagonist would need is a whip or a set of ninja skills and we wouldn’t be having this debate or reading this article.
If you ask me, a strong character doesn’t have to kick down doors or be the greatest swordsman ever seen on the planet. What makes a character strong is not that they have physical strength, but that they are human.
For example, let’s take Zahara Bakur, the main character from my novel Reborn City. Zahara is not trained in any form of martial arts, nor does she have any auperpowers, though she knows several people who do. She’s a kind, peace-loving teenage girl. She’s kind of shy, she identifies herself as a Muslim, she’s more spiritual than religious (though she does follow the laws of Islam as much as she can), and she can’t stand violence. She’s a normal teenage girl…living in a dystopian society where in certain areas Islamaphobia is quite common.
Zahara seems like a real person, not a cliché or a stereotype. And through her experiences in RC, often at times very traumatic, she gains a powerful confidence and inner strength that shine through in the sequel, Video Rage. You see, a strong character is born when a human character goes through experiences that allow the character to show their humanity and at the same time tests it. The strength that follows from that testing, that powerful inner strength that we love seeing in these characters and is what truly makes a strong character.
Would Buffy be as beloved if she just went through vampire after vampire each and every episode and nothing else? No, the reason she is beloved is because we see her grow, make friends and find love, work past her fears and resolve to fight on in a never-ending war. Similarly, although we may look forward each week to a new Wesen on Grimm, what we enjoy most is seeing how protagonist Nick Burkhardt and his friends and family come to terms with the strange world around them and grow through their experiences, allowing themselves to meet the challenges that come their way. The butt-kicking and police action is secondary to the enjoyment of that growth, though the police stuff is fun to see as well.
(I’m really on a binge for shows with supernatural bents right now, aren’t I?)
So with all this in mind, I think the conclusion I’m trying to get to is that for a character to be considered strong, they must first be human, and prove it both to the reader and to themselves through the trials and tribulations they experience in the novel. And just like humans in the real world gain strength from overcoming the challenges that seem almost insurmountable or that test us in every way possible, so do our characters gain the strength that make us fall in love with them.
What do you think make for strong characters? What’s a character you consider a great example of one?