What Makes A Strong Character?

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?

36 thoughts on “What Makes A Strong Character?

  1. Harliqueen May 1, 2014 / 7:15 am

    A strong female character is one who can fend for herself, it doesn’t mean she can wield a sword or string a bow 😀 As long as she is capable, but also willing to accept help from others is a great character in my book. Elizabeth Bennett is a great example, she is a strong character, but happy to accept help from Darcy when needed, that doesn’t make her weak.

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 9:26 am

      Aren’t a lot of Jane Austen heroines strong, independent women?

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 9:25 am

      Thank you for the recommendation. We usually don’t do recommendations through comments like this, but thanks. I’ll check it out if I have the time.

  2. Middlemay Farm May 1, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    I’m not sure I even like the premise of a strong female character. “Strong” is the new overused word in writing female characters. It’s as if there’s a new rule that writers must push the strong women agenda on their readers.

    If I only wrote about strong people I’d be bored out of my mind. Insecure, quiet, flawed people hold just as much interest for me as strong people. If we mean strong in the sense of interesting characters that’s different, but I don’t want to be told how my women–or men should be. There’s no depth of conflict if everyone is strong and it’s unbelievable.

    I can go watch an action movie if I want a nap. 🙂

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 2:20 pm

      By strong, I generally mean interesting and not just a stereotype but like a real person.

      You take naps during action movies?

          • Middlemay Farm May 1, 2014 / 8:33 pm

            Only horror movies with creepy religious themes scare me, so the rest of the time I just eat popcorn, daydream and make lists of important things I have to do when the movie’s over. I probably only pay close attention to beauty at the movies–the last favorite I can think of where I got sucked in was True Grit.

            • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 9:01 pm

              Never seen it. And what movies are we talking about here? Carrie? Rosemary’s Baby? The Exorcism of Emily Rose?

              • Middlemay Farm May 1, 2014 / 9:07 pm

                The one with Damien in it from the 1970’s and The Seventh Sign with Demi Moore–at the time it wasn’t Demi’s acting that scared me but the idea of the “End Times” with all dead fish and weird Biblical references. Yikes.

                • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 9:10 pm

                  Recommendation: The Reaping. It might have what you’re looking for. Or it might make you write lists. I don’t know.

                  • Middlemay Farm May 1, 2014 / 9:14 pm

                    My favorite movies of all time (I think) are the yuppie trilogy movies by Whit Stillman. I have very narrow tastes when it comes to movies which annoys my friends and family. I am who I am. 🙂 I’ll look up the reaping–though it sounds creepy already.

  3. M T McGuire May 1, 2014 / 5:06 pm

    I like characters who are flawed and whose strength lies in the way they overcome their flaws and manage to achieve whatever they’re trying to do. Consequently, I try to write my own like that, too.

    Cheers

    MTM

  4. Ron Fritsch May 1, 2014 / 6:09 pm

    I agree with Middlemay Farm. Most action movies are so boring they put me to sleep whether the MC is a woman or a man. I like the flawed characters who struggle to set things right. The conflict doesn’t have to include murder and mayhem. But if it does, the M and M had better not be gratuitous (as they are in most action films). I think it’s instructive that when we talk about characters, we end up talking about plot, and when we talk about plot, we end up talking about characters.

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 7:32 pm

      You know, that is interesting. They do end up influencing one another, no matter how you look at it. It’s sort of like some symbiotic relationship, if that makes any sense.

      • Ron Fritsch May 1, 2014 / 8:28 pm

        That does make sense.

        • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 9:00 pm

          It’s something I’ll bring up in my writing workshop in the fall.

  5. obzervashunal May 1, 2014 / 6:30 pm

    …how about a character who, through adversity and challenge, discovers not only her humanity(as you mentioned), but on the path to conquering some persistent fear, finds her strength is the byproduct of perseverance and faith?

    …such a great question, by the way!

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 7:31 pm

      I’m actually trying to write a novel like that. My main character finds strength in her friends, and in her desire to stop being afraid and find happiness.

      I’m happy I asked my question, and I’m happy you asked yours.

      • obzervashunal May 3, 2014 / 5:20 pm

        best of luck with the novel. I find my best character writing comes from me trusting the character to come forth and evolve ‘for me’. I simply need to show up ready to transcribe it all!
        What you describe, a main character finding their strength in friends and desire to stop being afraid to find happiness? We all can relate on some level to this. I hope I get to read that novel!

        • rami ungar the writer May 3, 2014 / 6:19 pm

          Well, it’s called “Laura Horn”, it’s a work in progress, and if you look at my blog every now and then you might just find an update on it. Thanks for your support.

          • obzervashunal May 3, 2014 / 6:42 pm

            will do and you are welcomed… thanks for your support as well!

  6. Ruth Ann Nordin May 1, 2014 / 7:04 pm

    I’m not a fan of the strong female who can wear sexy clothes while beating up a man bigger than her. Lately, it seems the fad is that she can even beat up the hero if she wanted. I still like the idea of the hero protecting her. 🙂

    But I understand what you’re saying. You’re talking about inner strength that comes because of conflict in the story, and I love those types of character developments.

    To me, a strong character is one in which the reader can identify with. It’s a character who is so well written that the reader cries when the character cries, laughs when the character laughs, and feels all the other emotions the character does.

    I’m going to go back quite a few years, but I thought the Star Trek II movie had a great portrayal of Captain Kirk and Spock at the end where Spock is dying. You could see how close their friendship was by the way their facial expressions. To me, something that draws you in and makes you experience a part of the emotion is what excellent writing is all about.

    • rami ungar the writer May 1, 2014 / 7:29 pm

      You get it, Ruth. Depth of emotion and character are what make the characters strong. Physical strength has nothing to do with it. In one anime I watched, one character saw all this horror happening around her because her friends had decided to fight evil at the cost of being human. She didn’t lose hope and found a way to change that. To me, that was the greatest strength possible.

      And I love characters who embody that.

  7. williamkendall1 May 1, 2014 / 7:50 pm

    It’s an overused term, I think, in the dystopian and sci-fi side of things. I would probably define a strong character as more than just kick ass, but someone of strong character, obvious intelligence, and a depth of development as a person.

  8. giantblister May 16, 2014 / 10:03 am

    I am looking for a “how-to” article on Prologues. Is there an article in existence and could someone send me a link?

    • rami ungar the writer May 16, 2014 / 12:17 pm

      We don’t have any at this site at the moment, but there are a number of articles that do give some advice on the subject. A simple Google search turns up several good articles from a variety of websites.

      Good luck to you in the future.

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