Hello, dear readers, and welcome!
Today I am taking a break from my break, and bringing you a new blog post! Taking a break has been a great thing for me, and has really helped me in many ways, but now I'm back for some posting.
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So, let's talk about "strong" characters, shall we? Please don't groan; I know it's a topic that has been beat until it's dead, and then brought back to life again repeatedly. I know I've talked about it before, but I've been thinking about it--
Mainly because I'm starting to see a shift (thank God!) in books, particularly in YA and MG, which is what I usually read, towards different types of strong characters.
Now, notice I didn't use "strong" this time, but strong. These are two different flavors of strong, two different ideals. And though I am beginning to notice differences in the industry, they are small...but small things lead to big things, and for that I am happy.
So, what is a "strong" character. For many years now it seems like the definition of "strong" has been "grab a weapon, kick butt, take names", and that has never sat well with me, and mainly because that doesn't encompass enough types of people. Am I saying there is anything wrong with this type of character (so long as they have depth; we'll talk about that below)? No. Somebody (unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) has to take up the sword (or bow, or gun, for recent trends) and fight the good fight with fists and physicality. This type of person (or character) is part of the world, and is necessary and needed. But this isn't the only type of strong there is, and literature has taken a while to (re)learn that.
Are there physically strong, combat ready characters that I like? Of course. I really love comics and superheroes (and heroines), I'm a fan of fantasy, I like gothic horror, and I'm a big lover of anime and manga series in most genres. But when I look in the mirror, this "take up arms and get gritty" type of strong definitely isn't what I see -- but I don't see weakness, either.
We read books to explore, to learn, and to reflect. And as much as we love reading about characters we wish we could be, we also love reading about characters like us -- maybe in a better or worse situation, maybe in a different era, maybe more mature than we are, but still people like us. It's been very difficult recently to find anyone "like me" in a book, and that can be frustrating.
Would I love to be able to shoot a bow like Katniss? Sure, but I've never liked her very much (I preferred her in the film, but still -- choose a guy already! You're wasting everyone's time! P.S., authors: I can't stand love triangles). I'd prefer to re-read Pride and Prejudice again, because out of the two, I'm much, much more like Elizabeth. And while I like to be put into another person's shoes, starting a revolution -- which, in this case, is mostly about physical fighting -- isn't really my cup of tea.
Where are the characters who use their minds as their strength? Or, my other favorite, their hearts? Or the characters who willfully work through their struggles, who learn to cope and overcome their disabilities, who take the world and change it by using kindness, or ingenuity, or one smile after the other? What about the characters who can't pick up a bow and shoot, and run, and fight with their fists? How do they make a difference?
One of my favorite films so far this year was Disney's Cinderella -- love it or hate it, but I liked it; I've always been a fan of the fairy tale, though I prefer some versions over others. It had flaws, of course, and there were things I wish they had changed/excluded/included/etc., but overall I enjoyed it. One of the main reasons was that Cinderella wasn't busting out guns and shooting her problems away -- which really wouldn't have worked for her, to be honest. The world tried to take her spirit away, and she didn't let it, even when she thought her dreams would never come true -- and how many of us have been, or are in, that situation? We all know what it's like to feel hopeless, to feel like our desires will never be fulfilled, to want to give up -- and we all want to say no, down deep inside, that fighting to keep our dreams and our true selves alive is important, even if things don't turn out as we want. That's a strength I can get behind as much as I can get behind the superheroes saving the world, because it's another facet of what it means to be strong.
Another favorite of mine will, of course, always be Sherlock Holmes. I go to him whenever I want to be reminded of how important it is to think, and this strength of his -- the power of the mind -- is something we are seeing more of, though of course I wish it were a bit more popular outside of the iconic detective himself.
There are many types of strength, and I think they should be explored, and we as writers are some of the best people to explore them. Stories speak to others, and I think that is one of the most beautiful things about them -- and by getting into the trenches, so to speak, as a writer, we can speak to people even more, rather than just entertaining them.
By slapping on a suit, and giving someone a weapon, the creator does not automatically make them strong, either -- which I think is something that has been forgotten to an extent. One of my favorite examples of this can be found in the first Avengers film, when Captain America, who I definitely consider to be a strong character, both physically, and in will, says to Tony Stark: "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, and what are you?" Tony comes back with the supposedly witty line of: "Genius. Playboy. Philanthropist." but Cap drives his point home when he says: "I know guys with none of that worth ten of you...the only thing you really fight for is yourself." Some people argue that Tony's insistence that "everything special about Cap came from a bottle" owns the argument, but I disagree, because we know what Steve always did his best, and had a strong will (inner strength) far before he received the muscles to go with it, and that even when he was unable to physically, he wanted to help others and fight (why he agreed to the serum in the first place). One of the reasons I liked the first Avengers was that we see a turning point in Tony Stark -- he becomes truly strong, more so than before, when he makes the sacrifice; facing the odds and thinking of others made him more than just a man in a suit who was trying to mesh his old self with his new, and showed even more progress in the character.
The "strongest" person is an empty shell without dilemmas, without fears and worries and loves, without humanity. Actually, Iron Man is a great example of that -- take Tony out of the suit, and it is just a suit, just a weapon, but put him inside and it's an extension of a person, someone who fights with right and wrong both outwardly and inwardly, who makes decisions and grows. Whatever we outfit our characters with -- weapons, intelligence, an open heart, a fierce determination to change the world, a quiet kindness, love and sacrifice -- without their humanity, their struggles, they are little more than a machine.
I've seen too many of those characters -- strong physically, or mentally, or otherwise, but with no real sense of conflict, dilemma, change. Their biggest choice may be to say yes or no, may be to choose a romance, may be to take a job -- but what about the bigger issues, the moral dilemmas, the strength of will, the trials, the philosophies? (And, Mr. Hawking, I respect you fully, but it is not dead.) If there isn't depth to your character, then they cannot be truly strong in any form, because there is depth to every human, and in order to reflect our different strengths, there must be depth within characters as well.
And let me be clear: I don't believe that this faulty "strong" character, of whatever flavor they may be, is limited to one type of character, or one gender, or one genre. The physically strong character has been the most popular in recent years, and as a person who is so far removed from that, it irritates me the most, but this isn't the only "strong" character type that has been upsetting. And it isn't only male or female characters who have suffered from this trope -- while people who are disabled, or of a different sexuality, or are religious, or who are somewhere in between, get left out altogether. I spoke before about the disturbing (I feel) trend I have noticed in books where the character is disabled in some way, or has an illness, and then is transported (be it by magic or something else) to another world, and suddenly they are "powerful", and their "problem" is gone -- what a horrible message, that being different makes you "wrong", and you have to lose your disability or illness to be "normal" or "strong", which is the opposite of true! For more on that, see my post: The Importance Of Characters With Disabilities.
Strength can be found in many places, in many forms, and it is beginning to seep (slowly) back into literature, and I am glad. But we as writers hold the possibilities in our hands -- pens, typewriters, keypads, Siri, and keyboards -- and so we should make the most of it, and make change for the better.
What type of strong character would you like to see, and what are some ways different strengths can be implemented?