People often talk about the importance of strong characters in books. Fictional women, in particular, seem to be assessed on some kind of imaginary scale – the phrase 'strong female lead' gets thrown around like a balloon at a birthday party. But in my opinion, there are a host of common misconceptions as to what actually constitutes strength. Today I'm going to talk about a few of them and why they're nonsense.
1. Strength equates to physical strength (or some other talent).
Again, this particularly seems to be applied to female characters. Some people appear to believe that a strong woman ought to be able to wield a broadsword with the best of them. And indeed, a female warrior can be a strong character just as much as a male warrior can. But she won't be strong because of her fighting ability. Any character, male or female, is strong despite his/her physical attributes, not because of them.
We fantasy writers are prone to loading our characters with rather unrealistic talents – whether those are perfect swordplay, skills in magic or an ability to see in the dark. I guess that's because the situations we put our characters into are correspondingly extreme compared to real life. But those talents don't define the character. Strength comes not from what we have, but from what we choose to do with it.
2. Strength means never being afraid, upset or otherwise emotionally vulnerable.
Maybe this is a cultural thing – and I guess this one gets applied more to men. (Sexist, I know, but we'll talk about that another time.) There's a perception that fear is weakness. That crying should be avoided at all costs. That grief is something to gloss over and move on from as quickly as possible.
In answer, I would simply say: it takes more strength to overcome your fear than never to feel any. The character who is not emotionally vulnerable is not human. Strength lies in feeling the vast range of emotions that life has to offer, but finding the courage to do what has to be done anyway.
3. Strength means always doing the right thing.
This is a tricky one. I'd love it if my characters always did the right thing, for the sake of their peace of mind if nothing else. But, of course, that's not what people are like. People are messy. They act for all sorts of reasons. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, they get it wrong.
Again, it comes down to the same principle: there is more strength in failing, and being knocked down to your lowest point, and getting up and trying again, than there is in succeeding first time at everything. A strong character, for me, is one who has the weaknesses and frailties we all have – but despite that, keeps on trying and learning and changing. That's the kind of strength I'd like to have, and that's the kind of strength that interests me in fiction.