Monday, May 15, 2017

Strong Characters: Acting and Not Acted Upon

Hello, all!

I hope you're having a good week. First things first, I want to remind you that my Goodreads giveaway for Under Locker and Key is running one more week, so if you haven't entered and want to, then you still can. You should! Who doesn't like free stuff? Use the widget below to enter.



Goodreads Book Giveaway

Under Locker and Key by Allison K. Hymas

Under Locker and Key

by Allison K. Hymas

Giveaway ends May 21, 2017.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway
Anyway, on to the blog post! I decided to revisit an idea I've batted around before: what defines a character as "strong"? As "weak"?

I think this is important for writers and readers to determine, since we all want our heroes to be strong (unless otherwise desired, which can make for an interesting book), or at the very least, we don't want people calling our characters weak when we didn't want them to be.

Personally, I think it's important so we can see through cheap gimmicks that make a character seem strong without actually doing it, much like how a logical fallacy can make an argument seem valid when it doesn't actually do anything of the kind.

Now, a logical fallacy doesn't mean the argument itself isn't strong; it just means that it can take a weak argument and make it seem strong. Same with gimmicks, like the following:

- The character is good at fighting and using weapons.
- The character is a surly loner.
- The character is stubborn as all get out.

These things can be part of a strong character's make-up, but weak characters can be like this, too. We as society seem to think that someone who resembles Katniss from The Hunger Games is automatically a strong character.


If Katniss is a strong character, it's not because she can use a bow, doesn't get along with anyone, and doesn't give up on what she wants.

No, I'd say she's strong because she acts and isn't acted upon.

In The Hunger Games (the first book), Katniss makes her own choices. Yes, she's pushed around a bit by the society she lives in, but her choice to volunteer is hers and hers alone. She doesn't succumb to what others want but chooses and acts in her own way.

In later books, I think she starts to weaken as a character, leaving other characters to define her and her story (Catching Fire, anyone?). But at first, I think the draw to her isn't that she's good with weapons but because she acts and is not acted upon.

One thing that bugs me more than anything is when a character is presented to me as "strong" because he/she (more and more "she," lately) fits some kind of societal value, but is still acted upon instead of acting. Take Elsa from Frozen, for example.

Can you tell me one thing she does that isn't a passive reaction?

Elsa lives in hiding all her life because her parents wanted her to. She conceals her power and her feelings, even from her sister. Then, at her coronation party, she accidentally reveals her power. This is not done on purpose; it's a reaction to her sister taking her glove and yelling at her.

When the people around her are frightened by her powers, instead of dealing with the situation like a queen should, she runs away. She reacts and is acted upon. Even later, when Anna tells her that she's set off an eternal winter, Elsa doesn't do anything to fix it. She lashes out at Anna, again accidentally, and continues to hide. The only reason she goes back to Arendelle is because she is literally carried back there by someone else.


Elsa doesn't act for herself. She reacts. She's acted upon through the whole movie. Anna is the one who acts for herself, choosing to go out and find her sister. She acts by deciding to marry a man she just met. It's a terrible idea, but she at least takes action and makes her own decisions. Elsa doesn't.

I'm not saying Elsa is a bad character or that Frozen is a bad movie. There's room for strong and weak characters in fiction because that's realistic. A character rules by fear and reacting to everything is interesting in the context of the story.

But I disagree with Elsa being considered strong because she sings a song about liberation (when she's running away from all her problems and responsibilities) and looks like this:


And Cinderella is considered weak because she does housework and is kind. Cinderella does everything she can to go to the ball. She does her work and makes her dress. She doesn't run away from her problems but faces them head-on. She doesn't wait for her prince, but goes and finds him. Her only help comes when she has already done all she can for herself.





Seriously. Look who's the one who saves the day at the end in Cinderella, when the slipper is broken and all hope seems lost. It sure as heck wasn't the prince.


The more I read and watch movies, the more I realize that a strong character is someone who takes charge of their own life to the best extent that they can. They may not always succeed, but they at least try. A weak character lets others run their lives and/or only react, never act. I used female characters for this list, but you can apply it to others, for sure.

Draco Malfoy, for example. A weak character. Dobby, on the other hand, definitely takes the initiative.

If you have any thoughts about my theory that how a character acts or is acted upon decides if they're strong or weak, let me know in the comments. This is a complex writerly issue and I keep trying to get to the heart of it and explore other dimensions of character development.

Here are this week's debuts:

Young Adult:
Cale Dietrich - The Love Interest (5/16)
Melanie J. Fishbane - Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery (5/16)
Kate Watson - Seeking Mansfield (5/16)

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