[Disclaimer: There are many things that go into making a well written and strong character such as practice and understanding basic human psychology, but those are not things I feel qualified to talk about. I guess you could make the argument that I’m not qualified to really talk about any of this. These are my feelings and opinions on what I think is one of the most overlooked aspects of character creation.]
So often do we hear talk of strong female characters, how there are so few, and why so few people can write them effectively. This is definitely a major problem, not just with women but with men, in that characters that are supposed to be viewed as strong willed simply aren’t, and that’s because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a strong character.
Typically, when you think of a strong character, you think physically: They can hold their own in sticky situations, they think on their feet, they don’t need to be saved, and they can stick up for themselves. These are important factors, yes, but these are not the traits that make a character strong. A strong character requires one simple thing: a flaw.
First, before I go any further, I should explain what I mean by a flaw. A flaw is just a negative quality of character. Something like being a compulsive liar, untrustworthy or untrusting, a kleptomaniac, and so on; these are all flaws of character. Strong characters need a flaw to hold them back. But why? How does having a flaw that holds them back, make a character strong? It’s because it makes them real and more relatable. So often do we hear professional authors or screenplay writers talk about how they just write “Real people,” and I think that is the biggest cop-out answer. That’s on par with saying “I just do.”
Saying, “I write real people,” is such a vague term and it’s hard to know what it means unless you already know the answer. Amateur writers hear the term real people get thrown around and decide to use people they see in everyday life as examples, but so often do we forget to include those same peoples’ flaws. We don’t want to see the wrong in someone we care about, so we so often leave it out and that in turn creates unrealistic, and thusly, weak characters; the exact opposite we were going to create in the first place.
But why do I keep saying a flaw is so important? If the word flaw isn’t working for you, instead use the weakness: A strong character needs a weakness. Now how does that make any sense? A strong character can’t be weak. Well, actually they can be. You see, the reason a character needs a flaw in the first place is so they can overcome it and become stronger than they were before. This is the critical misunderstanding that so few people realize they are missing.
If you want an example of who I think is a strong female character, I’m going with one of my personal favorites: Emma Swan from the ABC series Once Upon a Time. Emma starts out as a loner who has a hard time trusting people after she’s been betrayed so much. She’s been abandoned on numerous occasions, even by the ones she thought
loved her most, and as a result it gave her a hard exterior that made it tough for her to trust others. She overcomes this little by little as the series progresses, but it’s always something lingering in her mind. She even has a hard time saying I love you to the man she loves and only really does it when she’s not sure if she’ll ever see him again. She undergoes a massive arc throughout the series and we get to see her overcome that flaw that had been haunting her ever since the beginning. Not only that, but she can hold her own, is independent, can think on her feet, and as far as I can remember never needs to be saved. In fact, she tends to be the one that does all the saving.
If you want another example of a strong character; Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is arguably the greatest character in literary history and I won’t be able to do him justice, but hear me out. Atticus is a single father, raising two children, as well as being a lawyer tasked with the heavy work of defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Atticus has an immense amount of pressure on his shoulders, but he does what he knows is morally right. Now, how is this different from what I was talking about earlier? It doesn’t sound like Atticus has any major flaws with him. It’s true that he doesn’t have an obvious flaw like Emma, but his requires a bit of critical thinking. Atticus isn’t strong because he overcomes his weaknesses in the face of adversary; it’s because he fails despite doing his best, but keeps his head held high. When Atticus fails, he doesn’t just give up; he knows that he has to set an example for his children and for the community and that’s exactly what makes him a strong character. A strong character doesn’t always have to win, and sometimes how they act after the defeat is their true test of strength, but that’s a lesson for another time.
In the end, there are many things that go into making a strong character. Look at any character commonly viewed as a strong character, and I guarantee you that they’ll have a flaw. Superman, Batman, the aforementioned Atticus Finch? All of these characters have flaws and only by overcoming them is how they truly become strong. So when you’re creating your characters, think long and hard about what weaknesses they have and how they’ll overcome those obstacles. How do those flaws impede their journey and what is their low point. Only after finding that out can you truly develop your character and make them strong like you want.