Strong Characters Aren’t Always Strong

I hear a lot of talk in writers’ circles about ‘showing and not telling’, ‘finding your voice,’ and ‘strong characters.’ While all of these are worthy topics – and really, there’s many more subjects under the writing craft that has devolved into similar platitudes which have need of a concise but clear and tutelary exposition. But here, today, I’m going to write about ‘strong characters’, and the common misunderstandings of that phrase’s meaning.

In my own writing, I’ve received my fair share of compliments and criticisms. Sometimes my ornate, antiquated style is met with praise, and occasionally with exasperation at its turbidity. It has its flaws and its merits. Another, more relevant note I see often is on my ‘strong female character(s),’ or their ‘dark vitality.’

And I have to wonder whether these commentators (who are overwhelmingly female) are complimenting me on presenting a realistic, personable human individual, or because I made a woman character who doesn’t really act much like a woman.

The character in question is Countess Kyreleis von Gottschalk, a wicked, ruthless border lord; among her aliases are the Lady of Snakes, Maiden Tyrant, and Dragon of the North. She is a formidable military mind, a skilled rhetorician, and at heart, a deeply troubled soul. For all of her cynicism and her well-worded wisdom, she is painfully aware of her wickedness, and her spiritual struggle between her inner yearning for righteousness and her natural tendency towards villainy is the focus of my novel, Rest for the Wicked.

Now, why is she strong? Is she strong because she doesn’t take any lip from anyone? Is she strong because she’s proud to the point of sin, and relentless in pursuit of her goals? Is she seen as a strong woman because, at least in the works so far, I have not presented her as thinking about men and relationships?

In short, is she seen as strong because she is heavily masculinized? (which indeed she is) If so, these well-meaning compliments sadden me (though only mildly – great sadness must be reserved for great sorrows). When did aggression, authority and greed become equated with a strong character (literarily speaking)?

Perhaps they consider her strong because she possesses many traits of the archetypical ‘Big Bad Evil Guy’ whose persona dominates modern fantasy and science-fiction. She is charismatic, born into power but clearly proactive in expanding that power. She is irreverent (on the face at least) of divine authority, above common morality, and thoughtful enough to need to justify her depraved actions to herself.

I count myself fortunate to have never known a woman like Kyreleis. The lady in my life is kind, and gentle, funny, God-loving, servant-like, and self-sacrificing. She is humble, honest with herself and with others, calling me out of my sin as I call her out of hers. She is devoted and loyal – not to power, but to the God who saved us both. She has an inner strength far greater than Kyreleis’, who though she commands legions of men and lays waste to swathes of countryside, is wracked by weakness, guilt, an inner-emptiness that cannot be filled by any amount of pleasure, or glory, or intellectual ponderance.

A strong character can be many things, depending on the context – being in flesh, or in ink. Ultimately, in the realm of ink, a strong character is one who is as compelling in her weaknesses as inspiring in her strengths.

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