What is Strength?
Now I can really roll my sleeves up, because I have this thing about “strong women”. Oh dear lord, yes. In fairness, I have a thing about “strong” people – strong women may be a more talked about concept, but “strong” men – or the idea about what makes a “strong” male character is actually just as contentious. It’s not all about the armour, folks.
I really appreciate the work of these guys, One Mile In My Shoes, a charity working to end the stigma against mental illness one story at a time. The title that caught my eye in my Newsfeed was “… if I have PTSD then how can I be strong?”
It was Emily’s story, and it’s very challenging. But it was that initial question itself which resonated with me. “… If I am x, or have y, how can I be strong?” This is what we ask ourselves, as if “strong” people are perfect, flawless, and have no scars. I know from experience that when you are at your weakest, and someone says to you, “You’re the strongest person I know”, it makes no sense to you. My own response was to shut down. I was like, “What the hell do you mean? Is it because I still get up in the morning and I’m dressed? Is it because I seem to be able to buy my own food? Is it because I look like everything’s normal? Because it isn’t. And it is not fine. And this is the weakest and most impotent and most helpless I have ever felt.” But I’d just say nothing. With hindsight, I can say that now I really am fine, I know that I am a strong person. You can be strongest in weakness – it’s in the getting to the other side that you’re tested, and while other people can’t see that you’re in your own private hell, feeling thin and stretched and useless, when you make it to the other side there is somehow more of you than before – or more to you than before. At any rate, you’re never the same. So what impact does this knowledge have when you come to write “strong” characters?
Now, the concept of writing “strong” women cropped up in my Twitterfeed the other day, and I knew exactly what I wanted to discuss next, so I was pleased that this fitted into the next zodiac sign I was given to inspire my topic. A lot of people want their “strong” characters to demonstrate strength by kicking ass and taking names. That’s fine – that’s a form of strength. I used #WhatIsStrength on twitter, and found a load of fitness tweets and gym-related articles. That’s another form of strength. These are both very valid. So I wondered what other people thought strength was.
Here are some of the answers (there’s obviously no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to this, it’s just a word association game and all answers will be personal and relevant to that person’s understanding and conceptualizing of that attribute).
FRIENDS / FAMILY / MYSELF – Lisa Gillis, author of the rock star romance novels in the G-String and D-String series
INDEPENDENCE / STEEL / INNER – Natasha Rowlin, author of the moving short story “The Cello Room”
POWER / FREEDOM / AUTONOMY – Kara Jorgenson, author of The Earl of Brass
[Overcoming]HARDSHIP / INTELLIGENCE / MUSCULAR – Nikki Gantt
RESILIENT / WILLPOWER / UNYIELDING – Alex Rosa, author of Tryst and Emotionally Compromised
PASSION / STEADFASTNESS / DETERMINATION – Emerald Delmara, author of fantasy short story “Eternal Dreams”
IRONCLAD / WILLFUL / COMMITTED – Kim Fry, President of Kace Tripp Publishing and author of Jumper 27 and short stories “Dead Girl Walking” and “Bone Music”
COMMITMENT / INTELLIGENCE / CARING – Mel Favereux, author of the Sanctuary series
GRACE / RESILIENCE / HUMOUR – David Jon Fuller, copy editor and author of several short stories including “The Harsh Light of Morning” and “A Deeper Echo”
MOTHER / FRIEND / SISTER – Donna Sharples
RESILIENCY / DEPENDABILITY / POWER[To Change] – Pratik Khuthia
COMPELLING / INTENSE / PASSIONATE – Laura Perry, freelance editor and author of fiction and Pagan/Wiccan non-fiction titles
My three words are: DETERMINATION / GRIT / VULNERABILITY.
Strength can come in many forms. I’m not trying to present answers – just ideas.
… A lot more than the sum of its representations.
Think about your own personal view of a “strong character”. Write down how you define “strong”, and the things that you believe give a character strength. Now think about this:
Can you have a “strong character” with schizophrenia?
Can you have a “strong character” with multiple personalities?
Can you have a “strong character” who has no idea how to physically defend themselves and never does – because they won’t, or can’t?
Can you have a “strong character” with Dissassociative Identity Disorder?
Can you have a “strong character” with Downs Syndrome?
Can you have a “strong character” with learning difficulties?
Can you have a “strong character” who is just not that clever or quick-witted?
Can you have a “strong character” who is asexual?
Consider what you’ve got on paper. I find reflective exercises after the writing stage sometimes help the process, too.
How comfortable are you with “strong characters” who are also protagonists, but have religious convictions you are not familiar with, or don’t personally accept? Can you have a “strong character” who is passionate, intelligent and determined, but also has strong, deep and genuine religious convictions – somewhat out of fashion in fiction, perhaps, unless we’re talking Historical Fiction? (Even then, I’ve noticed that the “outsiders” or “rebels” in various HistFic periods are usually always atheists, with atheism as a mark of their rebellious, ‘strong’ personality. That’s fine and often works really well, but it can feel as if there are other stories left untold, and whole new sets of conflicts left unexplored… and sometimes, at worst, just comes off as a lazy trope applied because the author wanted to write a “strong character”.)
Or, how about this:
I find things like this interesting because I get to think about other perspectives and really get to grips with ‘lazy thinking’. Why do I think the way I do? What assumptions do I have about people, and how do my real-life assumptions impact the way I represent my characters?
Who decides that some stories are worth telling while others are not, and who casts people in the roles they play? Is it you as the writer, or are you unconsciously reproducing a trope or type that fits a socially accepted image of strength, which perhaps you have never had cause to question? (I’ve done that. I need to think more about the people I write, no question. There’s no judgement here.)
Yes, of course you can write a two-dimensional or even one-dimensional character on purpose, if that’s what you require and it works. This isn’t about censorship or judgement of good writing. It’s just me sat here behind a laptop, thinking aloud into cyberspace, and wondering what the hell “strong characters” even are. And why they aren’t also something else.