archived, Zodiac Theme

The Zodiac Posts – TAURUS [1] What Is Strength?

 

What is Strength?

I have to say, I’m enjoying the challenge of coming up with blog posts inspired by zodiac traits. It’s a lot of fun looking at the prompt options for each sign, and gives me a lot more scope than I imagined! it’s also much better than having to come up with new topics completely unprompted. I’m quite bad at that.
After our dynamic action interviews inspired by Aries, we come to Taurus – and “strength” is the obvious thing that comes to mind here.

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?

 

This links in with my earlier post on representations of mental health in fiction, and why more antagonists have mental health issues than protagonists. I then interviewed author Maya Starling on her work in progress, working title Vengeance Upturned, and its main character Etta. I wondered how many protagonists were out there, grappling with various personal issues. Most of them seem to be detectives, driven by their own demons to solve crimes and combat the darker side of human nature. Either that, or they take up arms against injustice and evil, and live ambiguous lives of heroism on the margins of society. “Noir” is a thriving, rich sub-genre, applicable to most things. I wonder if there’s a Romance Noir out there somewhere, waiting for me to discover it like a hidden box of Black Magic chocolates. (Anyone else remember those? Christmas tradition in our house…)
I asked: can you be considered a protagonist, or even a straight hero, if you also have schizophrenia? How many schizophrenic heroes are there in fiction? How many of them are main characters, not secondary characters? (I’m using “hero” gender neutrally here. At least, that’s the intention).
What about a romantic lead with Aspergers, hoping to meet the boy/girl of their dreams?
Can someone suffering an ongoing battle with depression – and never actually wins, but learns to deal with it rather than overcoming it completely (in itself a kind of victory) – be a protagonist, a hero, a main character, in something other than a detective role or a story ABOUT depression? (Re)-imagine the story of Snow White, where the story is exactly the same in all respects, but in which Snow is exactly this kind of character.
Would ‘Cinder’ Ella still be a classic heroine if she had depression, or was an alcoholic, or addicted to prescription painkillers? Or if she had a physical disability, perhaps, or learning difficulties? Could she be the heroine and get the prince and have every part of the story remain exactly the same if she happened to have Downs Syndrome?
I hope you see where I’m going with this…

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.

 

I asked people on Facebook and Twitter to tell me what three words instantly came to mind when they saw the words “STRONG”/”STRENGTH”.

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.

#WhatIsStrength?

… A lot more than the sum of its representations.
WRITING CHALLENGE:

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” who is willing to be vulnerable?
Can you have a “strong character” who is having therapy?
Can you have a “strong character” who is unapologetically sensitive and emotional?
Can you have a “strong character” with depression?

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?

… Ok.

Consider what you’ve got on paper. I find reflective exercises after the writing stage sometimes help the process, too.

For example:

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:

 

 

Do characters need to be active in order to be “strong” – what about passive characters? Is there strength in passivity? (What about passive forms of resistance, like the villagers of Kanthapura? What about pacifists or conscientious objectors? Are they the ‘cowards’ of official contemporary WWI / WWII narrative, or are they strong, too? What about characters who refuse to take revenge? Those who would rather face the consequences of their non-action than undertake something against their conscience?)

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.

In the end, perhaps “strength” and how we view it comes down to how we see empowerment as a culture. Strength can be seen when the swords are dropped, not when they are drawn. Strength can be found in the granting of second chances and the showing of mercy, not in revenge and justice. Strength can be found in laughing at yourself. Strength can be found in shouldering responsibility and sacrificing adventure to do so. Strength can be found in the willingness to change, as well as the determination to stay the course.
#WhatIsStrength?

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