Guest Post: "Creating Strong Characters" by Tracy M. Joyce

January 08, 2017

Creating Strong Characters.

I was asked recently how I go about creating strong female characters.  The question took me aback, you see I don’t set out to create “strong female” characters – just diverse, believable characters of either sex.  (BTW I think characters should be “strong” regardless of gender and the term strong characters implies far more than their mere personality traits, but I’ll get to that…)

This question actually made me sit down and count the characters in my book. I had no idea how many women I’d included in Altaica and Asena Blessed.  The preponderance of female characters within my stories is most certainly due to the women around whom I grew up.  My mother was a woman capable of doing any of the farm work on our family farm that my father did, worked long hard hours and still found time for her children, despite her own exhaustion – super woman?  Yes, she was.  My grandmothers were both a huge influence on me too - their stories were far from easy and deserve their own novels.  My family is not unique.  These stories of strength, resilience, compassion and love are all around us and not just amongst women.

Let’s start talking about strong female characters? Well, what does that really mean?   Does it mean populating our writing only with female characters who are tough kick arse types?  No - of course not.  Yet too often I think the notion of strong female characters is seen only in this light.  Are these characters fun to write? You bet?  But you know what? They’d never reach the heights of popularity of characters like Katniss Everdeen, Rose Hathaway or Celaena Sardothien and Alanna of Trebond without having more substance to their characters than their astonishing combat skills.  What about characters like Hermione Granger, Scout, Hester Prynne, Jane Eyre, Anne Shirley?  (Yep I’m digging into the archives, but hey they’re all strong female characters!) 

In our current adoration of the warrior type, particularly in so much YA fiction (yes...I'm guilty), I worry that there is a risk of undervaluing for younger generations, however inadvertently, other roles for women in fiction and real life.  It’s clear why the action heroine is popular, but our female characters can also be doctors, lawyers, scientists, kick arse types and mothers.  (If you think mothers aren’t a tough bunch then think again.) 

My point is strong female characters, or rather strong characters in general, come in all shapes, sizes, physical abilities, races, ages, gay or straight.  They are diverse!  They are not one dimensional. And there is more to being strong than kicking arse.

Now did I write a kick arse character?  Yes several in fact – Isaura and Asha immediately come to mind. Are they just warriors?  No.  They are young women who, for all their confidence, have insecurities; who, for all their bravery, have stark fears.  Isaura has grown up as a refugee in her community and has been subjected to racism and treated with suspicion most of her life, yet she tries to rise above this.  Her whole life has been one of struggle, and yet she keeps going. She is absolutely “no angel” - she makes terrible mistakes and pays the price physically and mentally, yet she keeps fighting.  Asha is forcibly removed from her home at a young age to train with a religious order – a role she doesn’t want.  Unlike Isaura, she is valued and has special rank within her society, yet has no choice in the future before her.  Events she witnesses as a child have left her scarred and in the end she must face them with terrible consequences.

In my novels you’ll also find a loving mother, Lucia, with no martial skill yet who strives in the best way she can protect her family and a granny, whom my friend and fellow author, Kat Clay told me "breaks the mould".   For these characters, it is their personality traits that we initially see as strong – courage, resilience, loyalty and love.  Looking at these traits you could think, “Well,yes of course! They’re brave we all love bravery.  That goes without saying.”  BUT here’s the thing: without portraying their weaknesses and their fears they would not be perceived as believable and strong in either a literary or psychological sense.

So what if a character is portrayed as being weak or not psychologically strong? That does that make them a weak a literary sense?  Of course not!  Another of my characters is a woman who suffers from mental health issues and whose treatment by those around her has only worsened her condition. She can be spiteful, neurotic, jealous, anxious and protective of her family whom she loves deeply.  Her story is complex and she is battling daily against internal demons not of her making.  (In a way her continued battle makes her strong despite her mental fragility.  Like the others she keeps trying, even though her view of reality is warped.) 

All these characters are different, but they all have complex backstories that have shaped and haunt them, they’re fallible. They face daunting challenges, some succeed and others fail, but they’re all “strong”.

Their real strength lies not merely in their personalities, but in how we write them.  It lies in their literary construction.  You want your readers to feel what your characters feel; you want them to laugh and cry with your characters; you want the characters and their story to capture their hearts and not let go.  Their strength and that of your story lies in the diversity and complexity of their creation which in turn leads to believability. 
About now you’re probably thinking, “Well that’s just marvellous, but how do we it?”

Let's drop the “strong” female characters tag.  Just think about strong characters of EITHER gender. The same rules apply:

Remember: The real world is not a homogenous society – nor should the world you build, or the characters you create, be.

So what do you consider when you create strong characters? Where do you start?

  • Look around you.  You’ll see people from all walks of life, all races and various socio economic statuses. Watch how people around you behave – how they react.  Be observant and be discreet. (Don’t freak people out and get a restraining order taken out against you!)
  •  Avoid Stereotypes, or turn them on their head
  • Diversity – on the simplest level in terms of looks, think also race, religion, politics, psychology, sexuality, physical ability, psychology, physically
  • Vulnerability
  • Flaws – psychologically and physically.
  • Disabilities? (Don’t be afraid to write a disabled character, just do your research well!)
  • Courage / lack of it
  • Insecurities / confidence
  • Backstory – happy? Traumatic? Influence on  developmental psychology; world view
  • Reactions – show don’t tell (BTW I hate this phrase.) Specific mannerisms.   
  • Nuances, ticks,
  • Realistic dialogue – (read it aloud! It will help)
  • Motivations.
  • Character growth.  (Character growth doesn’t always have to happen in a story, some characters can remain static and simply enact the adventure that is your book, However having them grow, learn and change can make for a more interesting story.)
  • Mental health issues

Now that I’ve given you this lovely little list and my ramblings, I’m going to add one other thing that I think can lead to difficulties, particularly for the beginning writer.  The above list implies planning – some of which is always good.  However, I’ve seen writers spend so much time planning their character profiles and writing screeds about them, that they neglect to start their story; or their character construct then becomes immutable and they loose flexibility in their writing because of it. 

The one thing you should remember is that a character you create should be strong

REGARDLESS of gender.

A little about Tracy...

Tracy writes epic fantasy for teens through to adults.  Her  stories are gritty, a little dark and morality is like quicksand.  You won’t find any unicorns or fairies here…

Although her stories include romantic elements, they are not romance driven novels. Do not buy these books if you’re after a fairytale….

Consider this a warning: Expect kickass heroines, battles (big ones, small ones - let’s face it, if she’d put gunpowder in this world then there’d be explosions too!)  gore, political scheming, horses, archery and a touch of magic, but NO fairies, elves, pixies, orcs and definitely NO unicorns.  (Unless, of course, its a combat trained unicorn with stealth capabilities …. then…maybe…)

A huge thanks to Tracy for sharing her thoughts on creating strong characters! For those aspiring authors reading this right now, stop reading and get writing!

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