Writing ‘Strong’ Characters

I’ve been writing creatively for most of my opinion-forming years, and I’ve just gotten brave enough to put my work out for people to see it in the past fifteen months. I’m (surprise) not a rich or famous author. I’m just a girl with a dream who puts the stuff she writes up on the internet for people to buy for a couple of bucks. I have no delusions of grandeur that my work is going to change the world. But that being said, that doesn’t mean that my voice doesn’t matter, or that I’m just going to write a bunch of pandering shit to make more sales. I’m not knocking romance or erotica here…those are my people! Yeah…love sells and sex sure as hell sells, and I hope it keeps selling, and not even because that’s the stuff I write…I want it to sell MORE because we NEED more love out there in the world and fiction is a great way to put it there…I’m not talking about sex and love though.
Ben Folds has this song called One Down with the lines,

“People tell me
Ben, just make up junk
And turn it in
But I never was alright with turning in
A bunch of shit…”

I put my heart and soul into my work and I’ve made some really deliberate choices to eliminate some tropes from my stories that bother me in the stories I read from other writers.

To the point (finally)…you know what ELSE sells?
Way MORE than love and sex put together?
I don’t use violence to make my characters ‘strong.’ I don’t use the USE of violence to make a character strong, and I don’t use the SUFFERING of violence to make a character strong.
Now, again…I’m not deluded. I know bad shit happens in life. Violence actually occurs. It’s real. I’m not saying it isn’t, and I’m not even saying I’ve never written violence into a story. I have. I’m also not shaming the use of violence as a necessary means at times, or even violence in media as catharsis. I get it. What bothers me though, is the use of violence to convey strength in fiction.

I don’t believe a character who can beat the shit out of somebody makes them stronger than a character who cannot. Physical strength isn’t the only kind of strength, and, in my opinion, it is rarely the most valuable kind of strength. Even characters who have physical strength in buckets…that’s not what makes them strong (at least not when I write them…I hope). What makes them strong is the wisdom and control and discernment of when and how to use their physical strength to *help other people.* Violence is a last resort for the strong. It’s not a display of their strength. In fact, at least in the characters I write, and the ones others have written that I admire, the dissolution into violence is viewed as an unfortunate obstacle or even a personal failure by a hero.

And the flip side of that is that I don’t believe surviving violence makes a character strong, either. I’m not saying characters (and I’m certainly not saying real, actual human beings) who have survived violence are not strong. I’m just saying that surviving the trauma isn’t what MADE them strong. The total opposite, in fact. Their strength…that they *already possessed* is why they survived the trauma. I don’t want my characters to appear strong because of how much shit they could take/have taken, particularly my women characters. Which is why I don’t plan to ever publish a heroine who’s been raped. Not because I don’t believe survivors are strong, or that I don’t feel like their stories should be told…on the contrary…they should be told…survivors are *amazingly, unbelievably* strong…but because their trauma isn’t what gave them strength, and I don’t believe that surviving trauma (particularly rape) should be a plot device to showcase a character’s strength (and especially not their desirability).

I know this next statement is controversial and maybe even mean and insulting, but it’s my honest opinion…it’s lazy writing and an insult to the intelligence and empathy of an audience if a story needs violence to get the audience invested in the belief that a character is strong and/or desirable (displaying violence or suffering violence). I won’t do it. If you’ve read my work, and you’ve seen me lean on violence to highlight a character’s strength or desirability, call me out on it. It won’t happen again. Shit, I might even write a prequel to somehow atone for it. If you didn’t believe they were smart, capable, formidable, committed, resilient, or attractive…if you didn’t believe they were a hero/heroine BEFORE they used or suffered violence or (more likely and more often) WITHOUT them using or suffering violence? I did a bad job as a writer.

Here’s another quote from a writer I admire (for now at least…hoping he doesn’t disappoint me like so many other male writers I admire have since the advent of the Me Too movement…who, at least in the work I’ve read of his, hasn’t used violence as a showcase of strength)…

“Without pain, how could we know joy?’
This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”
~John Green, from The Fault in Our Stars

My characters don’t have to cause suffering or suffer for you to know they are strong or attractive. They don’t have to cause suffering or suffer for them to know what joy is when they experience it (or for you to recognize their joy when you read about it).

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