Hello friends! This post started out as something completely different – a version of which I’m still most likely going to post one of these days – but it turned into a discussion about strong characters. More particularly, I’m going to be talking about what makes a character strong in my eyes. By strong, I’m not referring to how well-written a character is, rather to if they’re a strong person, or not. With that in mind, let’s jump into this discussion!
First of all, I believe many of us will agree that strength doesn’t mean just physical strength, and there are all kinds of shades to being strong. With that being said, what qualities we associate with strong characters can differ greatly from person to person. As a reader who focuses on character development and on the relationship between the cast, I love it when characters are emotionally mature/strong and when they are able to support each other emotionally. These qualities are especially important if a novel has a found family, aka one of my favorite tropes. In the case of found families, romantic relationships, or friendships I want to see the characters interact and be there for each other. In a way, the strength they give to each other is what makes them exceptionally strong characters in my eyes.
This is one of the reasons why I love The Old Guard. The characters are undoubtedly badass; after all, they’re a well-trained group of immortal mercenaries. In other words, they’re physically strong, which is cool/necessary in an action movie, but what makes them memorable is how much they care about each other. Their support/love for each other is palpable, and I particularly adored how they tried to give the same support to Nile, the newcomer. For me, characters who go out of their way to be kind and caring are much stronger than those who are constantly tearing each other down.
In terms of making decisions, I see a lot of strength in characters who are forced to make difficult choices and are able to make them, which leads us to intellectual strength. If we look at a novel like Grave Mercy, we have another example of highly trained individuals. However, I would argue that Ismae and Duval are strong (and interesting) not because of their physical strength, rather because of their scheming and plotting. On a side note, they also register as strong people to me because of their unshakable loyalty.
The characters I’ve listed so far can be considered “good” even if they have some morally gray traits. That said, in my opinion, truly morally gray and even villainous characters can be considered strong, and not just physically. Rin in The Poppy War makes some questionable decisions and yet, I consider her a strong character. She is physically powerful, not to mention her shamanic powers, but more than that she has persevered in the fact of hatred and discrimination and she has the kind of agency that is admirable. As readers, we can see that Rin is making the wrong choices, but I don’t think that takes away from her strength, especially because these decisions make sense for her character arc.
While physical strength is never going to be the primary type of strength I look for in a character, it is frequently an indispensable part of fantasy novels, and it can be portrayed well. For a positive example, let’s go back to The Poppy War! I believe that Rin’s fighting abilities are well-written and her journey to gaining her physical strength is inspirational. Firstly, we see how she learns and struggles on her way to becoming a powerful soldier; her journey feels realistic. Secondly, we see her fight; her strength is not simply told to us, it is actually shown to us.
ON A FINAL NOTE
I feel like this discussion is not as polished as I wanted it to be, which is probably because thinking about what makes someone strong has sent me down a rabbit hole of ideas. There are so many things that can make a person/character strong, and I’m fairly certain I’m only just scratching the surface here. Even so, I think we can conclude that it’s always the emotional strength of characters that I love the most. I firmly believe that being kind is not always easy, which is part of the reason why I like softer characters, and I especially like when these softer characters show how capable they are. (For those who’re wondering, I’m thinking of Martin from The Magnus Archives, because of course I am.)
This is such a big topic.. and it was originally supposed to be one tiny point of whole post if you can believe that. 😅 Not sure if I did it justice, but either way, I’d love to hear what you, so-
What do you think makes a character strong? Do you care the most about a character’s physical, emotional, or intellectual strength? Or something else? Who are you favorite “strong” characters?