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  1. #1
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    Weak v. Strong Protagonists

    I was considering the lineup of my WIP characters and their weaknesses and limitations and it really got me thinking about characters. Among characters there seems to me to generally be two types: the capable and the not (which includes characters learning to be capable). They really form an interesting contrast, and the lines between them are frequently blurred.

    The Capable: these are characters that start the book with some ability to resist the antagonist. They may be outgunned, or lacking crucial knowledge, or handicapped in some other way, but fundamentally the reader is meant to know that this character is in the fight. Harry Dresden of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files is an excellent example. Harry isn't the most skilled or the most powerful wizard, but he is not one to be dismissed. Through the series he changes, grows, and learns, but he has a base level of...competency and power. Another example is Kaladin, of Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight archive. Bad crap happens to him, but his aura of dangerous skill and intelligence is established in the first few pages and never truly leaves. Again, throughout the (first two books for right now) Kaladin's skill and power increase. An excellent example is Haplo from Weis and Hickman's Death Gate Cycle. one of the major points of the series is that Haplo is extremely deadly, powerful, and competent beyond the means of most of the sub-character's understanding.

    The Not Capable: These are characters that are weak. Given that many characters are eventually trained to be the equal of their task, this is rather difficult, but these are characters that are often overwhelmed and powerless to resist. I put FitzChivalry Farseer, from Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy in here, as his bravery, loyalty, and intelligence are far more evident than skill with weapons or at manipulating situations. Fitz is often left reacting or reeling from a situation done to him. (Note: I like this char and it is a great series of books, but maybe a bit too brilliant at making me groan and feel bad). Another in this category is Rand Al'Thor from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Rand begins as a shepard, and is catapulted along a journey of learning and adapting. He becomes capable by the end, but for much of the series, he is barely able to stay alive and his competency is usually behind that of more capable adversaries.


    Delineating such broad categories is difficult, and frequently arbitrary, but the general two classes of character seem to be an important distinction with wide ranging ramification. and when dealing with non physical or magical ssues it gets really messy ((emotional readiness, sacrifice, ect) one could argue that it was Fitz's personality and character rather than his capabilities brought him victory...as I said: complicated) As I have seven distinct protagonists in my WIP, this is an issue I wrestle with. "Are my characters too capable?" "Do I need more than one weak character?"

    I figured I would write this out and see what you gals and gents had to say on the issue.

  2. #2
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    I think our stories should be filled with a multitude of characters. Using your terms, there should be those who start Strong and keep getting stronger. And there should be those who start Weak and are in need of training. Perhaps you will even have characters who are Strong, at the very top of their game, but might not have the physical capability to do what needs to be done and, therefore, have to guide and rely upon those Weak characters who are in training to do what is needed.

    Was that what you were wondering?

  3. #3
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    I have characters scattered all over the spectrum, but they all tend to be capable (some of them have massive issues but base capability is there). I am just wondering what people's thought are, Redmage. In your pirate book (being circumspect) you and Jason establish the competency of your protagonist aggressively. In fact that was one of the most prominent things I took away from the first few chapters: intelligence and competence. Even though we (the reader) knew she had a lot to learn and a long ways to go.

    What do you guys and gals think about this? Pros? Cons? Thoughts? If you have a choice what do you prefer to write or enjoy to read more? Do you think it is a dichotomous system?

  4. #4
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    Strong vs. weak as a character trait is not really a problem. Frailty is a rich source for storytelling.

    Active vs. passive characters is another matter. Passive characters are boring. They constantly react to the events of the story, rarely shaping them. I recently gave editorial feedback on a manuscript in which the lead character only ever responds to what other people are doing, quite literally spending whole scenes with his mouth agape while his friends do all the acting. It's difficult to care about such characters. Passivity doesn't correlate to weakness; the lead character of Altered Carbon struck me as a terribly passive strong man.

  5. #5
    sf-icionado / horr-orator Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by suboptimal View Post
    Strong vs. weak as a character trait is not really a problem. Frailty is a rich source for storytelling.

    Active vs. passive characters is another matter.
    Gigantic agreement.

  6. #6
    I write stuff J.D. Carelli's Avatar
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    I've found that most writers look at characters in terms of three attributes: Proactivity, Sympathy, and Competence.

    If we look at each of these as a spectrum, a single character can be in one place for one and in another place for another. For example, Jamie Lannister has low sympathy at the beginning of the series. He's fairly high on the other two though. But as the series progresses, that sympathy bar moves up. We call that a character arc. And if you notice, as his sympathy bar rises, his competency bar lowers. Painfully.

    If you have a character who is too high on all fronts, we call that a Mary Sue. If you have a character who is too low, well, that's not really a character at all, is it? So these three attributes are a great thing to look at when plotting character arcs. If you have a character who is low in one area, he/she better be high in another. Typically, we have a character who is low on proactivity, but high on the other two. Then, as the story progress, they go from reaction to action. But if we're talking about diversity, it's great to have a swath of characters who run the gamut.

  7. #7
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    That's is a very good break down, J.D. I was interested mainly in competency, but pro-activity, sympathy, and competence together make a little more sense in the regard I mean. In fact I will come back to this later because now I have some writing to do.

  8. #8
    Dreamer and Author K.S. Crooks's Avatar
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    Strong vs Weak

    I tend to prefer writing about weaker protagonists because I like to show how they learn different aspects that will help them succeed. However I also like strong ones who are showing others how to get past whatever obstacle is set before them. I enjoy the act of learning in most contexts. Discovering new strength is something all characters can do and in many cases vital to a story having a sense of purpose. To me, as I evoke what I still call the "Holy Trilogy", Star Wars is s much about Luke as a student as it is Obi-Wan as a teacher.

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