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  1. #1
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Weak and Strong Characters and all those inbetween

    I recently gave a novel I have been working on for almost four years to some beta-readers. I knew it had problems, some which it has had since day one, and that was why I wanted an outside perspective. My readers did their work well and gave me lots of feedback. In many cases I can see what they are talking about and, often, agree with their numerous ideas of how to fix the problems. But there is one which has been bugging me and that is the inclusion of a female POV character who does not have a strong personality.

    The character in question is introduced as a quiet, humble, very much introverted girl of 16. At this point she is seen to have a rather frail and reserved nature. The plan is for her to progress through the end of the second book, when she will be 26, to the point where, while still naturally quiet and introverted, she is fairly comfortable talking with groups of people, sharing her opinions and knowledge of this or that. She is not a push-over at any point and, even in the beginning, she will stand up for herself if she has to. In her head she berates herself for being too shy though, outwardly, she is not able to bring herself to be more outgoing. However, it seems my readers have all taken exception to her.

    What are others thoughts on the inclusion of characters like this? Does every character need to be a strong, outgoing, I-know-what-I-want-and-you-better-get-it personality? Somehow I think books filled with those characters just wouldn't be all that good because they wouldn't have the range of personalities amongst their characters as those that exist in the real world.

  2. #2
    bingley bingley beep kissmequick's Avatar
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    It's tricky to say, without having read it.

    Perhaps they just don;t like her, and they point this out as an example, when it;s not actually the reason. Perhaps it is the reason. Perhaps it's just how you've handled it - maybe a small tweak is all that's needed?

    I know for, I do NOT expect every character to be strong (that's boring , if they all are) but I DO expect them to be interesting. I've read (and enjoyed) more than one book where the main character is self effacing etc. It;s not a killer. As long as they make me want to read more, because they are interesting.

    Really, it's very hard to tell without reading the person in question. But as a general rule - no they don't HAVE to be strong. They just have to make me want to read them.
    Last edited by kissmequick; August 27th, 2012 at 07:47 PM.

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    You might find this of interest:

    http://nkjemisin.com/2012/03/theres-...od-stereotype/

    Myself, I am also re-evaluating a project I have spent some time sporadically on and is not finished. It's meant to be a first book and to sort of ease into the idea of the series. And I'm trying to figure out if, since I sort of went with a default very similar but different cultural setting (I originally started with no clear plot,) I have defaulted into things that don't work and if some things about the main character and his home culture need to change, and if I should deal with that later or not, and if I should more radically change some things or not. So I feel your pain. We can only sort of feel our way to what is true to us for what we need for the story, and sometimes that isn't clear until later.

  4. #4
    LaerCarroll.com
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    You make the mistake of thinking strong and out-going are the same trait. They are not.

    You can have four possibilities: a character is high or low in one trait, and high or low in the other.

    Your character sounds to me to be a strong person already. Perhaps you can show her evolving to be more outgoing.

    She could do this by baby steps. Or a some point taking a great and risky leap.

    Or some combination. Perhaps baby steps, then a leap. Maybe failing at the leap and going back to baby steps for a while before trying another leap.

    I know too little to be sure, but as a guess I'd say your beta readers are too severe. Or that you have not made your character's true nature clear enough to them so that they can appreciate her worth.

  5. #5
    It's all POV and when readers can relate characters to themselves.

    I've been in discussions with actors, production reps, and story consultants about cyborg characters. Initially, people don't relate to them because they are less emotional than humans.

    The best way to flush out the character is to pair them up with a perfectly human character who discovers why a cyborg can be such an interesting character. For instance, humans underestimate cyborgs and AI beings because they are less emotional, humans believe cyborgs are less intelligent. By showing the less emotional cyborg is actually more intelligent than the human, the character suddenly becomes more interesting.

    In Ternimator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sarah Connor believed Cameron, a cyborg made in the image of a teenage girl, was dumb until Cameron blew Sarah's mind understanding how loss effects humans and why Sarah needs to stay focused to overcome her fear of losing her son when he went missing. Cameron is programmed to blend in with humans with a human appearance. Certainly someone new to a community can relate to this cyborg learning the ways of a community in an effort to fit in with people.

    That is how people can relate to your character, a teenage girl as well. Do something with her than anyone can connect with her.

  6. #6
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    You make the mistake of thinking strong and out-going are the same trait. They are not.
    You are right, strong and outgoing are not the same. But, by explaining my character's nature in the OP, I thought I did a decent job explaining how the term "strong character" is commonly used and how my own character is not one of those. Obviously I did not do as good of a job for you. Others understood though and I appreciate their answers and yours as well Laer.

    MDM: That is part of the thing. I think my characterization of this girl is pretty good. Like the rest of the book, she could use some work. But the rest of the book needs a lot of work while I think she is fairly decent. Perhaps it is how she fits in with the rest of the story as it is.

    As for showing her in a relatable circumstance I actually introduce her coming to this city where she is about to begin a 10 year long educational program to learn magic. The book covers just under 1 year of time after she enters the story. At her entrance she is constantly berating herself, silently of course, to speak up, to engage others in conversation, to be stronger and generally be this strong, decisive woman. At the end of this first year she is talking to classmates, raising her hand in class, and going to a ball where her date leaves her to get drinks and then she has to go find him and drag him bodily onto the dance floor. She even teases him about how bad he is at dancing. All of those are things she never would have done when she first came to the city. So growth? I think so. In the second book there is even more, the largest being her decision to form, with two school friends, a business after they graduate where she is the leader. She has to convince her patron of her plans and does so successfully. And doing this, she makes the decision to leave the man she loves and go and fulfill her promise to her patron and begin and run her business. Major growth? I think so. Though, my beta readers are completely unaware of plans for her in future installments which, really, is as it should be.

    But I completely agree with what you were saying MDM. Only if characters are relatable--in their personalities, thoughts, beliefs, situations they are placed in, etc.--can the reader actually like and even enjoy them.

  7. #7
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    You might find this of interest:

    http://nkjemisin.com/2012/03/theres-...od-stereotype/

    Myself, I am also re-evaluating a project I have spent some time sporadically on and is not finished. It's meant to be a first book and to sort of ease into the idea of the series. And I'm trying to figure out if, since I sort of went with a default very similar but different cultural setting (I originally started with no clear plot,) I have defaulted into things that don't work and if some things about the main character and his home culture need to change, and if I should deal with that later or not, and if I should more radically change some things or not. So I feel your pain. We can only sort of feel our way to what is true to us for what we need for the story, and sometimes that isn't clear until later.
    That is an amazing article by Jemisin. Fantastic!

    Thanks for the sympathy too, KatG. It took me almost 3 years to realize I was trying to do too much in one, 156k word book and that I actually needed to split it into two books to tell the story like it needed to be told. It opened up so many possibilities when I discovered that, from characterization to world and plot building. Even though I am not happy with my novel's draft right now I can say that I am much happier with it currently than I was a year ago before I made the split.

    As for your problems, I would say to continue for now but with the changes as though they were already in place. Keep track of the ideas you have for changes and, when you are stuck at the present point of your story, take the opportunity to go back and make some corrections earlier on. That is, as long as making those early corrections won't change the story where you are currently at.

  8. #8
    From your descriptions she sounds like an interesting character I think, although it's hard to say without reading what you've written. Have you included much in the way of describing the reactions of other characters to her? That could be a good way to 'extend' her introversion, so to speak, if you feel you need to. Many people can feel unsettled by introverts, and how they account for these feelings can be very interesting.

  9. #9
    LaerCarroll.com
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    So she’s a (1) wimp and (2) wallflower. Does she excel in ANY of the other (N-2) dimensions of character? ANYTHING which might make her interesting? Right now she sounds pretty boring.

    What makes her interesting to you? Why do you want to write about her? Maybe it’s the setting you’ve created for her that interests you more than she herself. Or do you plan actions she might get involved in which interest you?

  10. #10
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    So she’s a (1) wimp and (2) wallflower.
    Hmmmm, from what RedMage included here, I don't come to that conclusion. However, since Laer did, maybe the issue isn't your character, but what you chose/choose to show in the story?

    Maybe, as KMQ pointed out, you didn't highlight what makes her interesting.

    For example, she's a shy girl learning magic. But, is she at school, maybe, illegally? Trying desperately to hide that fact from everyone else? That puts her introvertedness (is that a word?) in a entirely different light.

    Or, maybe she's struggling through her shyness at magic school while at the same time another sibling or family member is dying? Or maybe she's about to help save the world and she's the only one that knows it?

    I don't know what role this character plays in the grand scheme of your book, but maybe you need to hint at that grand scheme so that the reader is not focusing on her immediate trials. That way, we get to see how overcoming her character traits both help and hinder her overall place in the story?

    Anyway, that's my two cents worth. I hope it helps.

  11. #11
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Thanks for the suggestions guys. DetritusDave, I see you are fairly new to SFFWorld. Welcome!

    The problems my story faces stem from my intention to show my protagonist and antagonist from before they were good and bad and how they become what they do in the end. When I started the story I felt a lot of what I was reading had antagonists who were evil for the sake of evil or whose backstories could have been a lot better developed and it came across as the character being increasingly bad throughout their life because they wanted to. To do what I wanted my story has to cover a large time frame, about 12 years total in books 1 & 2. So there are problems with timing.

    I had actually thought to set the whole thing aside because I am no longer certain what the ultimate ending is and there are so many hurdles to face with the timing issues and how those influence plot, characterization, world building, etc. However, I started thinking last night about what you guys have said and about some of what my beta readers said. So I may be taking a new look at my story and see what can be done to save it. Thanks everyone!

  12. #12
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    I had intended that this thread would be more of a general discussion on weak and strong characters rather than a discussion of the issues I currently face. So if anyone has thoughts on characters in general and how to write and include character types, do discuss!

  13. #13
    Book of the Black Earth
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    This is just from my perspective, but I don't enjoy weak characters unless they exist to contrast the stronger, more vibrant characters.

    A character can be reserved, introverted, and socially-awkward, but s/he still needs to have a strong core, something the reader can identify with. The classic example is a character who tries over and over to assert themselves, but we keep rooting for them because we know they are stronger than that.

    Your example, Red, made me think of Hermione from the Harry Potter series. If I remember correctly, she was quiet and bookish, but she always stood up for herself and her friends. That's why readers loved her.

  14. #14
    Thank you for the welcome

    I had a similar-ish problem with my WIP. One of the main characters suffers from extreme depression after using an 'ability'. And when he is in this depression he is very non-communicative. As a result most of his POV are insular and it's been hard to get it (hopefully) right.

    Hope the new look at the story works out well for you.

  15. #15
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    My position is that people are not all remarkably likeable supermen and that I can do any character who I want in any way that I want. (Which doesn't mean that I don't listen to what readers think about an individual character, just that readers' ideas of what makes good characters in general are usually not very useful, since they are simply a laundry list of the person's preferences for characters and stories.) I find weakness and flaws just as interesting as strengths and skills for myself and people usually have a mix of both kinds. Not every story is about having likeable pov characters. And having a character whose inner perspective and view of herself/himself is without doubt, insecurity or reflection -- if it's a certain kind of story that might work, but for most stories it's probably not what you are going for.

    As Jemisin notes in her essay, the negative side to the positive increase in strong, kick-ass female characters has been an increased pressure on authors to have main female characters who are only strong, kick-ass types -- another stereotype. So that's what it sounds like in reaction to Red Mage's story. You will see this often with reader reactions to stories with multiple female main characters -- the ones who are liked are the kick-ass ones who act with traits that we consider very male. Female characters who have traits that we consider very feminine in society (also as a stereotype) -- shyness, quiet, lacking confidence, inability to defend herself physically, etc. -- tend to be regarded as negative.

    That doesn't mean that their stories are not useful to the whole story. The story of a character who is weak and has to become stronger or does not become stronger -- these are types of stories and very familiar ones in literature. So I tend not to worry about strength and instead worry about the role of the character. If the role of Red Mage's female character in the story is to be a quiet, unsure person who becomes stronger because of plot events in the story, why change that? If the role of the character is to whine and be truly annoying -- and then continue to be annoying but still helpful or to become less annoying and helpful, or less annoying but also destructive for the other main characters, etc., then that's the role. It's okay if people have a negative reaction to that. You don't have to corral all your readers into one holding pen.

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