I wrote a piece on "weak characters" a while ago on my old blog, but I've been editing my ass off with this Sci-fi novel and a lot of these points keep coming up. Some of this information may seem familiar to you while some is completely new. Either way, I hope it gives you something to think about and discuss. :)
There is a lot of emphasis on character in writing, and no one knows that more than me. My favorite things about a book are the characters that dwell inside of it and bring it to life. In my own writing, I strive to make not just characters, but people--real and tangible, as if you would meet them at a coffee shop or run into them at the grocery store. These are people you grew up with, people you saw from afar and always wanted to know, your friends and enemies. You. Me.
I pride myself on the realism of my characters. I want you to feel their joy, their sadness, their pain. It is my goal that you think about them long after you close the book and go about your life. Mostly, the people who have read my books realize all the work I have put into them and they often say how they can relate to the characters and feel what they are going through. However, once in a while there is a complaint, which is only natural when you create art for a living. Not everyone is going to like or understand what you do, and that’s okay. It makes us human and different from each other.
At first, it was hard for me to see where someone was coming from when they pointed out that my characters were weak. I found it hard to not take offense. I research my characters’ traits; I spend months sketching them out and bringing them to life before they are ever in a story. How can they possibly be weak when to me they are made of flesh? It took me a little while to really examine my characters and I eventually came to the conclusion that yes, I do write about "weak characters". In fact, I think I have a weak spot for them.
Without giving too much away, my new story has what could be perceived as a "weak character". This does not mean that this character has no driving force or personality, but rather that they are subjected to a lot of bullshit before they can learn and succeed. This seems kind of hard to imagine--this character being strong yet weak at the same time--but that's because I don't want to give any of it away. Instead, let's look at some of my other books.
In The Sunshine Series, we meet Sophie, who has been loved and criticized for her "weaknesses". She is allergic to the sun, she has a bad past, she doesn't trust people, and so on. For a lot of the book, she mostly hates herself and the world around her. However, she grows. She becomes more than her past and her ailments and that is what makes her weaknesses strengths.
Another character, Ava (from my book Animal), has anxiety disorder and PTSD. She is taken captive and cannot physically fight her attacker, so she has to use her mind--the thing that is so against her most of the time--to escape.
Casey Williams is the main character in The Donor, in which she desperately turns to something she never would otherwise in order to help her family.
And then there is Corbin (From The Shadow & Ink Series), who can't trust if Six is a figment of her imagination or real. She doesn't know how to help her mother or how to prevent herself from inheriting the same mental issues.
Many of these details are weak. I can admit that. But just because you are weak doesn’t mean that's all you are. Don’t get me wrong, I love a strong female lead as much as the next person, but my characters do not wield swords or bend steel. Although I write in the paranormal genre, my characters are real people. They have flaws. They bleed and cry and regret things. Most of the time, they have a hard time looking in the mirror, getting out of bed, or leaving the house. They cannot be expected to shoot flames out of their eyes and save the world. They are busy saving themselves.
While I can see how this can be misconstrued as weak, I also think it is a very two dimensional way of thinking that causes this theory of “weak characters”. A weak character to me is someone who has no past, present, or future. They are just a vehicle to tell a story.
When I was younger, I watched TV shows and read books about heroes like Batman and Buffy, but I connected more to characters when they were vulnerable, when you saw the parts of them that contradicted their capes and special abilities. Many people cannot ever aspire to put on their underwear outside their tights and fight crime. Some have a hard time sleeping. Some have a difficult home life. Some find it hard to escape into things when they aren’t real to them. And then still, some have a completely normal, happy life and want more than the acrobatics.
Flaws are what make us human. While as human beings, we strive for nothing more than happiness and a life that is as close to perfect as possible, perfect and happy doesn't make a good story. Perfect characters are only appreciated when you see their flaws. Flawless people don't seem real because it doesn't occur in the real world. My characters grow as you read, they leave stains on your hands when you turn the pages. You cannot walk away from a book of mine without dirt under your fingernails. My characters stick to your teeth, get lodged in your throat.
They have no time to fight back with brute force. Honestly, they have no interest in it. The mind is a dangerous place, but it is also a source of strength that is often overlooked in today's popular literature. When I was a kid, my favorite books were The Catcher in The Rye, Night, and Running With Scissors. I loved Ellen Hopkins and Edgar Allan Poe. The more sorrow, the better. The more flaws, the more interesting these people and stories were for me. However, I also loved Goosebumps, where the driving force of the stories are the plots.
Perhaps the reason I read more stories that were heavy with anguish was because I saw myself in them. I wanted to figure out their problems and see them succeed as much as I wanted these things for myself. They made me feel less alone; like I was human.
I never really could get into all the books my friends were reading. I'm not a Harry Potter or Hunger Games fan. I don't get why people like Divergent or Twilight. I can appreciate the writers and the overall arc of what they are trying to accomplish, but for me, I can't connect. I can't feel anything. It's like going on a date with a really attractive person but being unable to find anything in common once they open their mouth.
That isn't to say that theses stories don't have characters with flaws or real problems. What I mean is that these flaws and problems often take somewhat of a backseat to the main "meat" of the story. These novels aim mostly to entertain and maybe have you think a little, whereas my goal is always to make you think first. One isn't better than the other; they're just different. Just as one person's life cannot be better than yours because they have more or less than you. You're just different and that's what makes the world go round.
When I started writing, I didn't notice that these "weak" things were in my writing. Now it's blatantly obvious. I can only ascertain that I created my characters in the same vein because I wanted this solace for others. The same comfort I found between pages in the library when the world around me was too scary.
When you're learning about plot, one of the first things you hear about is the basic character arc:
1. Character wants something
2. Character tries to get that something.
3. Character either gets that something or doesn't get that something.
While this is incredible simplified, this is what all great stories have for their characters. Of course they learn and discover things about themselves and the world around them through this arc, but they also change. The most important thing is that they end up somewhere different than where they were at the beginning of the story. I think somewhere in all my creative writing studies, I got hooked on this idea of change. This idea of ending up the same person yet somehow forever different. My arcs are always the same, and I haven't decided if I like or hate it. My characters just want to be normal at their cores. Is that enough to make a strong character? I don't know. I think a better question to ask would be is it enough to make a stronger person?
Every single piece of literature you have ever read has one goal, whether it is a focus of the writing or not: explore what it means to be human.
As a human, you go through ups and downs. Spirals and endless flat lines. You go through routines. You deal with the unexpected. The hero doesn't always come in right when you need them. You don't fall in love with the people you think you want to fall in love with. No one is coming in with all the answers to your questions. Sometimes, you have to find these things within yourself or in places you never thought to look.
My characters aren’t riding into battle with dragons; they are inching their ways to normal lives just like everyone else. While other characters in other stories are saving their kingdoms, mine are trying to rule their own destinies--to change things for themselves without completely changing who they are.
They can still solve the crime, figure out the dark secrets, and become a hero. It takes strength to do these things without the aid of magic, muscles, or money. Overcoming fantastic beasts and obstacles put in place over the course of their quest is all well and good, but there is no obstacle quite like yourself. You can do nearly anything if you grow. You can feel more satisfied after you have lived with certain monsters and are finally able to defeat them.