1. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Making a character seem strong

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Rei, Aug 30, 2009.

    I was told by someone that I need to "get the reader on her side through strength, not pity." I have no idea how to do that, and didn't even realize that I might have been doing it in a way that would be a problem. My intention was to have her near her breaking, and that was why she finally agreed to go on the "quest" she goes on and face the villain. If she wasn't so beaten down, I don't know why she would bother going.

    In the story, she has been suffering from psychic attacks from the villain, which have been getting worse and worse all the time. She often faints from them, and they are very painful. The few times she had them at school made everyone think she was crazy, so she's been bullied, and she is depressed, partly because she never got over her mother dying seven years earlier. It's realistic for her to be the way she is, and any "strength" stuff I could ever come up with would contradict everything or seem just plain forced and fake.
     
  2. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is often a misconception, that the leading character must be strong and unwavering in cause and body, so if this premise has worked for you, then as you have said, writing in blatant strength qualities will seem forced. More so, your character is demonstrating strength as she endures an excruciating journey for an uncertain end. It is certainly more than many of us have done or could do. Just a thought.
     
  3. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unfortunately, ignoring the comment and doing as I please isn't an option here if I want to publish the book. The person who told me to do this is the editor, and this is my first book. I am not in a position to disagree with anything they tell me.
     
  4. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well I am certainly in unfamiliar waters; if you are up to the publishing stage, I am not sure of a proper course. What certain qualities or changes has the editor recommended to convey a much stronger character?

    Perhaps having more dialog with certain key characters, can be a foil to develop a more fleshed and relatable main character.
     
  5. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    She didn't give me any more detail than that.
     
  6. Riverwalk
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    Riverwalk New Member

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    Then maybe you should ask her for suggestions..

    Even broken, it would take some sort of bravery to go on some sort of adventure like that, I would think. Perhaps you could build off that? Or, even, some of the things that she had to go through during school. That can be brutal, so maybe she achieved some sort of inner strength there?
     
  7. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well in some cases I love when the main character is all strong and badass. However I enjoy the process of how they become this. I have just finished Gundam SEED and the main character Kira starts off as a kid who wants nothing to do with the war. He is capable of many things, but when he fails to protect someone he breaks down. For the first half of the series he is just struggling along trying to deal with his emotions and all the crap thats going around him. Through out the journey he becomes this strong confident character. It made things far more interesting.

    I think your character needs to grow and become stronger as the journey unfolds. Maybe show that she is capable of strength in the begining. In Avatar: the Last Airbender Katara starts off as a very weak water bender. She only knows a few small tricks. But in the first episode she gets angry and through it she did something well beyond her ability(it was still very weak compared to most water benders, but for her...)
    As she traveled the world with Aang she slowly developed her ability until she became a master herself. Actually Sokka started off as a weak warrior with a big ego. Again with his travels his strengths emerged and he became more then a simple comic relief. Demonstrating his smarts in engineering(sorta) swordplay, and demonstrating his talent for strategy. Because of this, the whole thing was far more rewarding then if they started off strong.

    So I say maybe show she has the capability and slowly show how she becomes strong as the story unfolds.

    Maybe I am completely off the mark here, but this is how i see it.
     
  8. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    Female characters that win you over with strength...

    * Sarah Conner from Terminator 2
    * Ripley from Alien
    * Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    * Actually, almost any female character written by Joss Whedon (see Firefly, Serenity)
    * The Bride from Kill Bill
    * The Cop (I forget her name) from Fargo

    On the flip side, female characters for whom you have pity...

    * Sarah Conner from Terminator (the first one)
    * Many of the female characters from Cold Mountain
    * Evey from V for Vendetta (actually, I think we pity her first and then she wins us over with her strength later)
    * Penny from Dr. Horrible (though this was a tragedy) - an exception to the Whedon rule

    OK, so these are movies/tv, but we're talking character here, so I think it applies.

    To me, when I hear you say your editor wants you to win us over with strength vs. pity for the main character, it's about how you're making me feel when I read the story. Rooting for a strong character feels different from pitying some poor person. If your editor is asking you to change it, it's because he or she is looking to feel different when reading the story.

    As you said, if you are to change the character from someone who is pitiable to a person who is strong, you will be fundamentally changing the character. Maybe your editor wants you to take the character on a journey to strength, like Evey in V for Vendetta. Your character starts our weak and we pity her for her misfortune and terrible circumstance or whatever, but at some point, something happens and she gets strong. She's not going to take it any more. She stands up for herself. She stops pitying herself and her plight and she takes action, and we are right there with her, rooting her on because we don't like to pity her. We'd much rather cheer for her instead. That's just an idea.

    Another idea I had was, maybe you can go back to the places where you show the character as weak or insecure or whatever and think about how you can change it so the character reacts with strength instead. Think of the strong female characters you've seen. When they are confronted with a rough situation, they don't shrink from it or bemoan it. The step up, make a wise ass comment, and do what needs to be done. And this is not just about action. I love Fargo, and that is one strong lady. And she's quiet about it too, which is great. So you don't have to be a tough, butch, in-your-face kind of female to be strong either.

    Also, if the editor has only made this comment, then it sounds like the overall story is agreeable, which begs the question, is it possible to change the character from pitiable to strong while keeping the story more or less intact? Only you can answer that question, of course, but if the editor's comment is serious, then he or she must expect that it's doable. I would think. Of course, I have no experience in this at all. By the way, congratulations on being in talks with an editor about such things.

    Do you think you can ask your editor for more direction? To what lengths should you be making changes? Obviously something is going to change...roughly how much? 30% 50% 100%? Total rewrite? Surely not....

    Good luck.
     
  9. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, this is what I don't understand. She does make this transition.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your chaacter is suffering greatly, and maybe that comes across too strongly. Perhaps showing that she has plenty of reason to be weighed down by torment, but that she manages to keep a sense of humor or pride, even when things are grim. Or maybe she manages to show kindness to others, even when it causes more trouble for her.
     
  11. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    So perhaps not making any fundamental changes, but toning down the language I use, and adding one or two actions.
     
  12. DragonGrim
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    DragonGrim Contributing Member

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    The main character does not need to be strong in mind or body. Not at the beginning at least. Look at Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Here is a physically frail man, who is so weak of mind that he thinks he is losing it. The reader wants to hate him for the crimes he commits due to his weaknesses. Many in the story hates him. Yet there is a glimmer of possible strength. The reader expects the main character to grow right from the beginning, though it is a long time coming.

    I read too much fantasy, so any other references would be from that genre. But I chose this because it is an extreme case.
     
  13. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I think the key to Cog's advice was his next lines...that she keep a sense of humor or pride, or manages to show kindness to others. I think you want to raise the strength of your character, not necessarily tone down the language.

    You could even turn one of your own plot devices to your favor in this regard. You said she never got over the death of her mother. Perhaps that death has given her some hidden strength as well. She remembers her mother's advice, or her mother's words, or her promise to her mother, something, and it gives her the strength (the humor, the pride, the determination, the kindness or whatever you choose) to carry on, despite the psychic attacks of the villain.

    Let me give an example, using the kindness...

    Say you have a scene where your character is getting bullied, just as one of those attacks comes and she's nearly blacking out. Rather than toning down her pain...suppose the bullies are also picking on someone else, her friend perhaps, or her younger sister...and your character selflessly defends the other person, even at risk to herself, and even as she's going through this excruciating psychic attack.

    Don't tone down her pain...make her overcome her pain long enough to help someone else, or make a joke, or show some kind of strength or defiance, through the pain.
     
  14. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    Seems to me there must be some strength in there somewhere, else she wouldn't be contemplating the mission she's on. Maybe the key is to find out where that strength comes from, define it somehow in her nature, and allow the reader to grab hold of its essence and grow with it as your character does. Otherwise, without that potential already inside her--hidden from her as it may seem to be in moments of despair--your reader will not have any reason to be concerned with the storyline struggle to come and may think the outcome is irrelevant (to the reader's own experience), maybe a foregone conclusion, completely implausible, or just not in sync with a character that's too one-dimensional.
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I think the editor's point is probably that the character starts out as an unappealing Moping Margie. The writer needs to make the character appealing from the beginning, even if the weight of the world is crushing her.
     
  16. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    I've been reading The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. The main character, Roland Deschain (though generally simply referred to as "the gunslinger"), is a hardened loner that has watched the world he once knew deteriorate and "move on". He is not cruel, nor is he kind; he has brief impulses of kindness and cruelty alike, but for the most part, he is indifferent; he does what is needed, nothing more, nothing less. He has a very strong sense of honor and purpose, but he doesn't go around telling everyone about it. He's very quiet and enigmatic, and you constantly wonder about him. In fact, his name is not revealed until near the end of the first book.

    Because of all these different factors, the gunslinger comes across as a very strong character, very respectable. He immediately draws in the reader, and it's almost impossible to hate him... or to pity him.
     
  17. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    I agree.

    Rei, if you already have the MC going through a transition like that, then your editor is probably saying he didn't like the character. Maybe thinking about how to generally improve the character's likability would satisfy the editor and then you would avoid having to "strengthen" the character. Or, maybe making the character more likable would actually have that as a side effect.
     
  18. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    It sounds like your editor wants you to change the character a bit, well a lot. ha.

    Here's my idea. In one of the scenes she's being bullied in, share her thoughts. We can see from her thoughts that she isn't going to stand up for herself. Then they also start picking on another female. This is when your MC wins us over by strength by sticking up for the girl. The students push them both harder, so your MC also sticks up for herself.

    When the psychic attacks start, we know she has the strength to want to put them to a stop once she finds out someone is doing this to her. Perhaps bring in a friend that is also being psychically attacked. Now we know she will not put up with that crap once your MC finds out someone is attacking her friend. Once again she wins us over by strength.

    This way you don't have to change the story much.

    I hope this helps.

    :)
     
  19. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Perhaps the pity is actually selfpity on your MCs behalf. There's nothing more loathesome in a character than selfpity. You can pity a person who is going through hardship and trying to make it out alive, but once the character hangs their head and sobs, you just wanna turn around and leave them.

    You can have characters go through hell on earth, with no chance of winning, and they can appear amazingly strong simply by their determination to stay alive and not giving in to selfpity. Consider that dude on the cross some 2000 years ago. According to the story he never pitied himself.
     
  20. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    It's true what HorusEye said about self-pity. Once again, I will bring up the example of Roland Deschain from the Stephen King series The Dark Tower. During the majority of the second book (and possibly the third; I haven't yet read it), Deschain, wandering an endless, deserted beach as he continues his quest, is deathly ill with some sort of fever. When he comes in contact with a man from modern-day New York, he manages to find some simple medication that helps (such as aspirin), but this soon runs out, and his condition becomes worse.

    While journeying with the people he must bring over from our world, he rarely complains about his condition, and keeps going, never exploiting his weakness in any way. His companions have some pity for him, but he shows no self-pity. This makes him seem very strong, even as he continues to lose physical strength.

    At a couple of points, however, he shows signs of self-pity, just hints. Once, he exploits it slightly for his cause. At these moments, he momentarily loses his appearance of strength, and becomes slightly less likeable as a protagonist.
     

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