And how do you know when he’s too perfect to be relatable?
Or how do you find the strength in a despicable character?
“Strength” is a BROAD category. I’m not going to try to gloss over that fact. Picking one can be a pain.
There’s a strength in every character, and every story. It doesn’t have to be difficult to find. Really.
And there are definite benefits.
Though the effect might not be obvious, your character’s strength is one of the essentials that ties the story together. (And disguising the effect is part of what makes good storytelling.)
The different strengths effect how your character is able to impact the story. Depending on who has the strength and what it is, it can even act as part of the moral premise. (Great article, that.)
But It Still Sounds Big and Confusing.
For our purposes, let’s differentiate between inherent strengths – ones that are so much a part of the character that forgoing them would undermine the personality, flexible strengths – which could be compromised without impairing the personality, and found strengths – which aren’t known to the character at the beginning of the story.
You can choose the way to use a strength for each character. What’s inherent to one character might be flexible to another.
More Strengths, Please
I’m gonna be a bossy-pants for a moment.
Layer your character’s strengths. Because having several layers will give your characters depth. (It’s a refrain in my articles, I know. Buckle up because I’m going to keep on playing it.)
I would suggest that every main character have at least two layers of strength: a skill and a virtue or trait.
Better yet, layer inherent strengths with flexible and found strengths.
A skill will often relate to the character’s passion. We work hardest to develop what we are passionate about, and we get passionate about what we feel good about. It can work either direction. (And that’s about all I’ll say about skills in this article.)
Traits and virtues are easier to play into character themes and dynamics.
Pro Tip: Foreshadow the fact that the character could choose to abandon a flexible strength, even if you don’t make it happen. It leaves the door open for doubt and tension. It also allows you to set up believable inner conflict or choice possibilities in situations throughout your plot.
And you can always capitalize on it later in a series. (Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Oh yeah.)
41 Possibilities to Get You Started (#30 is Fun to Play With.)
A few quick notes on picking your character’s strengths:
Don’t be afraid to give him one that you aren’t sure he’ll be perfect at.
Having a strength doesn’t mean the character will never mess it up. Tweet it
It’s even up to you whether your character has one strength that outshines all the others. That’s a matter of theme and style. I’ll go into more depth in my article on Character Theme.
Pro Tip: Give him something unexpected. That doesn’t mean you should contradict the rest of his personality, but that you should look for an opening to surprise the audience without shocking them. Aim for unexpected but believable.
…That’s easier said than done, but if you keep an eye out as you’re writing, you might find something that fits that description perfectly.
Here we go:
- Love of learning
- Appreciation of beauty/excellence
- Humor and playfulness
- Spirituality/sense of purpose and coherence
Some of them overlap, but I included them because they might inspire you in different ways.
You can check out their meanings and plot uses:
If you want a deeper look at individual strengths, I recommend Angela Ackerman’s Positive Trait Thesaurus (affiliate link – no added cost to you). If you have her Emotion Thesaurus, you know why I’m recommending it.
And did you notice that some on the list are far from being goody-two-shoes strengths? If you really feel that you can’t give a character a virtuous or likeable strength, you can use those. Simple enough, right?
One Virtue You Shouldn’t Pass Up
Courage. Courage, courage, COURAGE.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” –Maya Angelou
Courage isn’t limited to bravery in the face of certain death.
K.M. Weiland lists 6 types of courage. Lion’s Whiskers (a parenting blog) lists another six types, most of which can be paired in different ways with K.M.’s types. (I’m being GOOD and keeping this post below 2,000 words. I’ll probably have a separate post on courage eventually.)
It’s More Than a Simple Puzzle Piece
Your IDEA of the character becomes the central thread of a rope, the aspects winding into it, strengthening it.
That rope is your character’s personality.
Your character’s worldview and assumptions can form around the strength. Your strength colors the way you see things, because you look at a situation from the perspective of trying to apply your strength, even if another perspective would work better.
It can be tied to a principle or belief, like “I don’t believe in lying.” Or “I believe that good things truly come to those that wait.”
The scope of their goal can easily be affected by the strength.
Someone selfless might want to save everyone from the village from the wildfire no matter the cost to themselves, while the just one might be willing to leave the murderer in jail, and the resourceful one would be trying to find a way to stop the fire completely.
Each becomes a different type of story, consistent with the character.
A strength can create consistency within a character’s personality. A strength generally won’t be erased. (Unless there’s magic afoot, then all bets are off!)
Though it might be useless in getting past certain obstacles, it can still ground the character as they move through different moods and choices.
You can also create consistency through the exaggeration of a strength. Many become flaws when they are overdone. Attention to detail becomes nitpicking and control-freaking. (It’s a verb cuz I say it’s a verb.)
…And yet it’s unpredictable because the reader doesn’t know which side of the coin will show in any given scene.
It might help to imagine a balance between the strength and flaw throughout the story. Not necessarily a zero-sum balance.
Decide where you want your character to fall on the spectrum at the beginning, and at the end. Where one rises, the other will fall.
That visualization can help keep your character consistent, believable, and grounded.
First Impressions Happen in Stories, Too
Show the strength early so the reader’s impression of the character isn’t subconsciously (or consciously!) labeled “victim.”
Instead you establish it and avoid blindsiding the reader with a convenient – and seemingly contrived – strength later on.
You have to decide exactly how early you want to show the strength. You can have it featured in the first line if you want. But the inherent strength should probably be shown within the first 50 pages, while a strength-to-be-discovered can simply be foreshadowed in the first half.
Revealing the strength is a process, not something that is done in one scene and called good. Draw it out like getting to know a new friend.
Here’s the plan:
Don’t just tell the reader what a character’s strength is. Let them learn it for themselves, by seeing the character in action. That’s what the classic “save the cat” scene is about – not just likability – but to show a strength.
Only in rare cases should you tell the strength. Strengths are the hardest to tell believably, so make the choice with careful consideration.
You might use subtext to show the strength, especially one that a character doesn’t realize they have. (Lack of self-awareness for the win!)
But honestly, too much self-awareness isn’t believable. We’re largely blind to our own thought processes (cognitive biases, anyone?), and we expect characters to be, too.
Pro Tip: Subplots are great for highlighting a strength that won’t have an impact on the main plot. Tying it into a subplot avoids the episodic, unrelated scene thrown in to show the strength.
Arc and Strength-to-Be-Discovered
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” – Arnold Schwarzeneger
Most characters will think they’re good at something at the beginning of the story. And maybe they are. But for main characters, it’s just a decoy. The REAL strength is yet to be discovered. That’s the arc.
And another reason you should show rather than tell, it allows the unveiling of a “new” strength as the character learns something about himself.
That strength might be what allows him to submerge a flaw. It depends on your character and plot.
Ask yourself what situations could challenge the strength, then challenge them with an impossible choice. And if you can’t figure out an impossible choice no matter how hard you think, you might have a problem.
Is Your Character Too Infallible? Better Check.
Often writers don’t have a problem with including strengths in their protagonists. In fact, the strengths are often so overwhelming that they wash out the impression of having any flaws. (Superman, anyone?)
A story is not a daydream; don’t make it easy on your character.
That includes giving them cheats.
An extraneous strength – one that weakens the conflict, tension, or menace of the story – IS A CHEAT. Tweet it
Either pick a strength that isn’t going to obviously lead to victory, or pick a plot that won’t be easily short-circuited by existing strengths. Bigger strengths, bigger obstacles.
And it’s easy to think of YOUR character as the exception.
Do This Right Now: (Yes, YOU. Read that last line again.)
List your character’s strengths. Then cross out two. Consider how that would affect the story. Would it make it easier to challenge and torture them? It might be easier to picture them as a person, standing RIGHT in front of you, ready to act.
Or does it mess up the story?
Experiment with your list until you find the right ones to remove.
Side Note: If you find one that would devastate the story and wreck the character if you removed it, you’ve probably found THE ONE you would use on a questionnaire.
(Comment and tell me what you ended up removing. Why didn’t it fit? What are you able to do in the story because of the change?)
I SUPPOSE I Should Let You Go
I want you to have a chance to do that exercise and think over the glorious possibilities.
But do this for me…
Promise you’ll look a little harder at your characters. Push them further. Make them more interesting, more consistent, more unpredictable.
Push the limits of your skill. That’s why you’re here.
We both want to grow.
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