“Strong” is a word we often hear when describing good characters. But how do you create a strong character for your story? What makes the difference between a character your readers root for and one they forget?
Strong can mean many things. It might mean they’re intelligent like Hermione, resilient like Katniss, have exceptional physical strength like Hercules, or are cunning like Sherlock Holmes. And while all of these characters have different strengths, they all successfully encourage readers to get behind them and their pursuit of their endeavors.
Creating characters that readers view as strong is not an easy task. Here is one quick writing tip to help you write them.
The No-Wuss Rule
Nobody roots for a wuss.
It’s a simple fact of life—everyone wants to root for someone who acts with determination and goes about their adventure head-on, instead of being dragged along.
If your character doesn’t believe in their own adventure and goals, it’s hard for the reader to get behind them, too.
Consider how much less admirable Bilbo would be if he didn’t fight the spiders preparing to eat his friends.
Or imagine how much less impressive Moana would seem if she whined and complained every time Maui told her he wouldn’t help her return Te Fiti’s heart?
Both of these characters model protagonists readers admire—and unsurprisingly, they’re not ones people would call a wuss. For a couple of good reasons.
When characters do nothing, it slows down the story, and it makes readers dislike them. Like I said, nobody roots for a wuss.
2 Principles for Creating No-Wuss Characters
Thinking about these ideas while creating characters for your book will help you write a cast that readers enjoy—a cast that they want to see have a happy ending. Here are two principles to follow as you create no-wuss characters for your own story.
1. Creating characters that readers root for doesn’t mean creating perfect characters
It’s easy to think that a strong character is someone who is always confident. They know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
You might ask, what about character flaws? And depth? If I create a strong character—one that’s too perfect—won’t I create a boring caricature?
This is where it’s important to understand that a strong character doesn’t mean creating perfect characters.
In fact, it’s much better if your characters are imperfect because through their imperfections they become someone readers can relate to, and if they can’t relate to the character, it’s far more likely that they’ll root for them.
Harry Potter is far from perfect even if he is the chosen one (especially in book five when he becomes insanely more dramatic—though to be fair, he is also somewhat possessed).
So characters don’t need to be perfect and wildly confident for readers to like them. They don’t even need an obvious personality that suggests how they’ll behave (although knowing where your character falls on the Myers Briggs Tests can be a fun and useful discovery.)
They do need to take action.
And take action on purpose because the writer intends this.
2. Intentionally create characters that act when faced with a crisis
When writers create characters that act with intention, they develop protagonists who strive to overcome the fears or other obstacles standing in their way.
We learn most about a character when we see them act, after all. And a character can’t act if they’re not constantly faced with obstacles getting in the way of their scene-by-scene and overall goals.
Consider the story of Sandy, a woman who just found out her boss, whom she had worked for faithfully for many years, plans to fire her.
She decides to go confront him before he could do so:
I found myself walking back to work feeling disoriented. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. My legs carried me down Main Street and I couldn’t help stopping at every shop window on the way to peek in—distraction from what I’d inevitably have to do. All the way back, my mind kept throwing up the worst scenarios. What if he yells at me? What if I start crying and can’t stop? What if I start giving my speech and then forget my words? I really hope my nerves will harden up before I get there.
Ask yourself: does Sandy sound like someone who is in control of anything?
She “found” herself walking, her “legs carried” her, she “can’t believe”, and she “can’t help” stopping. Her movements suggests that she’s not able to do anything on her own. She keeps talking about her mind spinning and her nerves hardening as if she can’t do anything about them, even though they are part of her.
As a reader, you already don’t believe that she can handle this confrontation. So, it’s extremely likely you don’t like her.
In fact, you might think it’s best if she turns back and lets her legs carry her away before she makes a fool of herself.
If you got to know a little bit more about her, you might like her as a person, but you also might pity her.
And if the word pity enters your mind, it’s definitely unlikely that you’ll root for her as she attempts to accomplish her goal. (Learn more about how inserting goals and a crisis in your scenes is as essential as creating characters themselves.)
Because Sandy, in this moment, is acting like a wuss.
Her worries allow her to spiral into a moment of paralyzation, and while it’s okay for characters to have fears (great, even!), creating characters that constantly allow those fears to consume them will make them unlikeable.
They’ll grow tiresome.
Stories give us opportunities to learn from characters, and we don’t learn anything from a character if they constantly choose to do nothing. To not learn and grow.
Like Sandy chooses to do above.
How to Take Characters That Are Being a Wuss and Make Them Strong
If you want to create characters like Sandy because it’s part of her characterization, then the example paragraph above might work.
However, if you want the readers to get behind her and cheer her on as she goes to confront her boss, you will want to frame her differently.
Remember that this does not mean she has to be confident, or that she even needs a plan. She only needs to act with intention—that is, she needs to recognize her fears and hesitancies and dig deep down within herself to take on those internal blocks holding her back, no matter the consequences.
I like what Atticus says about what real courage in To Kill a Mockingbird:
Instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
When characters act with intention, they are tapping into their inner courage.
In a writing craft book by James Scott Bell, Bell refers to this character choice as demonstration of a character’s grit.
He uses the example of Lambert the Sheepish Lion to explain:
Lambert is a lion who was raised by a mother sheep. Like Rudolph, all of the other sheep make fun of Lambert because he is cowardly. Big and bulky, yes, but he’s always running back to his mother.
Until one day, a wolf comes along to eat the sheep.
When the wolf targets Lambert’s mother, Lambert starts to cower. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s desperately afraid.
But then—when the wolf has his mother pinned at a cliff—his mother calls out to him. Lambert knows he needs to find his inner lion. He does, and then saves his mother from the wolf moments before she’s eaten.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: stories are about character transformation, and because of this, stories give readers the opportunity to learn a lesson. To grow by learning how to tackle hardships like the characters driving the story.
Readers root for underdogs like Lambert because he’s afraid—it’s his fear and his choice to overcome his fears that make him admirable.
Example: When Sandy Acts With Intention
Look at the differences in Sandy’s character when she faces her fear of confronting her boss with grit. Her actions are the same, but now she’s moving with intention:
I walked back to work feeling disoriented. What I was about to do felt unreal. Down Main Street, I paused at every shop window to look in, pretending to be interested but really only delaying the inevitable. Every worst scenario came to mind. He could yell at me. I could start crying and not stop. I could get through my speech then forget my words half way and look like a complete idiot. I had two blocks left to steel my nerves so I had better do it fast.
Notice the difference in this excerpt? Do you see how Sandy acknowledges what she’s up against, but prepares to face her obstacles nonetheless?
Did you like her more this time around?
I know I did.
If you are like me when reading this passage, you’re probably suddenly wondering how Sandy’s confrontation with her boss is going to go down.
You want her to see her challenge through to the end, and you’re hoping everything will turn out great for Sandy because her fears have made her relatable—and her decision to confront her fears have made her admirable.
You feel like even though Sandy is ill-prepared and maybe being a little impulsive, this is what she wants. This is what she needs to do if she’s going to live with herself.
Sandy walks, stops, and prepares herself to face her boss with intention, even if this means it might not end well.
And as a reader, you’re excited to follow Sandy to the end because you’re right alongside her. To turn back now isn’t an exciting or desirable option.
The Power of Intention
A strong character has strong intentions. They pursue their goal because they know choosing to do nothing will lead to the same or worse fates.
If you find yourself creating characters that don’t believe in their choices, don’t expect your readers to believe in or root for your characters as they take action (and remember, doing nothing is still making a choice). Instead, rethink their intentions. Are they completely missing? If yes, it’s time to add them into your story.
Who is a character you’ve rooted for, and how did they act with intention when trying to accomplish their goal? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Write a paragraph or two where your character is faced with a fear. Show how your character acknowledges this fear, but then decides to act in a way that tackles that fear with intention.
Make sure that the character is faced with a difficult decision, and that this decision will end with consequences even if they choose to do nothing.
Don’t have a character in mind? Create a new character with one of these fears:
- Afraid of heights
- Afraid of telling someone an uncomfortable truth
- Afraid of taking on a new role at work
J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.