Strong Characters versus Weak Characters
by C.J. Cherryh (C) 1996 by C.J. Cherryh
Everyone talks about strong versus weak characters. I've (reluctantly) been dragged onto panel discussions on: Are women writers more character-oriented? No. Do women write better characters? No. I don't think so. Who writes 'strong females?' Answer pending.
First of all, let's define terms here. Courtesy of the English language and its vagueness on the meaning 'weak' versus 'strong' (from atomic physics to verbs to moral virtue) we're likely to waste time arguing Apples and Oranges if we don't straighten out this matter of semantics. Let's agree there are two questions here.
First application, A, heroic characters versus weaselly characters with no backbone---let's call that 'morally weak.' Does anyone deliberately write a weak character? Yes, or we'd have nothing but heroic characters and nobody to be a foil. Second application, B, well-drawn and well-described characters as opposed to stereotypical and cardboard---let's call that 'well-drawn' versus 'one-dimensional.' Would anyone deliberately write a one-dimensional character? Yes. In short stories and certain other kinds of story where twist is everything and character doesn't drive the story. Let's call that 'event-driven' as opposed to 'character-driven' story. But what about one-dimensional or cardboard characters in a supposedly 'character-driven' story? That comes down to strong author competency at character-building versus poor to non-competency. Let's call that kind of weakness, our type B, for the purposes of this article, a 'weakly-drawn' character, understanding that the weakness is as much in the author as in the character.
Granted we have a weak author. Would anyone knowingly publish that kind of story?
Yes. Certain ones have been wildly successful by reliance on icons instead of character. Good basic stories? Often. Flawed? Badly. Commercially successful? Unfortunately. But see below.
Let's say for the sake of argument that a good, mature novel (as opposed to short story) normally consists of both strong and weak, admirable and not-admirable characters, but ideally none are, we hope, 'weakly-drawn.' The writer writes 'morally weak' characters as purposefully as he writes 'morally strong' ones or cominations thereof. He may incorporate into his 'morally strong' characters what analysts call 'tragic flaws' after the tendency of Greek tragedy (funded by the ancient Greek religion) to install one moral flaw in a hero. (It turns out this practice produced some pretty good stories. Later cultures copied it. And modern literature has taken to installing (on the egalitarian bent of the 20th century) 'tragic virtues' in villains.)
The play of 'morally weak' against 'morally strong' characters within a novel creates interesting psychological contrasts. Adding 'tragic virtues' as well as 'tragic flaws' makes a novel less predictible in outcome. In a modern audience well-used to figuring out books and standard plots, this ability to lead a reader down complex paths is a valuable tool for generating suspense.
Villains can also be 'morally weak' characters, meaning retiring, retreating, immoral, refusing to engage and committing their heinous acts by neglect or sloth or stupidity or greed. 'Well-drawn,' but 'morally weak.' The author's literary dilemma is that it is difficult to show how such a retiring person ever got into a position to be a threat. Real life shows us, however, that it isn't at all unlikely for such 'morally weak' persons to get into positions of authority.
In fact, real life shows us that 'morally weak' villains may be more common than 'morally strong' ones, and that they're numerous enough to deal the death of a thousand cuts in say, the procedures of an uncaring bureaucracy. But in a book, to challenge a 'morally strong' hero using only 'morally weak' villains means that there has to be some natural advantage handed the villains at the outset and that the source of the advantage has to be accounted for in order to 'play fair' in dramatic terms. Because the 'morally weak' activity overwhelming 'morally strong' charcters at isn't easy for a novice writer to set up, drawing sharp lines of conflict between two individuals that are 'morally strong' (even in evil) is the route of a lot of beginning authors. Hence the tendency of novice writers to use 'morally strong' villains, whether because it's easier to imagine in the first place, or because a plethora of 'morally weak' villains getting strikes in on the 'morally strong' hero is a wearing kind of battle, frequently frustrating or depressing if not handled with humor. In most instances, too, using such 'morally weak' villainy requires greater verisimilitude, and, in most instances, a multi-level plot, both of which are harder for a neophyte writer to handle. In short, the sheer traffic flow problem overwhelms some writers and some readers, particularly younger ones, who do not readily see shades of gray.
Now, as an aside, not all novel writers consider character as the most important aspect of a novel-length story: there do exist 'event-driven' novels. Many successful writers outline events very closely before starting to write and proceed to a logical unfolding of consequences imposed by, say, nature, gods, the faceless enemy or a chain of interlocked consequences with only minimal attention to characters until they need them to walk through the story and hit their marks like good actors. That is, again, an 'event-driven' story. An 'event-driven' story of whatever length acquires characters only secondarily. It's not a wrong way of proceeding, and it can produce good stories for the reader who prefers to read about events rather than people. There are writers whose vision of events or whose command of language is such that even readers who prefer books to have characters will suspend that requirement in order to enjoy the book's other virtues.
On the other hand, a writer who instinctively outlines "who" before "what" and whose events almost inevitably take the form of one character acting on another for psychological reasons that may not even be clear to the writer at the outset---that is a writer with a 'character-driven' story to tell, and such a story must develop with attention to character or fall short of the story's potential. Such writers often have trouble outlining in detail simply because they don't know how one group of their characters will respond to what other characters will do until the whole scene is written down to its emotional interchanges. (Personally I advise such writers still to outline, but to do it after they finish the story, as a final check to be sure the novel's structure is behaving in a logical fashion and that all scenes are germane to the book, not just a couple of characters off in a side room having a personally indulged moment.)
If the writer of a 'character-driven' book is skilled and experienced, he/she will rapidly marshal the interacting characters into some sort of logical framework with a central spine of causality (everybody for the hero stand on this side, everybody against stand over there) that prevents particularly the hero's helpers from hijacking the book or carrying it into the dreaded Slough of Indirection. Meaning...psychological interactions among the characters often take unintended turns which, if the writer allows them to take their natural elaboration into subplots unchecked by any firm consideration of what or who the book is about, will divert the plot into a morass of unrelated issues. This is why, occasionally presented with such a morass-bound story, I can look at it, exclaim, aha! I see a backbone, and mark in loud orange pen the one underlying issue which could, if stressed, get these side issues (remotely psychologically related) to mean something and, in short, line up all those apparently extraneous pieces and scenes in a hitherto unsuspected connection as the backbone of the plot.
Having forty years of experience helps immeasurably in that process. I think of it as finding a central causality. A theme. A problem that seizes all those little side motivations and makes them face a common problem: solving that turns out to be the key to solving everything. I ask myself... three questions: 1) what is the main problem? 2) what will resolve the main problem and 3) by what single unifying act can I get all these various psychologies to face the one central problem, arrive at one place at one time, and apply the solution?
I can at least say that a writer who does not bring the serendipitous aspects of multiple characters in the story under control by at least the mid of the book, is going to have a book out of control or lacking a spine or central set of goings-on that we call coherency. And to develop the 'spine' or 'theme' of the book, and do exactly what I do above, ideally in advance of getting into plotting-trouble, the prudent writer marshals the available characters into two or more camps, the pro-hero bunch on this side and the anti-hero batch on the other side of the central issue, and looks at them for traits that will be useful to their cause versus detrimental to their cause. In that way the author gets them under control from the beginning not so tightly under control that they can't produce seredipitous shoots and tendrils, not so tightly that the reader can spot the confinement, but so that the writer can spot a stray tendril of behavior and bind it right back to the main trunk before it becomes a problem. This process (taken before the book is written, ideally) is where the author of a character-driven story makes the critical decisions of the conflict.
It is worth noting here that the 'moral virtues' of a character are often the 'moral weaknesses' of the character: thus, independence in its bad application can become self-centeredness; pride can become arrogance; love can become controlling obsession. Such polar swings from 'moral strength' to 'moral weakness' can be interesting character development, and are readily available without having to install some totally unrelated flaw. Two traits for the price of one.
That the hero must be 'morally strong' is not a given, either, in this process of setting up a conflict and taking sides. Good stories sometimes start with a hero who is 'morally weak' and who gains 'moral strength' through meeting challenges and overcoming adversity. We've already discussed the fact that 'moral strength' or 'moral weakness' may operate in opposition to the hero. So may 'natural forces' or 'supernatural forces' or 'extraterrestrial forces' or blind bad luck. But once the response happens and as character builds an impression in the reader's mind the question of 'moral strength' versus 'moral weakness' does come into play, and ultimately, by the end of the story, there must be a payoff, an arrival of real consequences.
So, in making the choice of characters, or in developing characters, are the characters in this story to be all wise, heroic, or horribly villainous? If there's anything like the usual real-life mix, my preference selects a few flaws (our hero has a temper, our villain cherishes his goldfish.) This is the set of choices by which the characters become more than cardboard cutouts, more than one-dimensional. They develop texture and dramatic vulnerability which makes for suspense, i.e, the reader knows enough about them (texture) to anticipate (think ahead and speculate) and sees enough weakness (dramatic vulnerability) to make him fear for the characters (suspense.)
So not every character will be perfect...and yet one hopes the general lot of characters you as a writer have created aren't so imperfect and so angst-ridden that a book and an action can't result from confronting them with a problem. Ideally they do stop agonizing and thinking eventually and take an action.
What kind of action? A 'morally weak' character may act without thinking, or think but never gets around to acting until it's too late or too little. Or he may let everyone else act and accept the flow. This is why beginning writers are ill-advised to try to handle one of these ('morally weak' characters) as a hero. If the writer isn't careful, a kind of writerly paralysis can set in, preventing the character from change and the book from getting anywhere. As a rule of thumb, if the character doesn't shape up and start 'morally improving' or at least signaling by the first third of the book that there is going to be 'moral improvement', the book may go way off in its pacing and become long, longer, and very long. At the very bag-end worst of writing, the character then requires a 'miracle reformation.' I rarely say 'shouldn't-ever' in an artistic creation, but I do say it on 'miracle reformations' on characters. I mean by that, major changes in attitude or outlook unsubstantiated and unforecast by any prior development in the book. It makes a very unsatisfying turn of events.
If you, as a writer, want a 'morally strong' character, consider a good balance of action and thought from the outset, a person willing to risk a mistake and not paralyzed by fear or past experience, a person with positive traits, or virtues more abundant than weaknessses. In such a story, too, things must happen for the hero because the character uses his head, not simply because he's undeservedly lucky. Note: Murphy's Law should almost always work for the villain and against the hero. It's Aristotle's rule: people envy too much good fortune in others, and that envy rapidly turns to sympathy for the one that doesn't get the breaks. You want people to sympathize with your hero, not your villain.
So how do you begin to build a 'well-drawn' character of either sort, 'morally strong' or 'morally weak' in the mind of the reader? Begin with some incident or situation both reasonable within the world and typical reality and yet putting the character to a test of some sort. This forms a strong initial dramatic hook and sets the impression you wish the reader to form about the character's problem-solving capacity. It shouldn't, however, be the biggest bang in the book. You do have to manage 300 more pages in which there must come a larger crisis.
Now, sadly, we leave 'well-drawn' and go to 'weakly-drawn' characters: characters who do not satisy the dramatic expectations of a novel.
What are the reasonable 'dramatic expectations of a novel'?
1) The central character is supposed to be responsible for things.
2) The central character has to act and cause things to happen, even if the results aren't ideal.
3) Anticipated consequences have to really happen, and have to be dealt with...no 'it was all a dream.' And beware of magical fixes.
4) No backing away or relating things from second-hand or remote vantages.
(Here I digress, because of Cherryh's Law: no rule should be followed off a cliff. All right, yes, Sophocles got away with breaking rule number 4 in Oedipus Rex, but with such dramatic tension that I've heard jaded audiences scream even before Oedipus exits the doors. If you can wind the tension so tightly that an offstage event can evoke screaming terror in the audience...you're good and I give you my personal blessing to violate rule number 4. Unfortunately most novelists who attempt this do so only because they're quite bad writers who are 'afraid to handle a fight scene', 'can't get into a villain's head', 'could never think (gasp) of doing something evil', or a dozen and one other excuses for waltzing the reader to the edge of drama with high promise---and then weaseling out by having the main character 'hear about it' rather than participate. How, conversely, do you do an Oedipus? Create a character with dramatic vulnerability and nobility, and cast said character into a situation where action is mandatory and the situation can't find a totally sweet and satisfactory conclusion.)
5) Create anticipation, and remember terror is one form of anticipation. It's why otherwise rational people wrap birthday presents for people they love, and pay to read horror novels.
6) The character should meet opposition or reversal of some kind and should exit with some lasting consequences that aren't positive, some cost---and some gain. Tragic nobility, like Oedipus, who thought he was right all along, who confronts truth and pays the price he was ready to demand of others for his rigid moral code...the character is caught in his own rigid demands for truth and justice and must accept what he's demanded for others. Hence the dramatic tension. Hence the emotional payoff, and the lingering admiration for the integrity of the character, along with shock at the character's intense, self-destructive and atoning acceptance of his own law.
7) No miracles. The character who fails, the 'morally weak' character, the character who must confront...but refuses, will not cope, will not bear up, will find a weasel way out or a miracle way out rather than face the consequences and who had rather buy moral authority the cheap way or have it granted by a god on a rope, rather than hammering it out the hard way...that's a villain, or a foil for the hero. When it occurs in a hero at the end of the book, it's frustration for the reader, and prompts me to remember an author I won't buy again. The central character in an adult novel must solve the problem, never, never, never have it solved for him by someone else. A central character must never be generally absent or non-participant in the dramatic sort-out. Sounds silly to have to say, but it is true.
Well, those are 7 rules by which to create a book and 7 rules by which a reader may reasonably judge a book. They can be bent, but only by a master hand...and rarely even then.
Having said the dreadful word, let's look back at the panel topics at the beginning...
Do women write better characters? My reason for saying no is simply that Herman Melville's Ahab is a wonderful character and I can think of a dozen characters by women novelists that are really pretty awful. Can men write good female characters and vice versa? Yes. But...
'Weakly-drawn' female characters are fairly prevalent in a very common type of novel written primarily by men, the traditional male adventure novel. Remember, any character who's an absentee or an abdicator during the action is a 'morally weak' character, and if the writer also slights their viewpoint and development priot to the denouement one can also say they're 'weakly-drawn.' And that 'weakly-drawn' aspect of the also 'morally weak' character, all political statements aside, is the primary flaw of women characters created by men for adventure fiction. Let's get it in perspective: men's adventure fiction was a 'type' of fiction for a market that asked nothing better, a lot of it very similar to writing for fanzines today. Political changes in the world have changed the perception of women's roles, and therefore such 'moral weakness' in the female characters comes across as misogynistic today. The literature has matured somewhat, the writing demands more---but I think we make a political and ethical mistake when we make demands that the female characters of today's adventure fiction all be 'morally strong.' It's quite enough for me, speaking as a woman, that they just be 'well-drawn' and let the chips fall where they may.
A great deal of uncertainty and indignation I hear from male writers about how to write 'strong' female characters seems to flow from the question, really, whether all female characters are now politically forbidden unless they appear 'morally strong' in books written by men. Only in a world overwhelmed by jingoism, say I. Let characters be what they need to be for a good story and leave the political correctness and the quota systems to editorial writers, not novelists.
Now, looking at Ahab, since we raised the ghost of Melville, here's an example of a fine character who blends both 'morally strong' and 'morally weak.' But the proportions of strength and weakness are mirror-reversed in Ishmael,...and that remains one of the odder curiosities of Moby Dick, that Queequeeg, who is minor, remains stronger than the narrator, about whom nobody much cares and who alone survives...but if you look at the structure of the novel, Ahab would not be Ahab unless observed by someone as hesitating and 'morally weak' as Ishmael. He (Ahab) ascends from folly to godhood like Oedipus, violating rule 4 above, because his extravagant action is very much like that of Oedipus, destructive, absolute, passionate, and unable to be told effectively except through the shock of an outside observer who himself lacks those traits. It subtly reverses traits of a typical men's adventure novel of somewhat later date by putting the narration into the person of Ishmael, who takes the more passive role of the female in adventure fiction, and who yet evokes the admiration of the audience from a safe emotional distance for the death of Ahab. Looking at a male adventure fiction piece versus Melville's lasting work one can see similarities; but one can also see how the shock communicates itself without becoming either horror novel or men's adventure. And the difference is the narrator. Why keep the narrator remote? The answer is the same as that in Oedipus: the ending relies on it. And in that one of the longest novels in world literature behaves in many respects like a short story, not a classic novel: it has an 'morally weak' narrator and a strong 'punch' at the end.
Well, we've discussed the faults of men's novels. Let's be even-handed and discuss the faults of a female literary tradition. The central female character who weasels through a situation (the very type of female character lambasted in men's adventure fiction) is a staple of the 'conciliation' novel which women's fiction borrowed from the 'moral tale' novel---the type that represented 'respectable reading for women' back when women weren't supposed to be exposed to immoral novels, or, one suspects, rational thought. (Novels were given to be immoral unless there was a religious point to them. Then they were edifying.
This 'moral tale' approach which became fixed into religious historicals and romances at the rise of popular fiction during the 1800's has resurfaced under the new guise of psychology, in which characters having achieved moral authority through suffering attack badly behaving cohorts in long lectures and achieve great 'conciliations' or reforms in bad behavior which then leads to group triumph over the wicked. (Oh, forgive me! Until you pointed it out I had no idea I was such a dreadful person! Now I'm all better and I promise to reform! I will join you unselfishly and probably die heroically or at least be seriously bruised as we trash the bad guy!) It represents a certain fraction of novels almost universally by female writers. Examples of the type have lately arrived in the science fiction and fantasy market I suspect by way of the romance, to be read finally by men of greater tolerance for innovatively bad writing than I can readily imagine, since men are the frequent victims of the lectures. Under the guise of 'politically correct' thought the writers verbally and with completely lack of subtlety invoke some 'absolute truth' instead of building it into the characters. Challenge it and one seems to challenge moral rightness: consequently reviewers have behaved as if they don't know what to do about a book which comes to such (sigh) true and righteous conclusions (motherhood and apple pie) which no one would want to attack, and yet remains unsatisfying. I maintain that conclusions and motivational outcomes like that are very simple to criticize: the 'conciliation' motif in which everyone forgives everyone or lectures everyone into morality is entirely unsatisfying in terms of 'strong' characters versus 'weak' characters as defined above. A 'conciliating' character, even a 'morally strong' one, is not enough to convert the 'morally weak' into another 'morally strong' or to change the opinion and behavior of a 'morally strong' but wrong-headed character on the simple strength of a lecture. This flies in the face of all the reasons for 'moral weakness' or 'moral strength' delivered for this misbehaving character throughout the previous 300 pages of the book.
If you think about it, it's the antithesis of dramatic expectation: virtue must be won by experience, not handed one on a platter. If novels worked otherwise, we could just have the hero encounter a wise man in chapter two who'd tell him all there was to know and he could go home and forget that 'suffering and improving' part of being a hero. He could just go straight to the 'happily ever after' stuff. Or if he was really good I suppose he could go lecture the villain into wisdom, too, and they could form a charitable foundation and go lecture others.
Co-equal with this is the chance of people being 'morally persuaded' or 'miracled' into intelligence, when they've generally been an ass in the 300 prior pages.
A bridge in Brooklyn, I say. I don't buy it, and I won't buy the book.
At the other end of the spectrum, and, I think, far more in reaction to these moral-correction stories than in imitation of the male adventure story, we find the character, whether male or female, incapable of 'conciliating'...the polar opposite in theme, but ironically hampered by the same refusal of the writer to engage the moral issues raised. Peace and 'conciliation' at any cost at one end of the spectrum, and vengeance without humanity at the other make, in my opinion, the same 'weakly-drawn' characters. Consider the berserker female hero, the angry young woman coming out of a rape or a violent event who learns nothing, gains no psychological depth during her sojourn and who dices up everyone responsible without gaining any real sense of responsibility for herself. (Understand, there are good ones of the type in which growth does happen and things aren't as simple as they seem; there are, in fact, some very moving stories of women/men coming to grips with violence done to them. But there are, particularly among the unpublished (and particularly, for historical reasons, by women writers) all too many examples of the emotional berserker in opposition to the passionless conciliator.
In my prior definition, yes, both are 'weakly-drawn' characters, simply because they fail to satisfy what characters in a novel are supposed to do, that is, to change and grow and carry the reader along a journey to understanding of the deeper, less apparent issues. That piece of wisdom and growth that makes the cost of a book and the time to read it worthwhile to the reader is absent. It's not necessary to kill the whole royal family or blind oneself as Oedipus did...as a matter of fact, Oedipus self-destructed and took his family with him, satisfying in the short story a play really is; but not in a novel. To have the character revise and adjust goals in a realistic and mature way as the character proceeds to solve his/her problem creates a more satisfying novel-length story, particularly if there's a twist in the situation, where not everything turns out by the formula, where not everything is as simple as it seemed, and where black and white issues cross into troubling grays.
And best, in my personal preference, if the grays occur within the characters, not the events. In a child's story, yes, things can be more yes or no, right or wrong, black and white, and authority can step in to solve a certain amount of the problem, because that is a child's world. But adults have real world decisions to make that are beyond the simply identified moral issues of a child: consequently, adult fiction should offer the adult mind something more than a child's simplistic right-wrong, black-white issues. There's a reason children are under guidance by older folk, and that reason is, of course, that while simple solutions can 'feel' good, more often complex solutions work better, and simple ones don't work at all, in the long run or in the wider view. Adults know that, when they're not acting like children. And adult readers have a right to books that work on their level. That's why 'conciliation' books are dramatically unsatisfying. Adults know they've never won the most meaningful understandings they have just by being told anything...they've learned by weaving together for themselves in their situations a method that works, that does the least harm and the greatest good under the circumstances given and within the time allowed.
Those grays of behavior are the badge of adulthood, and they're why both the species and civilization survives.
So 'well-drawn' and 'morally strong' adult characters of whatever gender carry swords and banners only for local color. More importantly, they carry principles or hypotheses of behavior as the useful and significant tools of their trade, and they test those principles for validity constantly against the situation posed...doing it in fiction so that people who read the story can gain the life experience not by a lecture but by deep analysis and integration of that character's experiences and reactions.
What's character? The whole book...for me...is character.