Writing is often about finding a balance. Too much left in subtext can lead to confusion. Too much explanation can feel like an info dump or be too “on the nose.” Etc., etc.
With our characters, if we want our protagonists to seem heroic, they need to have strong traits. Yet at the same time, if we want our protagonists to be relatable, they need to have vulnerabilities. This is never an easy balance, especially when clichés fill our heads about what a “strong character” means.
Stereotypes of Strong Characters Don’t Allow for Diversity
On the heroine side, Ripley from Alien is often brought up as a “strong female character.” The stereotype, which I’ve written about before, refers mostly to physically violent, butt-kicking women. Furthermore, it assumes women who need rescuing—ever—can’t possibly be strong.
On the hero side, the stereotype is all-alpha-male-all-the-time. And not just a normal level of alpha male, oh no… In some genres, the expectation is for an amount of alpha-ness that reaches *sshole level—leading to the label “alpha-hole.” Again, the assumption is that heroes who are caring or sensitive—ever—couldn’t possibly be strong.
With all those clichés and stereotypes swirling about, it’s no wonder that we might struggle with making likable characters. There’s no room in those clichés for vulnerabilities that will make them relatable to the reader.
Whatever happened to “strong” meaning the ability to handle that which the character thinks they can’t? Whether they’re handling a situation, an emotion, a conflict, a weapon, a threat, or a relationship, there should be multiple ways of showing strength, or else we’ve lost a different kind of diversity among our characters.
Stereotypes Don’t Allow for Three-Dimensional Characters
Those expectations also prevent us from making three-dimensional characters. How can a character who has to conform to such narrow expectations ever seem unique and real? How can they ever make decisions that follow who they are rather than who the clichés expect them to be?
I prefer writing organic characters, those who become fully realized through drafting, as I let them make choices and statements that follow what they believe—even if I don’t have a clue what they believe until later in the process. (Yes, I write by the seat of my pants. *smile*)
If I had to tell my characters what they were allowed to say or how they were allowed to react to prevent them from “breaking the rules,” my muse would go on strike. (And my muse is an alpha male just this side of jerk.)
A Disclaimer—Characters Who Conform Aren’t “Bad”
All that said, I don’t think it’s bad if some of the characters we write follow the stereotypes. As with other kinds of diversity, the problem is when that’s the only depiction or considered the norm.
Many readers like heroines who literally kick butts, and many readers don’t. Many readers adore alpha-hole heroes who are jerks to the nth degree, and many readers don’t. As authors, some of us naturally write those types of characters, and some of us don’t.
None of that is wrong. If we tried to eliminate those characters, we’d once again be limiting the options for our characters, which is the opposite of my point.
Rather, my concern is with the preponderance of these characters, to the point that they’ve become the expectation. And worse, that any characteristics that deviate from the narrow expectation result in the character losing the “strong” label regardless of their other qualifications.
A Closer Look at Strong Heroines
I originally started thinking about this topic after Sara Letourneau discussed how we can make strong-yet-believable heroines. At the bottom of her post, Sara shared five tips for making strong heroines believable. In my own words, my favorites were:
- Give her an opportunity to evolve—hello, character arc! This should be a “duh.”
- Balance any literal butt-kicking ability with other admirable qualities (not just weaknesses). Don’t allow the butt-kicking alone to define who she is on the positive side of the equation.
- Make her afraid of something that nearly paralyzes her. The key I’ve found for making my heroines at least somewhat likable has been allowing them to show their vulnerability.
Case Study: Gamora of the Guardians of the Galaxy Movie
Sara’s post brought to my mind the character of Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana) in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. I consider Gamora a strong character despite the fact that she “breaks the rules” of those stereotypes. (And I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here.)
She’s an assassin (and possibly the best fighter among the Guardians), but that aspect doesn’t define her, in part because she’s not single-minded about that identity. There are hints of a love interest between her and Peter Quill, but it never interferes with her goals. And those goals—her goals—drive the movie, as she’s the one who insists to the rest of the team what they need to do and why.
Yet she also shows vulnerability. She reveals her secret to Peter in their second scene together because she does want to be seen as more than just an assassin and because she’s not above accepting help. She understands the stakes, the consequences of failure, better than anyone, so her voice breaks and she shows real fear at the thought of that failure. She does need rescuing—twice.
But make no mistake, she’d cut your heart out if you called her “weak.” And that’s my point.
Is Gamora a “Strong” Character?
Despite her many strong, admirable traits, some have focused on the love interest aspect, or the damsel in distress aspect, or whatever, and opined that those make her ineligible for being a strong character. That’s narrow-minded. Again, she’s the driver of the whole plot, has the most personally at stake, and is the moral center of the team’s choices.
In many ways, victory means more to her, is more important to her, and centers more on her, than on any of the other characters. Now that’s overcoming a situation, and that’s why characters like her deserve to be considered strong no matter the “rules” they break.
A Closer Look a Strong Heroes
I write paranormal romance, and for better or worse, the norm for that subgenre is extreme alpha male/alpha-hole heroes. But I’ve mentioned before that I don’t write alpha-holes, and some of my heroes have some downright beta traits (along with their alpha traits). In fact, some of my stories feature a paranormal heroine and a “mere human” hero.
I don’t want to write jerks. I don’t want to read jerks. I want romances where the characters grow in a partnership based on respect that I can believe will last for the “ever after” part of the happy ending. That’s just my preference.
Alpha Males vs. Alpha-Holes
To me, a hero can be dominant without being domineering. They can be protective without being controlling. And they can be confident without being overly arrogant.
To me, those positive traits, along with others like leadership, focus, decision making, and problem solving, are an alpha male. The term came from wolf packs, where the alpha male was simply the leader, not a jerk.
On the other hand, when I look at a domineering, controlling, arrogant male, I don’t see a leader. I don’t see an alpha male. I don’t see a hero.
I see a poseur, a male who’s so insecure that they put on an act to hide who they really are and who’s so afraid that they need to control everything. Their jerky behavior is all about posturing and overcompensating for their weaknesses.
To me, the real strong heroes are the ones so confident they’re not afraid of revealing their vulnerabilities. The ones so confident they can be nice and not fear that will erase their assertiveness or power. In other words, the ones we might actually like if we met them in real life.
Expectations of Alpha Males in Fiction
But the stereotype of the alpha male in many genres doesn’t recognize that nuance. One of the workshops I went to at the RWA Annual Conference was Deconstructing the Alpha Male.
At first I was heartened by the discussion because the panel made fun of the stereotype of the alpha-hole, But then they listed the characteristics they felt embodied alpha heroes, such as:
- ruthless with everyone (i.e. not nice or kind to anyone)
- “bro” culture (only bond to other males)
- expressionless and implacable (no showing of emotions)
Uh oh, that’s getting close to a jerk in my book. In the business world, a guy like that wouldn’t make a very good leader. Leaders have to respect others enough to listen so they can govern well, not just conquer.
Then the panel gave opinions about the kind of heroes who couldn’t be alpha males:
- rejected by a woman during the story
- a virgin
- physically damaged (beyond just a “cool” scar)
Hmm, their description was getting narrower, and essentially marked as off-limits many potential vulnerabilities. Why, it’s almost as though they thought alpha males weren’t allowed to be vulnerable in any way.
Case Study: A Hypothetical Workshop Hero
Then an attendee asked the question:
“What if you have a military hero, firefighter, or police officer who is not an *sshole—ever? They love their mother, they’re a hero, and they dominate their world. To be an alpha, do they have to be a jerk?”
The answer from the editor on the panel:
“I think that’s just a hero.”
Gah! In other words, yes, their view was that alphas have to be jerks. Not being an *sshole (and horror of horrors, having a healthy relationship with his mother) was important enough to disqualify a dominant military hero (i.e., the prototypical alpha male) from being considered an alpha male hero. Only the alpha-holes counted as alpha heroes. *head desk*
Again, I’m not saying that no heroes should ever be arrogant, controlling, domineering playboys. But for them to state, in answer to my follow-up question, that paranormal romance heroes are required to be these jerky alpha-hole style of alpha males doesn’t match with the goal of diverse three-dimensional characters.
I reject the idea that characters must conform to narrow stereotypes to be considered “strong.” I want to read stories with more diverse characters than that. That’s why I’m not going to change the kinds of characters I write. I’ll continue writing both heroes and heroines who are strong and vulnerable. And I’ll just hope that others are looking for the same. *smile*
Do you struggle with writing characters who are strong yet likable? Have you ever experienced pushback for making your characters vulnerable? Do you think characters can be strong and vulnerable? How do you think genre affects that possibility? How would you define a strong character? What heroes or heroines have you liked that follow or break the stereotypes?Pin It