August 14, 2014

The Character Debate: Strong and Vulnerable?

Movie promo image of Gamora with text: Can a Character Be Strong and Vulnerable?

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?

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hi Jami! Wow, I’m shocked especially at the strong hero stereotype, because I was never aware of that. What???? A sensitive and caring hero is considered WEAK???? In my books, a guy who dares to show sensitivity, to show his sadness, fear, a guy who is brave enough to CRY, is a STRONG male. 😀 I REALLY love emotionally sensitive and vulnerable males, both in friends and in partners, haha. Oh yes, I totally agree with you that alpha hole males are insecure. ALPHA HOLE males are the ones who are WEAK. Yes! Just because a girl needs help or needs to be saved by a male SOMETIMES, doesn’t make her “weak”. She’s strong in other ways, e.g. saving the male some other times, or saving innocent citizens, defending the city, etc. And yes, being strong in relationships is strong, too. Maybe some will say it’s a female stereotype to be strong at relationships, but these commentators might not realize that it’s HARD to be strong at relationships. So for example, if a female manages to develop a strong bond with her son or daughter, and manages to take great care of them and protect them, that is strength to me. A male who manages to do the same with his children, is also strong to me. Ha, you know how I’m so against “making” or “creating” characters in my own writing. I’m like you in how I pants everything and let them reveal themselves, and I also have NO…  — Read More »

Juli Page Morgan

My critique group has been discussing this recently, especially how alpha males are now expected to be alpha-holes. I find it disheartening that the panel leading the workshop you attended perpetuated the current trend of thinking a strong male in fiction has to be, for the most part, a jerk. One of the things we’ve talked about in my critique group is the disturbing way these alpha-holes usually seem to be involved with dubious-consensual sex, strong-arming the heroine into submitting after she’s shown or told him she’s reluctant. Oh, hell no! That is not the behavior of a strong, confident man – it’s the behavior of a man committing sexual assault. But it’s increasingly portrayed in romance as “hot.” It’s gotten to the point that I will not buy a book where the hero is described as an alpha male. The last few romances I read where the hero was supposed to be an alpha male included scenes where he smirked at the heroine (one of whom had just whimpered – whimpered! – “no”) and said something like, “Too late, Princess. You’ve made me wait long enough. Open that pretty mouth of yours.” Nope, nope and nope. So when the panel at the workshop put forth that alpha males must be “ruthless with everyone” and that he couldn’t ever be rejected by a woman in the story, did they realize just how such a man would behave if the heroine said “no?” That type of alpha-hole is becoming more and…  — Read More »

Christina Hawthorne

That is scary in the extreme, Juli. Sexual assault is now cool? Who thought that up, some maladjusted, 16 year-old male? I agree with every word you said and you said it well. I’ve no use for such writing and fear it’s part of the trend where, in an effort to standout, writers are crossing lines for sales. Their readers aren’t in my audience.

Juli Page Morgan

You’re so right that it’s scary in the extreme. I think about young women reading books with that type of male and believing it’s acceptable and/or sexy, and my skin crawls. What if it happens to them in real life? Will they report it? Or just think that’s the way a “strong” man behaves?

Fans of alpha-holes are not in my audience, either, Christina. While the heroes I write can, given their occupations, be a little cocky, arrogant and high-handed, they’re also thoughtful, kind, loving, and would never press the issue if the heroine said no. Thankfully, they’re loved by my readers. 🙂

Christina Hawthorne

Couldn’t agree more. You’ve made your point beautifully and you’ve made my day! How we managed to stumble into the age of women having low expectations I have no idea, but I refuse to be a part of it. To me, low expectations equal low self-esteem.

Elizabeth Corva
Elizabeth Corva

Couldn’t agree with Juli more. Where the film industry and non-Romance book genre writers are starting to have full and open discussion about feminism, gender stereotyping, agency, and consent, the Romance industry appears to be in total denial that these things exist. The longer they not only ignore these concepts, but demand that authors ignore them too, the more disservice they do to readers. So what IS an alpha hole to do when his love interest says “not tonight, Aunt Flo’s in town.”? According to canon, his only choice is to bang her anyway. Failing that, he’ll engage in some good old-fashioned victim blaming (“Why did you get within arms’ reach of me if you’re bleeding, sweetheart?”) Let’s face it: Romance readers flock to alpha hole heroes because they have bought into the industry narrative that alpha holes are the ultimate partners – always strong, always in charge, and more than a little dangerous. In other words, they’ve been TOLD these guys are sexy, just like they’re TOLD to love the Boy Band o’ the Month and they’re TOLD to worship at the Altar of the Kardashians. People who are susceptible to marketing tactics will fall for it every time. And once they’re hooked, they’re so easy to keep on the line. Just keep feeding them derivative works. Sounds like we need a revolution. The hell with these so-called experts – I’m writing my own narrative with strong and in-charge heroes who don’t turn into petulant, outraged babies if their…  — Read More »

Juli Page Morgan

Hear, hear! Brilliantly put!


On the flip side of the coin are the “strong” female characters whose “loving” relationship with the guy hinges on the guy’s dreams and goals and perspective being ignored or dismissed entirely, often without being consulted, and he just rolls with it.

This is one reason I’m looking forward to whenever I can finish my WiP. The end result will actually involve their dreams being compatible, rather than mutually exclusive.


I actually can’t remember any pushback I’ve gotten between the strength and likability meter for my characters. I do, however, get pushback for the introversion. Some folks gripe that there’s no conflict, while others love the internal conflict. It’s quite possible that the style and introversion pushes away those who would pitch a fit, because they don’t finish reading.

In my current WiP, I even recently had a scene where all the commenters understood completely and agreed with what the narrator did, even though the narrator herself disagreed.

But that aside… I agree that alpha-hole isn’t really alpha. Jerks are that way out of insecurity—they can’t possibly let anyone disagree with them, because it damages their image. True alphas can be confident while letting others believe what they will.

Someone so imbecile and insecure that their self-worth depends on their image—how can someone like that truly be an alpha, male or female?

The closest-to-stereotype characters I can remember liking are Curran (Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews) and Adam (Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs). Both are control freaks who are concerned about appearances, but…they kinda have to be concerned about that, because they actually will lose respect and possibly be assassinated if their image takes a hit. And they’re well aware they’re paranoid and controlling, and they work at mitigating it as much as they can.

Christina Hawthorne

Oh, great post, Jami. I’m sick to death, or at least “un-death,” of the stereotypes, but I’m equally sick of the anti-stereotypes that have become stereotypes. For instance, the woeful damsel-in-distress has given way to the kick-ass woman who out-fights, out-cusses, and out-machos every man she comes in contact with. Given how common these women have become I’m wondering why the NFL doesn’t consist entirely of kick-ass women?

Kick-ass, unfeeling heroes and heroines are an easy “out,” I suppose, since they provide a way to avoid internal conflict. Too bad that too many readers aren’t demanding more. Whatever happened to protagonists who must overcome real issues and so, at least a little, utilize intelligence and insight? I guess I view characters differently than most because I value diversity and cooperation.

In my first book the heroine, Shayleen, is the epitome of the weak female. She’s shy, unassuming, slight, and obedient, but when she consciously taps into her compassion she finds strength there. Her compassion, coupled with an insight learned via abuse, enables her to commit a heroic act. She doesn’t utilize some absurd display of great physical strength, but instead pieces together a puzzle no one else understood because their mindset placed value in great strength and fearlessness.

Juli Page Morgan

Shayleen sounds like the type of character I want to read about. (And I’ve bookmarked “Last Word Before Dying” so I can settle in tonight and start reading!) Like you, I want to read about protagonists who have layers, who overcome real issues and discover their strengths.

My latest heroine is a 42-year-old widow who’s never thought of herself as tough. But throughout the book she comes to realize that she’s tough when it counts, and learns to stand up for herself, even if it means she might lose what she thought she wanted. And the hero, while self-assured, sexy and confident, finds out he has a major blind spot when it comes to his teenaged children, and realizes he’s not as tough as he thought. Layers, I tell you; layers. These people are freakin’ onions. 😉

Christina Hawthorne

Yes, Juli, onions, and what wonderful opportunities writers are sacrificing by ignoring layers. Layers are mystery. Instead, too many are turning to depthless characters performing actions. Characters who are willing to risk their dreams and hearts, as you mention, are what constitute a great story. I take it you’re a musician given your musical book themes…wonderful way to integrate what you know. I’ll certainly investigate more closely.

I’m glad you’ve taken an interest in Shayleen. I’m presently editing that story before I release it as a free ebook and the first that takes in my fictional world. I’m in the midst of replacing the “parts” online with entire “chapters” to make reading easier. 🙂

Stacy Jerger

Amen, Jami! Amen. <3

Janet Walden-West
Janet Walden-West

Thank you!
There are a few words that need eliminated from our vocabulary for a while. “Snarky” for everyone. “Spunky” for female characters, and the whole “alpha/beta” construct for male characters.
Even biologists and animal behaviorists veer away from the alpha word now and consider it outdated.
*Stepping off my soapbox now*

Sara L.

Absolutely awesome article, Jami. I wish I had something more to add other than I agree with everything you said, but you made one excellent point after another. And I think you may have just convinced me to see GotG. 😉 I’ve never heard of the term “alpha-hole” before (and I had to throw my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud at the name), but it makes perfect sense with the kind of character you’re talking about. I can think of a few literary characters who are alpha-holes – and I didn’t like them very much because I could barely relate to them. It’s easy to make a male antagonist an alpha-hole, too, I think. That section of the article made me think about a particular character in my WIP and how I need to be careful as I develop him so he doesn’t come off like a complete jerk, but a man with a honest goal (and select off-putting characteristics) who’s competing against the main character. I’m also in the camp that believes sensitivity in a male character doesn’t make him weak. Have you read “Poison Study” by Maria V. Snyder? It features Valek, a male character who’s one of the country’s top assassins and spies. Analytical, focused, quick-thinking, resourceful, a little cold and impenetrable at times (usually in more political situations). But as he grows closer to the protagonist Yelena, he makes small gestures that show he cares about her. The scene where Valek…  — Read More »

Anne R. Allen

Brilliant post, Jami! Great comments, too. I hate it that heroes have to be apha-holes and I hate it just as much that heroines have to be the same. A jerk is a jerk. Why would I want to read about jerks in love? Their poor kids. 🙂

But a lot of readers have bought into this jerk-on-jerk romance thing and now even in chick lit, some of my reviewers think a heroine has to be perfect on page one and never have any room for improvement. Where’s the story? (And where’s the humor?) If these people really got everything they wanted, they’d be getting 50 shades of paint drying.

The ultimate romance hero is Mr. Darcy. He *seems* arrogant, but he’s vulnerable underneath. Without that vulnerability, Elizabeth would never have loved him. And neither would the reader.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Jami, if you guessed I’d be stating my own take on this, you’d be right so here goes- First, I’m both shocked and outraged this narrow view of men in fiction (romance or not) is still so narrow. I realize not everyone there believes this extremest standard, but the fact an editor said this really worries me. We’re supposed to trust and respect their judgement, and if my editor said similar things regarding my work based on this narrow mindset, I wouldn’t feel they’re looking out for me or any other author they may rep who don’t have this view of what “Alpha men” or “Strong Women” look like. This kind of attitude could stand in the way of more men writing romance or even read/respect the best of it. I’m particularly sensitive to this, not just because I’m a man, but as an author myself who hates to see how gender discrimination and stereotyping does just as much harm to boys and men as girls and women, especially because boys and men don’t have the resources and emotional support outlets girls and women do. Since when did losing your virginity in and of itself become required to be a man? (Alpha or otherwise…) And we wonder why we demonize men in the culture, if we only read about the narrow-minded stereotypes, it’s no wonder I’m not saying it’s an excuse to be rude and jerky, but it still speaks to how pathetic stereotypes can be debilitate boys and men…  — Read More »

Diana Beebe

I love this post, Jami! I struggle with this, too. In one of my books, my main character is physically unbeatable, but hates the job that uses her skills that way. I’ve had to work very hard to make her likeable even though that drive to get out of her dead-end assignment is what changes her.

Her love interest, on the other hand, is well-liked because he is kind. His strength is not about kicking someone’s butt to prove he can. So that doesn’t make him alpha?

I heard lots of disappointing discussion at RWA14 about what the alpha should be–my character doesn’t fit that narrow description either. But that doesn’t make him less of a man or not a leader. On the contrary, he is both.

Sometimes the alpha in a wolf pack is the one leading with quiet patience, and with such strength that the rest of the pack respects him and doesn’t challenge.

Then there’s the term “alpha” that gets to me. It doesn’t imply partnership with the heroine.

So, here’s to more strong (yet vulnerable) women who fall for kind (yet strong) men in lovely partnerships. It happens in real life. 😀

Brian McKinley

Thanks for this article! There’s lots of discussion about strong female characters and disagreement about what that means. I’m glad to see someone tackle both gender stereotypes! I don’t like reading about stereotypes, either, and it’s one of the main things that will make me stop reading a book.

Angela Ackerman

Excellent post, Jami! You raise some very interesting questions. I think we should not be narrow-minded when it comes to strong heroes, because as you say, stereotypes devolve into the cliche or are missing a vital element that allows them to feel three dimensional.

Much of the confusion comes from what “strength” means. Is knowing one’s limitations and asking for help a strength? Is a strong moral code and the unwillingness to cross it despite pressure to do so strength? I think so, yet many would disagree, especially when discussing an alpha male. But, in my humblest of opinions, true strength isn’t about proving it to others, but not needing to. Strength is simply the willingness to act.

Margaret Thatcher said something when in an interview a reporter suggested she was the most powerful woman in the world:

“Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

To me, that’s strength. 🙂

As to showing vulnerability, that post I sent you probably covers it best. No one likes to fail or make mistakes. No one likes to be shown an uncomfortable truth, see their flaws for what they are or have their privacy invaded. All good ways to make a character feel vulnerable yet not damage that “image of strength.”

Julie Musil

Some of my favorite characters are strong AND vulnerable. Indiana Jones comes to mine. And heck, isn’t a strong outward attitude sometimes attributed to true vulnerability? There will be critics of all types of characters. I think you’re smart to write the characters who inspire YOU!

Deborah Makarios

Jane Eyre is my idea of a strong woman. She won’t let anyone – even herself! – push or pull her into what she believes is wrong or isn’t comfortable with. She isn’t a butt-kicker, but she is indomitable (love that word!)
And it doesn’t hurt that Rochester is strong without being an a$$hole – although I note he is disqualified from the “alpha” stereotype mentioned above by being both maimed and dumped (twice, if my memory serves me correctly).
A jerk is a jerk and there’s nothing romantic about being trampled on. Let’s hear it for the men (real and fictional) who are actually worthy of respect, not mere petty, self-centred tyrants!


Blake Snyder demonstrated the concept of making a protagonist likable so well in Save the Cat. Remember how he talked about Tomb Raider being unsuccessful because Lara Croft was too invulnerable?
This is why I’m surprised that paranormal stories are supposed to feature such arrogant ‘heroes.’ In my opinion, arrogance is a negative trait just begging for a character arc that lands on compassion at the story’s end!
Great rant, Jami. 🙂


[…] are what makes a novel live in the hearts and minds of your readers. Jami Gold asks: can characters be both strong and vulnerable? Anne R. Allen lists 5 protagonists readers hate. K.M. Weiland explains how to writer memorable […]


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.
Okay, time for stupid suggestion of the week (maybe)! Perhaps flip that stereotype on it’s head by having a female protagonist who gets one over on men by ‘needing to be rescued’ by them. Score bonus points by basing it on one or more of the Grimm fairytales. 😉


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