Testing Character Strength: Storytelling vs. Appealing to Your Readers

Photo Credit: http://nocamels.com/2015/01/smoking-weight-gain-muscle/
Photo Credit: http://nocamels.com/2015/01/smoking-weight-gain-muscle/

I read an interesting article this week published by Bustle. The article, titled “Writing Strong Female Characters? That’s A Great Goal, But I’d Rather Write Strong Kick-Heart Characters,” is written by Catherynne M. Valente, a speculative fiction writer and author. In this article, Valente discusses what it’s like being a writer in the modern world, specifically in regard to the very particular ways in which female characters are portrayed. Valente makes the claim that the question should not be ‘How do you write strong female characters?’ Instead, the question is “how do you write strong characters?”

Character development is a tough process to begin with, not to mention the awaiting judgments and expectations of your readers in the outside world. Art is rarely for art’s sake in today’s world and the necessity of pleasing the reader–the CONSUMER–seems to trump all else. That being said, there are a number of cases where characters who are wholly unlikable star in books that become bestsellers. But this is a calculated risk certain writers have chosen to take and it’s a pretty steady trend right now, though it is not one that appeals to me all the much as a reader.

As you may know, I have been working on a lengthy piece of writing that takes place in the Victorian era. Immediately, people have conceptions of what the Victorian woman was like (and the Victorian man too). This, of course, gets muted a bit by all of the Victorian-era works of fiction out there today which were written in the modern era to appeal to a modern reader and may or may not have been researched at various levels.

There are two main characters in my story. The first is a man by the name of John Edgar. The second is a woman named Eleanor Westfall. Developing these characters has been a complicated process. First of all (though perhaps not foremost in my mind), I have the expectations of the modern reader to consider. To what degree I take their opinion into consideration depends upon my ultimate purpose for the piece. If I were to seek a traditional route of publication, and being that I am an unknown writer, I would likely have to be more aware than a more established writer to do what I want. This is not a choice I have made, yielding to what the story craves rather than what my reader may prefer.

The second thing I must take into consideration is the constraints of the time period. In a previous post, I deliberate about the degree of historical accuracy in fiction. Tied within this issue, and that raised in the previous paragraph as well, is the strength of my respective characters. How much strength is appropriate for Eleanor considering the time period from which she hails, with her personal history? How much strength or lack of strength is appropriate for John, a man who has seen his dreams dashed due to being partially deaf (this was a bigger deal back then, in case you wondered) but yet is a man of the late Victorian age. He is supposed to be weak in the beginning. He is addicted to Absinthe, he is in a career that was not his first choice and he lacks what he thinks he wants/needs in his life. He is not brave and he is the reluctant hero of the book. He becomes the hero merely to save his own skin. Despite his shortcomings, he must be brave/likeable enough that a reader will believe that a woman like Eleanor loves him.

Additionally, there is a very unique thread that winds through my story. I purposefully objectify Eleanor in two ways. First, she is meant to be the human embodiment of a mythical figure, an impossibly beautiful and sexually desirable entity. Because of this, whenever John is narrating, he describes her using words that would be used to describe a specific inanimate object and he has these intense feelings of desire for her. This physical object plays a key role in John’s life, as does Eleanor. His desire for her is wrapped up in the physical, his imagination, his possible hallucinations and his desire for adventure and love. Despite everything else, his love for her is meant to be real and pure.

Will people dislike the way I as a woman have chosen to purposefully objectify a female character? It’s possible. Will they see her as weak? I certainly hope not. She is a spurned woman on a mission. But if they do dislike her, I doubt they will dislike her the same way they dislike some shamefully latent female characters in modern fiction or how those women are treated/portrayed. She is meant to be human, but also other-worldly. The story itself is a melding of historical fiction and magical realism thus, Eleanor seems larger than life; and she is.

Vente makes an important point in her article about the strong female character. She writes, “so often, our culture at large seems to peer into novels (and movies and television) as through the bars of a cage at the zoo. Here we see the endangered strong female protagonist in her natural habitat! What strange markings she has! What goes through the head of such a bizarre creature?” And yes, I completely agree with what she is saying here. If you don’t do things just right, they will tear you down bit by bit instead of looking at the larger picture of what it is you the writer are saying by portraying your character in such a light. You are always under scrutiny.

Will people dislike John because he is weak and he is out to save his own skin? Maybe. I had to make him likeable enough for me to be able to stand his presence in my head and write about him. He is filled with faults, but his heart is good. And that’s been enough for me to let him blabber away in my imagination.

“I have never once been asked how I write male characters, nor how to write strong, kickass male characters, nor whether I’m concerned about making the men in my books vulnerable as well as tough,” Valente says. Well, John is far from kickass. But I would imagine that readers will only speculate if John and Eleanor are a good match. I doubt they will think him too weak. Come to think of it, in any book discussion I have had outside of a classroom setting, no one has commented negatively on the weakness or strength of a male protagonist.

I suppose little of this will resonate with you because you do not really know the details of the story I am writing, so it is quite possible that I am just meandering about and boring you to death (I hope not!). How about a point then! The point revolves around a question and that question (or series of questions) for me is this: If you’re asking me about the strength of my characters, then who are you? Am I writing for you or am I writing for myself? Or better yet, am I writing what the character in my head is telling me to write? Am I writing to fit a mold or am I writing to try to create something new? My characters are going to be who they are. They will have certain caps or constraints placed upon them based upon who I am as a person and as a writer. They may be strong or they may be weak. I’m not trying to make a statement for or against anyone. I’m simply telling a story.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t let it be that simple. Ah, there’s the rub…

4 thoughts on “Testing Character Strength: Storytelling vs. Appealing to Your Readers

  1. Great post! It is always fascinating to consider authors’ intentions vs. readers’ perceptions. I do find it interesting that you assume readers reject weak female characters these days. I wish that were the case with 50 Shades!

    I also want to say that I agree with Valente’s assessment: it is not any particular character trait that is problematic. The problem is the dearth of female protagonists. Because there is rarely more than one, a singular character is often interpreted as a symbol for all of womankind (read: The Smurfette Principle).

    1. Characters like the ones you get in 50 Shades or Twilight do exist and are equally embraced and bashed for who/what they are.

      Yes I too agree with Valente. But as a writer, you don’t want to have too many characters or you could lose your way! Maybe that’s being to kindly to the writer though 🙂 Thanks for reading!! 🙂

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