Readers want strong main characters. No one wants to read a story with a weak one.
I knew that. Really I did.
Why, then, did I end up with a weak heroine?
Soon after my awesome agent offered representation, I received my first set of Revision Notes. One of several concerns she expressed was that my heroine was wimpy.
To be honest, that wasn’t my agent’s word. What she really said was, “Elenora is a strong person, yet there are times she becomes weak and whiny and terribly unlikable.”
That stung a bit.
After I had time to absorb the feedback, I viewed my story through a new lens and was shocked to find out my agent was spot on. Elenora, as a character, had major problems.
What did I do?
My first step was to accept the truth, which I did.
My second was to dissect my heroine. Not literally, of course, but literarily.
I plopped dear Ellie on the examination table and took a thorough look at her, inside and out. Why was she strong at times and weak at others? What made her lose the appeal she’d had in the first part of the story? How had she gone from likable to “terribly unlikable?”
I ended up with a list of problem areas I needed to address and attacked them. The brutal battle waged for weeks as I took Ellie apart and put her back together again.
Here are 10 ways Ellie became stronger . . .
1. She stays in character. Once I established her character, I worked to keep it consistent. She starts as a strong woman and grows even stronger as the story progresses.
2. If she acts out of character, she has a good reason. I make this clear through Ellie’s thoughts, through the thoughts of the hero if we’re in his POV, or through dialogue.
3. She has a firmly established goal, one worthy of a heroine. In the earlier version of the story my agent read, Ellie lacked a clear goal. As a result she came across as wishy-washy, shifting her course of action based on a whim, or worse, upon a surge of emotion. In the revised version, she has a clearly stated goal, which is an admirable one.
4. She pursues her goal with determination. Although her chances of success are limited, Ellie gives her all to reaching her goal, putting forth hard work and lots of heart.
5. She doesn’t let doubts deter her. Discouragement is inevitable at times, but Ellie refuses to listen to the voices telling her she can’t achieve her goal. She talks back to them instead, adopting an “I’ll show you” attitude.
6. She takes others into consideration. Even though Ellie is eager to reach her goal, she doesn’t live for herself alone. She cares for her young daughter, the hero, and his mother. Because of this, there are times Ellie puts her own needs and desires aside for the sake of others.
7. She periodically assesses her goals, making adjustments as necessary. Ellie begins the story with one course of action in mind. When things don’t go as planned, she accepts the need for change. Although she’s disappointed and discouraged, she understands that there will be bumps in the road, unexpected turns, and even some dead ends. When she encounters them, she charts a new course of action and pursues it.
8. Even though she’s strong, she’s imperfect. Perfect people don’t exist. Perfect characters sometimes do, as was the case with the hero in the original version of my story, but they’re boring. Readers can’t relate to characters who aren’t “real” or flawed. While Ellie knows a great deal about many things, there are areas where she’s lacking. During the story, she’s forced to face some of her emotional, psychological, and spiritual weaknesses.
9. She encounters challenges bravely. Sure, Ellie’s scared at times, but she knows that courage is action undertaken in spite of fear. To paraphrase an old saying, she feels the fear but does it anyway.
10. She knows when to seek help. As her situation worsens, Ellie is forced to turn to others and to the Lord for guidance, support, and practical help. Early in the story she is unable to do so. As she becomes stronger, she realizes that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness but of wisdom.
Making such major changes to my character wasn’t easy. I went through many of the steps above myself as I transformed Ellie. She grew as a character, and I grew as a writer.
The good news is that Ellie became stronger through the process and much more likable, so much so that my agent was able to sell the story. I like to think I became stronger, too, and better equipped to deal with the inevitable revisions that are a necessary part of getting a story ready for publication.
If you’re a fiction writer, how do you go about creating strong characters? Do you use some of the steps above? What are some steps you use that aren’t listed?
As a reader, what are some attributes you like to see in a strong character? Is there such a thing as a character who’s too strong?
Can you think of examples of strong characters from stories you’ve read? What characteristics contribute to their strength?
Novelist Keli Gwyn is a California native who lives in the Gold Rush-era town of Placerville in the Sierra Foothills. Her stories transport readers to the 1800s, where she brings historic towns to life, peoples them with colorful characters, and adds a hint of humor. She enjoys visiting her fictional worlds, the Coach outlet store, and Taco Bell.
Keli’s debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, will be released by Barbour Publishing in July. She’s a member of the El Dorado Hills Inspire group.