Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.

2 Responses to Writing strong characters

  1. Bill says:

    I think that a character will be memorable when he or she has a very human quirk or tic that resonates with the reader: an habitual gesture (rubbing his ear), a beloved pet or friend with whom he interacts affectionately, a pet peeve that many of us share (hates cold coffee), a too-common character flaw.As for male vs. female: it\\’s easy to find books with male protagonists and female authors (and vice versa) which are not convincing. If I don\\’t think the author really knows or understands his own characters, there cannot be any empathy.Of course, a character doesn\\’t have to conform to gender stereotypes (at least not all of them or all the time). But while your hero may be among the small share of men who read Harlequin romances, he cannot be without typical male interests (sports, NASCAR, etc.) or you\\’ll convince me that you don\\’t understand men at all. The trick is for the author to sit down and think VERY hard: what is it REALLY like to be this person? You have to live inside your protagonist\\’s head and his world. Age, education, ethnicity, economic status all affect (or cause?) the character\\’s reactions to events in your story. But so does gender. How does his/her physique influence health, feelings, ability to react to emergencies? Your five-foot-nothing female detective cannot do the same things that you, the six-foot-three ex-linebacker, can. You have to write accordingly.

  2. Lynn says:

    There\’s a lot to be said here, but Bill has said it well. I\’d write more on this, but I\’m in Thailand and my internet connection is iffy. (Not to mention, I\’m typing with one finger on my phone.) Hopefully, things will improve in Hong Kong. If not, sorry Stacey, I\’ll wait until I\’m back in Paris to comment.

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