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Creating Characters That Don't Need Saving

The damsel in distress doesn't have much of a leading role, these days. And neither does the solitary, badass, physically strong female character (Although she pops in to say high more than her distant cousin). The macho strong male that swoops in to save the day isn’t seen much around anymore, either.

Is there more to strength than just being tough and callous and ready with the perfect snarky comment? I answer that question with a resounding, hell yeah, there is!

Broken characters given moments to shine is much more popular, which I am eternally grateful for. Give me an underdog character to root for, any day of the week.

I want you to stop and think of someone you consider to be a strong person. It doesn’t have to be a female. I know just as many strong males as I do females. Go on, close your eyes. Now, picture that person.

  • What about them makes them strong?

  • Are they physically strong?

  • Do they never show their emotions?

  • Do they always show their emotions?

  • Do they continue to help others, even though they’re always taken advantage of?

  • Are they a single parent doing everything themselves?

  • Do they always get right back up after they’ve been knocked on their ass?

  • Are they continually selfless?

  • Are they resilient, despite all the bad stuff that’s happened to them?

  • Do they always see the bright side in situations?

See? There is way more to being strong than muscles.

Strength has to do with your mental and emotional ability to handle situations--to either breakdown and shutdown, or to rise above it and try to overcome a problem. And I don’t mean right away. Sometimes, it takes a while to get to that place of overcoming.

Sometimes (and I include myself in this), you have to go through your emotional process before you’re equipped and able to handle the situation. And that’s okay. That’s a type of strength, as well.

And even though I’m talking about strong female characters in this post, these points are easily transferable to male characters. Because, let’s admit it, the concept and definition of strength doesn’t change when gender does.

The primary definition of strength is:

“The quality or state of being physically strong.”

And while this is true, the second definition is more accurate, in my opinion:

“The capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure.”

There is more to strength than being able to dead lift 200+ pounds. There is:

  • Mental strength

  • Physical strength

  • Emotional/Courage strength

  • Character/value/moral strength

  • Your strength in your different talents/skills

  • Knowledge/wisdom strength

  • Grit (a combination of all of these)


Mental strength is your ability to handle situations and still be able to think on your feet. To be able to take everything in and still make effective decisions. I think of it kind of as compartmentalizing. You need to put aside the bad/scary/sad/whatever it may be situation to properly think about what's happening and make a correct decision. To be able to continue to function and go on with life, despite all the really crap things that may have happened to you. To not break under the pressure.


This one is pretty straight-forward. Your physical ability to do something. Run. Walk. Lift something heavy. All of that fun stuff. On a scale of Desk Monkey to Spartan Warrior, where does your character fall?


We talked about emotion last week (read this post) and the importance it plays in building great characters. I argued that emotions were the driving force in almost everything we do. Emotional strength is the ability to not let your emotions cripple you or, if they do lay you flat for a while, your ability get back up afterwards and persevere & how you emotionally react to situations that are unfavorable to you. There are so many hardships in life so I would argue that this is more important that physical strength.


This is a big more complex but goes along with emotional strength. Character is your driving force behind your decisions and actions. It is a makeup of your morals, your beliefs, your values, your childhood experiences, life experiences, what you still believe about the world. All of that. Your character is your integrity. Does your have it? This is the word that encompasses the entire visual of your character. So when I ask you, what’s the character of your character, you get an instant image of what encompasses them.

In each of these areas, I want you to write down:

  • What your character excels at and where they are weak

  • Write down why they’re strong in that area (what makes it strength?). When does that strength show the most?

  • Then I want you to write down what makes them weak. When does that weakness show up?

  • How do they react to their strength when it shines, and how do they react to their weakness when it shows up?

Answering these questions will help you get to know your character more, as well as progress your plot better and make it more emotionally engaging, because after all, readers come to read about your characters and the plot they get themselves into, not the other way around.

If you were to put a choice in front of them to either eat the entire cake or just have one piece, you know without a doubt what their choice would be.

Everyone has these types of strengths inside them, but it’s to different degrees. You can’t be 100% of each just like you can’t be 10% of each. I think of it as a pie made up of all 4.

So, if you had to turn your character into a pie, what would be the biggest piece? Where does the majority of their strength lie? What would be the smallest piece? Their weakness? Knowing this information will help you build a better, more realistic character and then drive their decisions and reactions realistically.


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