Strength (Spiritwalker Monday 19)

There are a lot of ways to write about strength.

As a writer I can get frustrated when a characteristic I mean to be understood as strong is interpreted by a reader as weak, even though I comprehend that every reader will bring a different interpretation to the table. Also, and more importantly, I get frustrated when I see myself as a writer falling into the trap of stereotyping “strength” and “weakness” in ways I don’t like and which I think are negative but which I revert to if I don’t stop and think past received assumptions about people and gender.

What do we mean when we say “a strong male character” or “a strong female character”?

What about “a strong character?” How does that come into play without it being tied to gender or sex?

And what do I mean by “we,” anyway? What about cultural and historical differences in how strength is defined?

What is strength?

There are so many ways to define strength in terms of the human personality and human characteristics and how it relates to what is valued in any given society at a particular moment in that society’s development or decline. What defines strength now may in twenty years or a thousand years be seen as a sign of potential weakness, while something I define as weak may be seen as strong elsewhere.

Actual physical feats of strength range from a simple measure like weight-lifting to a more complex measure like physical endurance. As a woman I have been told more times than I care to count that men will always rule human civilization because they are physically stronger by what I call the weight-lifting measure, an opinion that oddly leaves out humanity’s crucially advantageous traits of dexterity, adaptability, creativity, intelligence, and persistence. And what about endurance? In some ways, endurance is the greatest test of strength.

Is strength a way to tear things down or to build things up? In the Bible, Samson famously does both, although it is important that while his strength is commonly defined as physical in fact, as a Nazirite, it is his spiritual strength that has nurtured his physical strength.

Sometimes it seems like portrayals of strength in the (heavily USA-based) media I see around me are getting choked through narrowing definitions. I say that in part because I think mainstream US media is going through one of its cyclical restricting modes, while meanwhile in the global gestalt a new creative energy and vision is expanding with increasing vigor.

Part of that is because views about strength, like views about anything, go through fashions: the strong silent cowboy becomes the blustering self absorbed Rambo; the man too honest and righteous to break the law becomes the man who breaks the law to make things right; the calm moderate in-control man becomes the angry passionate man while meanwhile in many societies being unable to contain or control anger is seen as a flaw rather than as a sign of strength.

During the writing of Cold Steel I had a series of email exchanges with Michelle Sagara about definitions of and assumptions about masculinity in our culture.

I was concerned that a particular character might not be seen by some readers as a “strong male character” because he does not display several of what are typically (although not exclusively) seen in today’s media/fiction as “strong male” characteristics. This isn’t an exclusive or finite list, but two of the characteristics I identify as seeming to me to be stereotypical today as approved markers of masculinity are the “man as soldier” (or warrior) which is related to but not exactly the same as the man who uses violence (and kills) to righteously solve problems. I still also see elements of a type I call “the masterful man,” the man who won’t take no for an answer, who knows what he wants perhaps better than you do, who pushes until he gets what he wants. This is a form of what is often called “the alpha male” but by no means the only example of the type. All three of these types seem to me important in an imperial context: That is, an empire tells stories about itself to justify the empire, and some of those stories naturally will include valorizing war and soldiering, violence, knowing better than others, and the idea of exceptionalism, that the empire is destined to rule and/or somehow favored by god, chance, Fate, or destiny.

Leave aside for the moment the larger and related question of what exactly we mean when we say male, female, man, woman, and so on ( I’m no gender essentialist regardless). And for the moment I’m speaking about my experience primarily but not exclusively with American English-language media and fiction.

If strength is defined in limited ways, then human character is not only limited but harmed by being forced to adhere to increasingly smaller sets of perceived value. When certain characteristics got locked in as strong and others ignored, or derided as weak, it creates a restrictive view of humanity.

Crucially, for writers, narrow definitions of what constitutes a strong man or a strong woman can affect how people read and view those characters. Some readers will reject a character as strong because that character does not adhere to stereotypes of “strong.”

For instance strength can be expressed through patience, and patience is a characteristic that both men and women have. But if patience is not seen as a masculine characteristic, then a male character in a fictional story characterized as patient may or may not be seen as a strong man. For example, the film Witness contrasts Harrison Ford’s world weary and violent cop with Alexander Gudonov’s non-violent, patient, quiet Amish farmer (it finds both men ultimately positive as role models but I note that the story revolves around Ford’s cop).

If male characters can’t be seen as strong except when martial or angry or violent or masterful in the sense of being forceful, then think how harmful that becomes to our understanding of what it means to be a man and the cultural creation of role models for boys to grow into. Think of how harmful it is for women.

And what about women? What is a strong woman? One who kicks ass and can fight “as well as a man”?

As many have pointed out before me, if women only get to be strong insofar as they look and behave like men, then that does not uplift women.

If characteristics long defined as “feminine” are automatically derided as “weak” or undervalued and dismissed as “girly,” then those attitudes affect all children as they grow into adulthood just as restrictive attitudes about boys affect all children likewise.

I love stories and characters that celebrate diverse ways to be strong.

In Grace Lin’s Where the Mountains Meet the Moon, Minli is stubborn and determined. And she listens.

Oree, in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, has a clear and powerful sense of herself that makes her strong.

In Michelle Sagara’s Silence, the main character Emma is caring and loyal to her friends and to others. I tend to find compassion a sign of strength, and it appeals greatly to me in characters.

In Cold Fire, I deliberately had Andevai court Cat not with manly arrogant alpha-ness but with patience and food.

While Nevyn in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry sequence does fit the acceptable mode of the “mysterious and wise old man with magical powers” character, he himself is strong because he uses his mind, is often kind and patient, and because he fulfills a very long burden of service to make up for a wrong he caused. That’s strength.

The sisters in Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion” are strong by being smart, observant, thoughtful, and (again) determined. Their radicalism is quiet, necessary, in some ways tentative, and within its small orbit it is effective.

Strong female characters in Danish tv shows like Forbrydelsen, Matador, and The Eagle work well for me because they are portrayed as competent, intelligent, no-nonsense, pragmatic, efficient, compassionate, caring, and steadfast.

Of course every reader brings their own view of strength to the table.

What portrayals of strength (from any fiction) have you liked that did not fit with classically stereotypical kickass or martial or alpha-manly definitions of strength? Do you think that SFF and YA, for example, are pushing the boundaries of what is seen as strong or are more likely to fall back into more standard modes of “strength expression”? Are all characters given equal chance to be seen as strong, or are some given more limited roles than others?

I have no definitive answers. I’m just asking questions here.

38 thoughts on “Strength (Spiritwalker Monday 19)

  1. You’ve just helped me figure something out. I’m terrible at writing fight scenes, partly because I often skip over them when I’m reading fantasy. Only if the fight is resolving/carrying through with other issues in the story will the fight be of any interest to me – because I don’t see fighting as a valid method to resolving conflicts. It’s just what happens before the story can continue.

    This occurs to me because it goes back to the idea of strength. If a character is physically strong and trained to the sword, does that make him/her better able to resolve conflicts than someone who is not? I have seen a librarian hero (Carol Berg’s The Spirit Lens), a science-oriented hero (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time) and a few others (including of course Frodo) – so I know a reader can become invested in a hero who isn’t “tough.” It is very interesting to think about. Thank you.

  2. The hero in my first series was roundly decried for being weak. Apart from feeling this personally (I based him on myself as a teen) I struggled to understand why the behaviour of a character who always thought before he acted, and struggled with doubt, would be seen as weak. But adult readers wanted to see decisiveness, even recklessness, which seems to be a defining trait of strength in contemporary culture. Interestingly, my teen readers understood Leith and commented positively on him. Could it be that many adults are ashamed of their teenage years?

  3. It’s so true, isn’t it? Often (usually) violence should be a last choice solution but in fantasy fiction, forex, it is often not only a first choice, frequently the expected choice, but specifically a lauded choice solution in that characters are seen as “better” if they use it.

    But the best conflict resolution uses very different paths. I guess the question for us as writers is how to create that so readers get invested in it, are excited and thrilled by it, see other ways as being as you say “tough.”

  4. This is a perfect example. It’s particularly interesting that you saw a split in the reactions of teens and adults. This idea that decisiveness–and I’m thinking you mean not just ordinary decisiveness but what I would call the forceful “push ahead and damn the torpedos” decisiveness–combined with an aversion to every doubting oneself is seen as weakness seems problematic to me. Because I see it as a space where many normally competent people (i.e. most of us) live: we think things through, struggle with some doubts, and then move forward.

  5. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. It seems to me that the risk-taking, push ahead mentality is actually a cover for lazy writing when used as an easy way to add momentum to a narrative. Thanks for your (as always) thought-provoking blog post.

  6. Physical strength in a character has been a back burner accomplishment for me as a reader for a long time. I think a character’s capacity for (good) growth trumps alot of other things. The older I get, the less patience I have for characters that are relentlessly reckless and thoughtless. Don’t get me wrong- I love a smart-ass, but at some point the smart-assery has to be tempered with mindfulness. This goes for male as well as female characters.

    I find I get irritated more by other (often female) readers who decry a female character for having the same characteristics they would tolerate/love in a male character. I happen to like some “alpha” characteristics in male protagonists, but I don’t begrudge female characters who have these same characteristics.

  7. Right. Violence is often seen as the only valid use of strength for a solution’s problem. It’s a cliche at this point.

    Given his nature, and given his previous interactions with Cat, I would have been shocked and disappointed if he had wooed Cat by that paradigm.

  8. Speaking of De Bodard, her new novella “On a Red Station, Drifting” does have female characters, all strong, but strong within a cultural context that abnegates the need for action violence to prove how strong they are…

  9. That’s an excellent question. I think regret has a strong place in much older literature but I’m not sure how it plays in modern fantasy today.

  10. This is exactly my complaint about the use of the word “edgy” to describe fantasy that is grim and violent. It’s not that such stories can’t be excellent — they can be excellent. But they’re not based on edginess; they are themselves a form of adherence to cliche, an expected idea about human nature or the need for constant adrenalin rush.

  11. Another excellent point. There are ways of depicting male characters that are praised or even expected, but show a woman in the same vein and she becomes a villain or unsympathetic.

  12. I’m not sure they’re all adhering to a cliche. Violence and destruction is part of the human spirit and a study of such could be a valid approach to a story (A Clockwork Orange for example). Most violence in fantasy is however not that deep.

  13. Have to reply here as my thread has given out.

    I don’t mean to suggest they are all adhering to a cliche. But the sense that only certain things can be ‘edgy’ often seems to walk hand in hand that edginess is related to violence and horror. It’s related, I think, to the idea I sometimes (not always) see expressed that violence is the deepest expression of the human condition when I would myself say that it is one expression of the human condition no greater or lesser than, for example, cooperation.

  14. (Replying here to the “edginess” question: I see your point 🙂 My current is focused a bit on teamwork (a legacy from being a tabletop gamer). I don’t know if people will take to it. We shall see.

  15. I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve been thinking about this lately–it comes up in tricky ways, for instance, when people complain that a supposedly strong female protagonist isn’t actually that strong because she’s not much good in a fight. But should she be good in a fight? Maybe the real problem is that the story defines a person’s value by how good s/he is in a fight? On the other hand, if we’re going to have a story that involves fighting, isn’t it better to have women effectively participating than standing on the sidelines wringing their hands? Does portraying the women in these stories as tough and capable nurses celebrate feminine strength, or reinforce gender stereotypes (women can be nurses, but not soldiers)?

    But yes, in the end it’s all about showing diverse ways to be strong. Having a bunch of female characters in different roles alleviates most of these problems.

  16. I love stories about people working as a team. See: Leverage (the tv show). It is about 5 loners/misfits/criminals coming together and over time learning not only to work as a team but becoming, in their odd way, a family. This for me is like GOLD.

    And the ability to form people into a team that works is for me the surest sign of a “strong” leader.

  17. For women characters I think that is the crux right there: “Having a bunch of female characters in different roles.”

    As long as too many stories are populated by one Exceptional Girl, one Sex Worker, one Caretaker, and one Villainous Woman, this discussion of “strong women characters” will keep going around in circles.

  18. That’s interesting. One thing I have to say is there doesn’t have to BE a fight if you’re clever or persuasive enough to avoid one. In our gaming group (second mention!) we sometimes give extra credit for NOT fighting instead of giving bonus points to the “killing blow” or various other fighting maneuvers. Of course that is rough on any fighter/min-maxer. 😉

  19. Hmm, it seems to me that a lot of the assumption that there must be violence comes from the relationship between fantasy and gaming (or at least video gaming). Violence is what most of the video games I’ve played–certainly the RPGs, which are supposed to be the most story-focused–are all about, so it’s easy to start to expect that in any fantasy world, especially if there are villains and quests.

  20. This is an excellent point. I bet some grad student could write a thesis about fantasy fiction by tracking how violence works within the story and comparing it longitudinally to the rise of video games. Although of course there might be no correlation, but it would be interesting . . .

  21. I’ve seen films where a single punch, or an angry exchange, creates such a rush that it’s more than enough. While I’ve also seen films where the body count piles up as the viewer yawns because the bodies are somehow supposed to substitute for danger and threat.

  22. It’s not a great series but if you like the characters you will come to really appreciate the chemistry between them. It is a chemistry/character driven show, completely dependent on audience’s connection to the five leads.

  23. This isn’t from written fiction, but from an animated film, the Prince of Egypt. You’d think I’m talking about the fierce, opinionated, self-sufficient, smart Tzipporah, but while she’s a great character too, you’d be wrong!

    Early in the film, Moses and Ramses run around and destroy the pyramid scaffolding, blah blah blah, Pharaoh yells at them and walks off while Mrs Pharaoh stands there, silent, still and graceful as a carving. I was like, oh, look at that, peripheral female.

    And then, when Moses and his brother try to go after Pharaoh, Mrs Pharaoh (I don’t think she’s named, though I didn’t check the credits) holds up her hand. Just one hand. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move aside from that, but in that moment I thought my gosh, this woman knows the people around her, listens and understands well enough that one simple gesture can convey so much.

    She has already shown herself to be kind, loving, accepting: a royal woman, the top lady, finding a random kid in a basket, raising him as her own son, and telling him later that he was a gift from the gods to her.

    Granted, I’m not talking about bible vs. movie here, but in that particular film, I thought the Queen’s character conveyed a lot of strength in very little screen time, and was really impressed.

  24. In as similar vein, this is why I have problems with “edgy” fashion. No, showing breasts is not new — just ask Minoan women, ya know? Give me a thoughtful reason for why a sword must be used, or a slit in the skirt must go to there. Think and be intentful, rather than just react.

  25. Heh. This. Exactly. (to steal a phrase from you). Or as a podcaster I listed to quoted his 3 yr old daughter (who was wearing a tiara, tutu, fluffy slipper/boots, a guitar and carrying drums), “I’m a rock star AND a princess, Daddy.”

  26. Definitely, I think that thesis could be written. I’ve always felt like there was a lot of cross-pollination between games and fantasy novels, although part of that could be that I got into both of them around the same age. (Fortunately for me, the video game phase passed, but the fantasy stuck!)

  27. A real life example of strength for me is the explorer Ernest Shackleton. He was not a traditional ‘alpha’ leader but a person who encouraged others and enabled them to work as a team. His Antarctic shipwreck and then journey in a small open boat to get help for his crew is a powerful story and his style of leadership is now used as model in corporate management and military services. I also think of Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar books as a great example of strength and weaknesses nurtured and balanced into a great man and leader (I often think Shackleton was an ‘ancestor’ of Miles too). Miles life is an explicit struggle with traditional notions of masculinity, strength and leadership.

  28. Shackleton is a great example. And a famously successful one in terms of his expeditions and getting everyone home alive.

  29. Interesting that you’ve brought this up. I just started posting a story to a critique group. Two readers thought the protagonist, Teakh, was weak. I believe this is because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the alpha male. Teakh is from a matriarchal culture, and he’s believed by those in his culture to have the genetics of the perfect male. He’s valued for being loyal, devoted, altruistic, and nurturing. These aren’t the male ideal supported by romance novels. According to my critique partners he notices too much detail and thinks too much about his mother. I’ve decided to ignore the advice since this character is from a matriarchal culture and his profession, fisheries detective, would lead him to notice details related to fish and fishing. He compared the color of his lifevest to the flesh of chum salmon which for one reader was effeminate attention to detail. I think the reader was perceiving “salmon” as a fancy color name instead of a comparison to the flesh of a specific species of fish.
    Thanks for encouragement to go against the alpha male stereotype.

  30. This is awesome. And exactly what we are all talking about.

    In the wake of the awful events in Southern California, my daughter was texting me about her complicated thoughts on the matter. One of things she said on discussing why people make the choices they do, commit the acts the commit: “I mean it’s basically ‘if you (society) will only pay attention to killers then I will become one.'”

    I really think it matters in our fiction to pay attention to the people (sometimes specifically and importantly THE MEN) who aren’t killers.

    So: GO FOR IT.

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