The concept of a strong character is nebulous at best. People both praise and criticize Joss Whedon for his ability or inability to create strong characters; specifically female characters. That’s an argument you can find and have on your own.
Let’s go back to high school for a moment and talk about what makes a strong character. When I was in high school they called them three-dimensional or complex characters. A good example comes from Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the title character, is at times a mustache twirling villain and at others a sad, almost pitiful, man. It’s a juxtaposition of emotion and conflict that create a strong character.
Many people get confused between a Strong Character and a Character who is physically strong. This mistake happens much more often with female characters. To go back to Joss Whedon, Buffy isn’t a strong character because she has super strength. She’s a strong character because she has complex emotions and actions.
Let’s define strong character: A Strong Character is a character who has complex motivations, sometimes contradictory, who strives towards a goal. This character doesn’t always succeed but continues until they achieve an outcome. There should be some form of inner turmoil related to the goal, and finally, their motivations and goals must be relatable.
You’ll notice this is quite vague but still works with most characters that are not stereotypes or archetypes. A stereotype is a negative, simplistic, and often racist version of a character; while an archetype is a standard form of character that has little to no depth. It’s impossible to be a strong character and a stereotype, but it is possible to be a strong character and an archetype. Hermione is the standard “Information Giver” Archetype but she is still a complex character.
Something that bugs me is the assumption that secondary characters cannot be strong because they aren’t resolving the primary conflict of the story. Think of Samwise from Lord of the Rings, his motivations are to help protect his friend/master, keep his word to the wizard and come back home. He almost quits a few times but still goes back and saves Frodo. The ring is just a thing to him, he really doesn’t care about the quest other than to accomplish his goals.
Let’s confront the elephant (in a pink tutu) in the room, Strong Female Characters. Let’s be clear about one thing: A Strong Character is not defined gender or gender identity. Strength is born from complexity not rejection of stereotypes. You can have a strong female character who embraces all things feminine (Elle Woods) just as easily as you can have one that shuns them (Arya Stark). Gender and gender identity are layers that build strong characters.
Same goes with emotion, pure stoicism isn’t real and it makes any character seem flat and robotic. Xena is a badass, strong physically, but it’s her own inner turmoil that makes her a Strong Character. She could kill you with any weapon and she will cry over the death of her friend, that’s a Strong Character.
Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.