10 Ways to Make Our Characters Stronger

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.

At first.

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 reassess 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 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?

If you’re 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?

About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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25 Responses to 10 Ways to Make Our Characters Stronger

  1. Rita Garcia says:

    Great pointers. It was my male character that had to be plopped on the examination table–he needed to man-up a bit. Thanks for sharing these ten guidelines, they’re fantastic.

  2. Kaitlin says:

    Wonderful list. For my characters, they are often created with a niche or a theme in mind. My main character’s call word is ‘endure’. Another’s is “Mother”. Everything they do, say, think is somehow attached to that idea.

  3. Cave Story says:

    Great pointers. They don’t just apply to novel babes. We can use them ourselves too 🙂

    Other than that, it’s always fun to see wimpy characters grow over time (aka “realistically”…which means based on the elements or setting in the story).

  4. I would like to make strong characters but I usually have to go back and “fix” one for being unlikeable. Thanks for taking us through your steps! I can’t wait to read your book!

  5. Wendy says:

    These are great, Keli (for not just my characters). This one is a bookmarker!

    One way I make my MCs strong is to have them say no w/out guilt…confidence & direction…fighting for that desired goal.
    ~ Wendy

  6. I found this very helpful as I tend to create similar characters–they get a bit wimpy. I need to relook at my current one and make her grow stronger with reason throughout the book. Thank you– I’ll be returning to this post!

  7. I know I fall into the trap of unlikable characters. I tend to error on the side of flawed vs. perfection. So I often have to go through and ease up a bit during revisions.

  8. Great post, Keli! I tend to make my characters a bit too realistic, I think–and that means they have flaws, which sometimes cause them to become unlikable. The key seems to be walking the line between strength, small flaws, and unlikability.

  9. I had a female that was wishy-washy and I had to fix her up and keep her consistent. It’s hard at times to realize, while we’re writing that we’ve done this. I’m thankful for agents and critique partners that catch it. That’s why I love the revision process. I can fix it! 🙂

  10. This is really helpful. Thanks for posting this. Most of the books that really grip me to the point of I can’t put it down is because of a strong character. I do like a character who knows what they want, and then had everything possible come against it. I also like characters who are loyal to someone or something and will not deter from that.

    Thanks again for the points to consider.

  11. I’m glad I’m not alone. Upon editing, I discovered my heroine cried (I was pretty mean to her) six times throughout the novel. After reading Rachelle’s blog post about only one crying scene per a book, I had to go back and do some fixing. Thanks for your lists. Key for me (as I’m starting the sequel) is your point on having a firmly established goal.

  12. the writ and the wrote says:

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been thinking about my characters from my second novel, which is part historical fiction, part modern fiction and while the bones are there, there is no skin. My story needs some sort of major something to happen. I wish I knew what that was.

  13. Loree Huebner says:

    Great post, Keli. All great tips. I had a character that cried too much. My son was doing some editing on the manuscript and would write – “AGAIN! She’s crying again!!” His red sharpie got the point across.

  14. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks for the comments. I’m enjoying them. Seems we’re all working hard to make our characters come across as strong. If only I were as strong as my heroines. 🙂

  15. Donna Pyle says:

    I must agree, Keli, I’ve never thought that a hero or heroine could be wimpy. That doesn’t define them. What makes them characters we like to emulate is their strength – emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. That’s what defines them. Very well thought out, orgnanized pointers. Thanks!

  16. Marji Laine says:

    I’ve been doing a little surgery as well. That focused-goal area is where my mc had trouble. I think that can make or break a main character. And after they have a clear purpose, their actions have to support the purpose or have a good reason why they don’t (my problem, specifically). My patient still lays open on my table. Gloves …

  17. Its like that old saying “The only person who could love you is your mother.”

    As a writer, it’s easy to become that “mother” and not see the traits of our characters that are possibly making them unlikeable.

    Another reason why we need good editors and critique partners who can tell us when our babies are not as cute as we think they are 😀

  18. carla gade says:

    Very good post, Keli. I got a lot out of seeing how you strengthened and grew your character. I have a few weeklings I need to fix. I find that strong characters have inner longings that readers can relate to. These motivate their goals, actions, attitudes. It is important to stay true to their basis character, even with change. Their flaw on the opposite end of the spectrum can become a virtue.

  19. Great post, Keli! I love this phrase: “I took Ellie apart and put her back together again.” I’m going through that very process with my MC and am learning a lot. My goal is to know her so well that when I dive back into my wip, I’ll be able to spot those places that don’t jive with who she is.

  20. I’ve always struggled with characterization. I’m getting better. I love the points you make here.

  21. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    This is a great post, and so important in a story! I’ve had this feedback before, that my main character wasn’t as strong as she could be, and wasn’t as likeable as she needed to be. I had made her a victim. I worked on those changes by using some of your tips above. I made her face trials with a braver attitude, and I made her nicer to others – to show her humane side. I also made her pursue her goals instead of waiting for them to fall into her lap. Again, great post!

  22. bethkvogt says:

    So, so good, Keli. This is a keeper post, for sure!
    I discover my characters the My Book Therapy way (thank you Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck!) I love The Book Buddy, a wonderful tool that provides questions and charts to dissect (great word!) a character so you understand her/him inside and out. (Pun intended.)
    One key question is “Why?” I keep asking “Why?” until I get to the root of my character’s personality. And sometimes I have to be reminded to keep asking … and asking … and asking.
    I love your list and I can’t wait to meet your heroine!

  23. Here I am … late in the day from hunger … frustrated and tired and needing my fix of my fellow blog/writer/friends. You Keli, give me the best fix of my day. Two things come to mind: I once received a one line critique from an agent query that changed my focus not only on the one book, but with my writing in general. She more or less told me … and I paraphrase … your humor might be amusing, but why would anyone want to read about a woman who is so obviously a loser? The second was a comment by my most beloved and trusted reader … why are you so afraid of getting below the surface. Don’t go for cheap jokes, this girl deserves better.

    I prided myself on my first female character being a focused and determined woman and when I went for the cheap shots of romantic comedy with the second woman, I fell on my face. Since those two comments, I took an inventory which might duplicate what you have set down. The story is better, still funny, but better and most of all my character has found her own voice without a whimper and a whine 🙂

    And once more your posts are great learning tools for all of us and I thank you!

  24. hmm…to create strong characters….i email The Character Therapist with all my questions, LOL!! 🙂

    in all seriousness, being an SOTP writer, i have to go back in and layer on a lot of depth sometimes. other times, i’m like you and katie…having them a bit too perfect from the get-go and have to go back and revise in some imperfections. but that’s what re-writing is for!!

  25. Jill Kemerer says:

    I have been there, too, Keli! Your list is amazing. I agree with every point. It’s taken me years to grasp what makes a character likable and strong, and I still struggle with it. Congratulations on tackling Ellie–it’s not easy to hear our characters aren’t quite there.

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