#InkRipples: Challenging the Unfeeling “Strong Character” Stereotype

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Today I’m joining the wonderful Mary Waibel, Kai Strand, and Katie L. Carroll for this month’s #InkRipples posts, and we’re talking all about tropes in fiction. I’ve decided to share a story about my own experience with one of the most common tropes, the “strong” character who only feels anger.

This month’s #InkRipples post is highly personal and includes references to addiction and self harm. Skip to “What’s the point” if you want to avoid this content.

One of the strong women I grew up with
One of the strong women I grew up with

As a child of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I had several strong women to look up to in the media. I grew up with Princess Leia, Xena, Buffy, Samantha Carter from SG-1, and Ellen Ripley of the Alien series. In cartoons and books I found even more—Mulan, Andraia of ReBoot, Alanna of Tamora Pierce’s In the Hand of the Goddess series, Sabriel of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, and more I don’t have time to list.

These characters had incredible skills, strength, and wit. No matter how dire life got, they always found a way to survive. A couple even brought down empires along the way.

They also had something else in common: an inability to show the complete range of human emotions. They were so full of righteous indignation that they often seemed devoid of other emotions. They certainly don’t cry, unless they shed the stoic single tear that always happens in movies but never happens in real life. Some of these shows made entire story lines about how their female characters suppressed their emotions to be perceived as a strong warrior or “one of the guys”.

Of course, none of my favourite male characters were allowed to cry either. They sometimes showed a broader range of emotions, but they definitely didn’t cry outside of the occasional flashback. Even then, the flashback often included a mentor telling them to “man up” and stop crying.

The start of a trilogy featuring truly strong women
The start of a trilogy featuring truly strong women

Many of these characters are actually broken people, but you don’t see it at first. You don’t notice it until they become addicted to drugs or land themselves in abusive relationships. Depending on the show’s portrayal of those things, you might not even notice it then. I certainly didn’t notice it as a kid. Those characters were simply tough people, and if childhood me wanted to be anything, it was tough.

By age eleven I had decided that crying was the ultimate sign of weakness. So I mastered the art of forcing back tears and suppressing my “weak” emotions. I put all my energy into a brave face I refused to take off for years, even for a moment.

It probably comes as no surprise that my emotions turned out to be anything but weak. When my father died of cancer I channeled my emotions into bursts of rage that got me shipped off to a behavioural program for four months. In the program I stifled my emotions completely, but they came out the moment I left. During those months I began cutting, an addiction I lived with for three years–until I became old enough to discover other, more acceptable addictions. By sixteen I had traded cutting for smoking and drugs, which were more socially acceptable despite also being more likely to kill me.

Now, at 23 years old, I am relearning how to feel my full range of emotions. Part of me still believes crying is the ultimate sign of weakness, and I suspect part of me always will. But I am learning to let the tears come when they need to. I am learning how to have true strength instead of pretending to be “strong”.

 

What’s the point?

 

Another book whose main character, Mia, is able to show the full range of emotions
Another book whose main character, Mia, is permitted to show the full range of emotions

The “strong character” who only feels determination and rage(and maybe a spot of happiness right at the end) is one of the most pervasive tropes in our society. Once reserved only for men, it has now become almost as common to see female characters forced into this familiar trope. And this trope is literally stunting our emotions, starting in childhood. I learned many amazing things from books, but what I learned from the “strong character” trope nearly killed me.

We not only can do better, we must do better than this. As writers, we help shape our readers’ view of the world around them, and the impact is most dramatic on our youngest readers. We can show them characters who aren’t afraid to show their full range of emotions, characters who know that true courage is showing their vulnerability to other people. A character does not need to be emotionally stunted to have an interesting story–and characters who are emotionally stunted at the beginning can heal by the end. Their stories will probably be more powerful if they do.

If there is one thing I want to accomplish with my body of work, it is to show that there are many types of strength. Perhaps I can help someone else find their own true strength.

What do you think about the “strong character” stereotype? Are you working on a book that subverts it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

8 thoughts on “#InkRipples: Challenging the Unfeeling “Strong Character” Stereotype

  1. Dianna, what a powerful post! I used to enjoy reading the strong, hardened female characters, but they’ve become repetitive. They need more depth. When we learn what brought them to that point they become real, we understand and we are more likely to root for them. Too often the carrot hangs in front of our horse the entire book.

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Post Author dlgunn

    Thank you Kai! I do still love many characters who fall into this trope (Sabriel above being one of my all time favourites), and I don’t think the idea of the unfeeling character itself is the issue, it’s how often it happens and how rarely other types of strength are acknowledged.

    I think that’s one thing that was particularly powerful about the later Hunger Games books, because although I had many issues with Katniss by the end, I was thrilled by how well her PTSD was portrayed and how deeply she was allowed to feel it.

  3. What a beautiful and deeply personal story. Thank you for sharing it.

    There was a literary agent, can’t remember who, a man who talked about female characters who were fully feminine. He encouraged authors to show women’s strengths in ways unique to our gender. It was one of those seminars that changed the way I looked at characterisation forever.

    • Post Author dlgunn

      Thanks for reading it! I think for me the biggest moment that changed my perception on this was when I realized how in many ways, Sansa is one of the most powerful characters in Game of Thrones. She doesn’t kick any literal ass, unlike many of the other characters, but no matter what she suffers she maintains herself, her dignity, in spite of the people trying to rip it away.

  4. I’m hoping to throw some tropes on their heads in some of my stories. Hopefully the strong character trope too. I guess the readers will tell me if it worked or not.

    • Post Author dlgunn

      Here’s hoping! In some ways we can’t know if we’ve succeeded until readers actually pick up the book & tell us what they thought.

  5. Your thoughts really have me thinking. I have just such a character in my novel. He’s watched a lot of people die around him and he’s locked up that pain. I think maybe having him work a little out in the final third of the book as he’s facing the facts that he’s fallen in love are appropriate and will make the story stronger. Thank you for a great post and the inspiration to make my story more.

    • Post Author dlgunn

      Glad I could get you thinking! I do think there’s a place for hardasses who don’t seem to show any emotion 98% of the time, but they still HAVE feelings, and eventually those should break through.

      If you want to see a TV show that does this REALLY REALLY well, check out The Killjoys. Dutch is pure badass, but we do eventually get to see her trauma–and the show deals with abuse better than many I’ve seen.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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