Mindy Ruiz blogged yesterday about weak vs. kick-ass heroines. In response, a commenter on G+ wondered why a strong heroine has to show her vulnerabilities, but the same didn’t seem to be true for heroes, i.e., that male characters don’t always have those same weaknesses.
Here’s what I think. Characters in your stories, whether they’re male, female, or some fictional other-gender, have to be complex. They have to be complicated. On the surface they can be simple and seemingly one-dimensional, but as the reader gets to know them, as they peel off layer after layer in the course of the story, the character should become more and more compelling, more and more relatable and appealing (if we’re talking hero/heroine) or more and more repellent (if we’re talking villain).
So that kick-ass character Mindy was talking about, if she’s able to use her strength and martial arts skill in every situation she encounters, if she can immediately solve every problem that she encounters, your story is gonna be b-o-r-i-n-g. (Side note and confession: I found the first HP book a bit boring because Harry seemed to solve his problems too easily.) If on the other hand you set your heroine up as that kick-ass girl/woman, seemingly invincible, then introduce her Achilles’ heel, whether it’s physical (think kryptonite) or emotional (think Katniss’s sister Prim), the reader will care about what happens to that character and will be more engaged in the story.
In my opinion, an emotional Achilles’ heel trumps a physical weakness every time. Katniss faced innumerable physical threats in The Hunger Games, but her love and caring for Prim, Peeta, and Gale made her far more vulnerable than did anything thrown at her in the Arena.
In my own book, Tankborn, Kayla is physically abused more than once by the enforcers. But while those blows are painful, she shrugs them off as part of her life as a GEN slave. Where she’s truly vulnerable is through the threat of having her self ended by the trueborns. She’s terrified of being wiped away, her personality erased by trueborn enforcers. I would think that any of us can relate to the fear of our mind, memories, our entire being torn away from us in retaliation for the most insignificant infraction.
So your main characters have to be complex. They have to be the actors in the play you’ve set for them. They can’t drift along in the story letting others take action while they stand back and watch. That’s the danger of a “weak” heroine/hero. While they can appear weak, they have to be layered enough to have an inner store of strength so that they can be the one to change their world.