Hello readers! Welcome to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! I hope you all had a pretty good weekend, and that you’re ready for the week ahead.
Now, as usual before we get started we’ve got a small reminder to state: Christmas is coming! The holidays are here! And with everything that’s been going on, this year is definitely a year to order your Christmas gifts early.
I’m not just saying this because it’s “Cyber Monday.” I spent a good chunk of my Saturday ordering Christmas gifts (yes, before the Cyber Monday sales because I knew what I was ordering wasn’t likely to be discounted) and getting them on their way just so I’m not caught by surprise when something gets delayed. We’ve already got supply issues this year, combined with problems that the USPS has been facing. If you can, just start getting things now, and avoid the risk (and the rush).
To that, I will add a bit of a shameless plug and say that for the reader in your life, I do have a nice array of books to choose from over on the Books page. Axtara – Banking and Finance in particular is a perfect purchase for any lover of non-standard fantasy or dragons in your life. If they loved Dealing with Dragons, they’ll love Axtara. On the other hand if you know someone looking for a large, epic journey with a touch of wild west magic to it, Shadow of an Empire will keep them occupied for days.
And of course, if they’re Sci-Fi fans, you can gift them copies of Colony and Jungle, right to their device. On Christmas Eve, no less (yay for scheduling, right?).
Okay, enough shilling. We’re here to talk writing. But before we do—it’s related, I promise—a quick reminder that this is the first BaBW post from Topic List #19, and there is a topic call going on! Which means that if there’s a writing topic you want to hear about, then you can get it on the list! Just head on over to the Topic Call post and let us know what you want to hear about! Got a question? A topic you’d like explored? An area of difficulty you’re struggling with? Get a Being a Better Writer post on it!
Okay, that’s enough news and whatnot for the day. Let’s talk writing.
So today’s topic stems from a series of posts I read on Reddit where people were discussing a character from a popular books series. Said series has been converted into a show, which people were watching and looking forward to new episodes of. I was following right along until I came across a series of statements that were, to me, quite concerning.
How so? Well, these posters were holding that the character in question had been “ruined” by the show. Why? Well, over the course of a book (and the related season) the character had been taken captive and tortured in varying means—many of them psychological. To the degree that in order to escape, they’d actually needed to kill one of their oldest friends who had wound up on the opposite side. Something the antagonist had been using as a tool against them, being utterly evil.
That’s not all that they faced, but yeah, this character was tortured, tormented, and through sheer grit and determination, overcame and managed to escape through some seriously hardcore moments of being awesome. I’m not going to spoil the series, or reveal who the character was, but they had to endure a lot to succeed and get out of the situation that they’d ended up in. It wasn’t deus ex solutions either. The character put themselves through horrible things, gritting their teeth the whole time and refusing to give up.
Oh, and having tears along the way. And that’s where everything went sideways. See, these posts revolved around how these people felt that the show adaptation had taken away from the character’s general awesomeness and sense of accomplishment. That they had actively weakened them and made them a character that was no longer strong.
Why? Because the character cried. Many times.
Now note I’m not talking about “they broke down and didn’t do anything else” (though we will come back to that). These posters were unhappy that the character had shed tears even while orchestrating their own escape and going through some pretty awful, painful stuff. In their own words, it made the character “weak” and took away from the strong character they were in the books.
Excuse me, but what?
Now, I’ll say one more thing about this character, which may make them a bit easier to identify, but may also draw up a very important element of perception with some: The character was female.
Does that matter? Well … some would say yes. Others, like myself would say no. But overall? This post compounded a dangerous, worrying trend that could have quite an impact on writing.
Okay, some of you might think that hyperbole. Well, I don’t. I want to take a brief moment and talk about why we write. Why do we tell the stories that we do?
Because it’s fun? Well, certainly. Entertainment is definitely part of what we do. There’s value in being entertained, in letting our minds take in something new and fresh (this is why someone who lives in the city may vacation to the country to refresh their mind, while someone in the country may vacation to the city for the same).
But we also write—or rather, read—to learn. Yes, even with fiction. Writing informs us. It exposes us to different places, people, and ideas, and then can explore how others deal and interact with them. A young teen struggling with their own perceived inadequacies can learn from a fantasy tale about a character who struggles with similar problems, and even be inspired by how they overcame them in order to overcome their own. An adult struggling to find balance in their life can find solace with a character sharing that same problem, and even some relief in seeing how that character handles their struggles, even if they don’t overcome them.
Stories teach us things. We may not even be aware of it as it happens. Much in the way we might learn or think through our problems by talking with another of our same species, reading about a character experiencing struggles or hardships can be cathartic in helping us understand how to deal with our own struggles or issues.
This all said, can you see how I might be concerned about someone holding an opinion that a character shedding tears even as they continued working to orchestrate their escape made them weak to be … concerning?
The issue here is that people do cry. People do express grief. Even while they push through it. Grief, and the expression of such, is healthy. Tears are an emotional expression of how we feel, and holding them back is detrimental to our health. We know this. Psychologists know this.
And yet, this character was being dismissed as “weak” precisely for expressing those emotions during a time when it was perfectly understandable to do so.
Now I clearly disagree that they were “weak.” Were they crying? Yes. Often. They were also in incredible pain both emotionally and physically, some of it from their torture, and some of it self-inflicted in the long act of their escape.
And yet they still escaped. I don’t see them as weak.
Rather, I see them as expressing perfectly valid human emotion. Which, if anything, shows their strength more than if there were a stoic, emotionless terminator that failed to react at all to what they were being put through (again, much of which was emotional torture from the antagonist). They pushed on despite the emotion and the grief, because they refused to give up and let the antagonist win (and thereby kill everyone they knew).
Okay, so why bring this up for a Being a Better Writer post. Isn’t this more confined to say, an Op-Ed? Well, no, this is a writing topic through and through. Because here’s the thing: This observation and stance that these posters took? It was right where a ton of people could—and did—read it. A whole swath of people who, upon reading it, might find themselves tempted to agree with the posters and say “Oh yeah, tears make a character weak. A strong character never should shed tears.”
Worse, they then might sit down and right a book where when the moment does arrive for a character to shed tears, they decide against it because ‘Well, tears make a character weak. And I want strong characters.’
Oh, and there’s one more negative impact to this. We’re not done yet. Say that they go through with this. The character shoves their grief or their turmoil down and away, the writing posing this as a moment of strength and being supportive of the character’s actions. The character goes on to accomplish things without any ill-effects, because the writer has decided that this is how it’s going to be.
Earlier I mentioned people learning from what they read. For good or ill, this is true: We take away knowledge and experience from everything we put into our minds. So then, what happens when a young reader—or even an older one—comes across this book while trying to find their own way to struggle with something similar to the character?
Well, they get the wrong idea, that’s what. They are told by the book and its character that the proper, correct, strong thing to do is repress. That’s the takeaway … and for some, that will be what they do.
I’m not saying that we can’t write characters that repress their emotions. We can! But if we do, and we’re striving to create characters that are real, and act real only to face real consequences, then when we write characters that are repressing their emotions, we need to be aware of what sort of “tax” they’re building up for their own mental state. And when that might come apart.
For example, the character of Owl in Fireteam Freelance. Owl is shown to almost immediately be harboring severe repressed emotion after the death of (spoiler, but it’s been out for over a year and is entirely free on the site, so …) the team’s commander, who she regarded as a surrogate mother. However, this is played straight: Owl pushes that grief and pain into anger and focus. So goes oddly quiet and as the story moves on exhibits only one real emotion. And once she brutally kills the one who killed Castillo, she breaks, all that repressed grief and sadness catching up with her and sending her sinking to the floor, overwhelmed by the dam that’s broken inside her head now that there’s no anger to hold it back.
So yes, we can write characters that repress grief or sadness. I’d argue that it would be a disservice to writing to not do so,
However, it’s all the in framing. Fireteam Freelance makes it quite clear, both from what the reader sees of Owl and what the other characters around her notice, that what she’s going through is not exactly ideal. They know it. They just can’t do much about it while they’re hunted and fleeing for their lives, and know that they can only do so much.
None of them deny that she is somehow weaker for experiencing the emotions she is. Nor that expressing those emotions would make her weaker. They each work through them on their own as well, and their own shed tears aren’t framed as making them weak. Those emotions and their reactions are framed as perfectly valid, and the characters’ strengths apparent in how they push on while dealing with them.
That’s different than framing the act of expressing those emotions as “something that makes a character weak.” That isn’t healthy. That’s downright dangerous (and in a way, what Owl experiences through Freelance, and then what’s become of her by the end, is a caution about how important such emotions are and why repressing them can be thoroughly unhealthy).
Now, this doesn’t meant that one couldn’t write a “weak” character (either poorly developed or “weak” in terms of their own capabilities) that handles grief in a manner that goes to hard in the other direction. In fact, that’s a delicate balancing act. Or couldn’t have “weak” writing when dealing with such things. Look how many people (myself included, I will admit) like the fifth Harry Potter book the least because of the unceasing emotional turmoil. It’s not that it isn’t warranted (clearly Harry got zero therapy for seeing someone murdered right in front of him on top of being a teen), nor that the character isn’t “strong,” but more that the writing of such didn’t quite deliver. It wound up being overbearing for a lot of people (myself included) and didn’t quite do enough (again, in my opinion) to show that its protagonist was suffering.
But here’s the thing: Weak writing is different from the character themselves being “weak.” A character crying, or expressing sadness or some other emotion does not make them weak. The writing around it can be, to the point of being overbearing. But the act itself?
Part of the reason this resonated with me (and in turn came to be a topic today) is because what I encountered the other day that kicked off this post was far from the first time I’ve encountered it. There seems to be a insidious ideal creeping through our world that any shedding of tears is seen as “weak” and therefore shows a character that cannot be strong.
For example, during the editing for Axtara – Banking and Finance, there were some who expressed dismay that the titular Axtara herself expresses tears in the opening chapters. It was even suggested that a better result for a “strong character” would be anger and the character threatening to kill/eat/maim a bunch of people.
Context if you’ve not read Axtara, the opening chapters start with Axtara herself riding a delightful, enthusiastic high as she moves into her new home and bank, only for the rug to be pulled out from under her, dropping her down to a low as the town wants nothing to do with a “beast” such as herself and even has a few people coming to attempt (unsuccessfully) to drive her out. After several days of this treatment, despite her trying her best to overcome it and show that she is, in fact, a person and the newest member of the town, one such individual showing up with a crossbow and putting a bolt in her door is enough that after she angerly drives that person off, she returns to her home, shuts the new (and newly damaged) door, and finally lets out the grief and stress of what’s been going on with some sobs.
Some readers did not like this or agree with it, and insisted that it made her character seem ‘weak.’ I politely disagreed, and while it did lead to slight changes with Axtara’s interaction beforehand, held firm that the character expressing the emotions she’d been clearly building up for several days in such a manner was both real and did not make her weak.
Without dwelling on the story further (I’m not shilling, I swear) the point is that there are people that see a character expressing emotion in this way as weak, and it’s common enough that I’ve encountered it as a reaction with my own writing. The idea that a character cannot shed tears (except maybe in reaction to physical pain, which seems to get a pass where emotional does not) has spread wide enough that now people are discussing it in places such as Reddit.
Okay, so let’s bring this back around to our core: What does this have to do with you being a better writer? Why talk about this at all?
Well, like many topics on here, it’s to fight bad advice with good. Yes, you can absolutely have a character that is an overly emotional character to the point that it annoys readers. But simply experiencing sadness is not that.
So what’s the takeaway here? What’s the whole point of this post? Well, let me sum it up:
Realistic, good writing acknowledges the emotions and feelings of our characters, and is not against letting them express those emotions when the character would, regardless of what the emotion is, and then explores the aftereffects of how they express those emotions.
Does this mean that “bottling up” is a means to express emotions and something that we can explore the aftereffects of? YES! Sands, look at Psychonauts 2 (a game, for those of you that don’t know about it). The story there is all about delving into people’s minds to see how they’ve dealt with emotional trauma and helping them “unpack” what they’ve repressed. Whole arcs inside the game are built on this, from the proper method to dealing with panic to exploring the effects of someone’s choice to drink heavily to help repress emotions they didn’t want to feel.
But what makes that game’s story great is that it delves into the characters dealing with their issues. The emotions are there, raw and fresh or buried but still tender. The story explores how those characters deal with their emotions. Unsurprisingly, it’s been praised for its incredibly sharp writing because it delivers a cast of well-written characters, all of whom are working to express their emotions in their own way.
You can have a character the believes they’ll be weak if they shed tears. This is perfectly fine. However, if there is a character that should and would shed tears that instead is forced to act out of character in order to follow some sort of social construct that the creator is holding to such as “strong characters don’t cry” then that is poor writing.
It’s poor because it’s forcing the character to act against their own self, against what they would do if the writer wasn’t forcing them to take another path.
This cheapens the story and the experience for the reader.
Even outside of “tears make you weak” there are a lot of stories that have done this in various ways. In essence, it’s a form of character railroading, when a creator superimposes their will over what the character’s established behavior is. Today we’ve focused on emotional character, but there are plenty of stories where scriptwriters or producers have run roughshod over a character’s current development and character to do something like please a specific audience.
When we write our characters and give them depth to make them real, we can’t go back on that without it becoming painfully apparent that we’ve “forced” a character’s hand (or claws). Their established character is what drives their choices, actions, and reactions.
And they can still be incredibly strong characters, independent of whether or not something hurts them enough that they let that reaction out. Strong characters are well-written, capable characters in their own way. Strong doesn’t mean being great at everything, nor does it mean becoming an 80s action hero when the moment needs it.
Strong means well-written, understandable characters are consistent with their own “character.” If that means the character saves the tears to make a polite public face for some reason and then lets their grief out in private, that can be strong (healthy or unhealthy, depending on the context). If that means letting those tears our but still pushing ahead, as the character in the reddit post had done, then that can be strong too. Even if it means owing up to their own weakness, that can still be strong. A character that feels overwhelmed, has the dam break … and then has a friend pat them on the shoulder before offering to help, then accepting that help to move forward? Or just stands on their own, dealing with the things that they feel, but knowing that they’re going to keep moving forward and that their emotional reaction is natural?
That is still strength. We let our characters be themselves, and that includes expressing emotion. All emotion.
To do anything less is to create a weak character. To make our writing poor.
So what note are we with here at the end? Well, I will reiterate what I said above: good writing acknowledges the emotions and the feelings of our character, and does not refuse them the ability to express those emotions as and how they would, then explores the impact that expression has.
What more is there? Oh, well, tears don’t make one weak. I will argue that from start to finish. Tears are an expression of emotion. And yes, they can be a sign of emotional immaturity … but so can the lack of tears be the same.
Let your characters express those emotions when they would. Positive or negative, emotions are part of what makes us us. Sapience, sentience, however you want to put it, emotions are part of who we are. Our characters need to express them as they would, and the act of doing so, particularly with specific emotions, doesn’t automatically make a character “weak” (obviously one can find exceptions, like addiction issues that become emotional, etc, that can make a character morally weak as opposed to weak as a character, but again, if we explore the impact of those emotions, we usually end up with something very strong indeed).
So as you write, let your characters be themselves. Don’t railroad them to suit something silly like “strong people don’t cry.” Let them express, deal, and experience/explore the consequences on their own.
To do otherwise? Well, that’s the warning note I’ll end on. Doing otherwise, shoving a character onto a path that isn’t their own … That is weak writing, and creates a character and a work that is unbalanced in more ways than one.
So let your characters experience their emotions. They make them who they are. Just as our expression can make us.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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