I think if we talked about some of our favorite characters, and why we liked them, each of us would cite different reasons, but I also suspect that there may be an underlying principle or two that explain why we like specific characters, in general.
In one sense, we like characters that remind us of ourselves, but if that was the entire answer then specific characters wouldn’t enjoy such wide appeal. I think part of the answer lies in a quote, “We like people for their strengths, but we love them for their flaws.”
Within the context of this conversation I’m going to define strength as “any aspect of a person’s physical, mental, or emotional status that makes a task easier to accomplish.” In turn, weakness will be defined as “any aspect of a person’s physical, mental, or emotional status that makes a task more difficult to accomplish.”
Strength represents the realization of an ideal, the means to grow and achieve our goals. Through growth we prove that we can change and control our own fate. By accomplishing goals we’re able to extend what’s possible, reinforcing the idea that anything is possible.
Many performing arts, including professional sports, are rooted in showing us the incredible potential one person has. Watching someone else demonstrate their strength, it’s easy to marvel at what they can do, and maybe wonder “Could I do that?”
Stories allow us to indulge in the fantasy of being someone else. We can be as strong, intelligent, and skilled as we could ever want. When the character triumphs over obstacles and wins the day, we celebrate with them. (Some fans have been known to celebrate a team’s victory by saying “We won” instead of “They won”.)
Humans yearn to be strong, and admire those who are strong. Strength helps us achieve our goals, gives us a sense of purpose and value, and it helps us reaffirm beliefs that are central to our own identity.
Everyone has secret struggles, things they hide, sometimes even from themselves. Everyone has moments of weakness, but no one likes to admit to them. So we pretend. We act stronger than we feel, forcing a smile because we want to appear strong. But sometimes the mask falls away.
It’s a difficult thing, letting others see that you’re weak and vulnerable. You never know how they’ll respond. They might mock you, reaffirming the secret fear that “you should be stronger”, or they may simply turn away, invoking the fear of rejection. For many that’s the real fear, being rejected by those we care about. Revealing your weaknesses to someone can be very difficult, but choosing to do so can be its own feat of strength, just as receiving that knowledge can be both a burden and a gift.
Weakness is a burden, but it’s one we all carry. Sometimes the weight of it can wear us down, but sharing with others helps us to remember that we’re not alone in our struggles. However, knowing about someone else’s weaknesses often carries an implied obligation to help them in their struggles. In that regard stories have a unique advantage. When a character shares their weaknesses with the audience, we get to enjoy the same comforting reminder that we’re not alone, and experience the same feelings of empathy and connection, without any expectations or obligations to respond.
Combining Strength & Weakness
People sympathize with those who struggle with weakness, but weakness is a burden, and no one wants to carry that all the time. A good example would be Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When he’s first introduced he is a miserable character, easily moved to tears and frequently hurting himself. Only the brevity of his appearances prevent him from weakening the story as a whole.
People look up to those who are strong, but strength can also make a character distant and difficult to connect with. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a character with such intellectual prowess that it makes him almost inhuman, difficult to connect with.
The key to good storytelling is uncertainty. The belief that the protagonist can fail is what gives their victory its value. This is why I think the most potent characters alternate between both weakness and strength. For example, Kelsier and Vin, from Mistborn, one of my favorite stories.
At the beginning of the story Kelsier is a legend, a force of nature. At first I watched in awe as Kelsier performs amazing feats with apparent ease, but gradually I realized how much skill it took to do what Kelsier did, and I learned how much he struggled behind that smile.
Vin is the complete opposite. She starts off as a scrawny street urchin who struggles just to survive, but gradually she grows, becoming just as strong as Kelsier, and yet, in spite of all that strength, she’s still an insecure young woman, struggling with issues of identity and self-worth.
I admired them both for their strength, but I admired them even more because of how hard they worked to achieve it. I sympathized with their weakness, but also respected them because they refused to let weakness define them, while also accepting that it was a part of them. It’s through characters like Vin & Kelsier that I feel we’re reminded that “strength is not the absence of weakness,” and that we could become “like them”.
What do others think?
Why do you think you like some characters more than others?
Is there something you consciously look for in your characters?
Is there something subtle that they all have in common?