Why write weak characters? To see them become strong people.
Last month after watching The White Queen I questioned the compliment “you write strong female characters,” by saying there’s no good reason to write a weak female character. Weak female characters, or passive ones, are simply not as interesting as strong characters of either sex. There’s no compelling reason to write a character who’s boring, at least not in a fantasy or historical adventure. Even a weak side character can just use up valuable space. “Every character should want something, even if it is just a glass of water.”
I’ve now found an exception to this. A weak main character can be quite interesting because, of course, characters need to change.
I’m just going to restate things for rhetorical purposes here, but you can read my post on The White Queen if you want the whole story. The characters in The White Queen were not effective because they were locked up and only heard what the men did that actually progressed the story. They appeared weak because the actual story, the actual characters who changed according to the action of the plot, were the men who were fighting the battles. The story was told from the wrong point of view. Although the point of view of these women was interesting historically, and had great emotional impact, the actual story was in the background. They made very few decisions.
A different situation came up when I read The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson. This is a sort of portal fantasy that features Terisa Morgan, a twenty-something daughter of wealthy parents who live in Connecticut. Terisa lives off her father’s wealth and works to keep herself from going crazy in her apartment. She has an odd mental state characterized by a sensation of fading identity: unless she can see herself in a mirror, she doesn’t believe she really exists. She does pretty much nothing with her life except go to her job as a church secretary, and come home to her apartment, which is full of mirrors.
Yes, Terisa is a weak character, but she’s not an ineffective character
Terisa is, especially by today’s standards, a weak character. However, thanks to Donaldson’s brilliant writing, she is not a boring character at all. She is a bundle of twisted emotions, conflicting desires, indecision. She doesn’t know what to do with her life, which is completely relatable the way Donaldson tells it. Even from the jacket description I could tell that this is a book people aren’t supposed to like: female characters aren’t supposed to be weak, they aren’t supposed to be dominated by men (Kushiel’s Dart, anyone?). They are supposed to know exactly what they want and be willing to castrate anyone who gets in their way. Otherwise they risk being poor role models or justifying rape and many other bad things.
Mirror of Her Dreams of course does none of these things. What happens to Terisa? She ends up swept into another world where mirrors, the most precious thing to her, are valuable magical objects, and she is the most important person. People are trying to kill her right away because she is the crucial element in an old conflict between three kingdoms. The tension comes from an interesting twist that Donaldson provides: Terisa knew of this world before she was “translated” there, from her dreams. She knows nothing of the techniques of “Imagery,” but you can tell throughout for well-justified reasons, that she is indeed someone special. The tension comes entirely from knowing, as a reader, that Terisa is someone special but no one can figure out how she is.
We all know Terisa is someone special, but she is blocked from seeing her own effectiveness. This creates tension
The other person (other than the reader) who knows she is someone special is Terisa, but she’s not willing to believe that. She has such a strong block to believing that she is someone special that she fades out of scenes quite often. This was a little annoying as a reader. The book is full of infodump dialogue and I found it hard to follow the details, but when I took my eyes off the page, I realized that was exactly what the author was trying to get across. Here’s this woman who has been told how unimportant she is her whole life, and suddenly she’s in the middle of deciding the lives and deaths of thousands of people. She always seems to be fading, unless she can find a mirror. The only alternative, presented to her by her maid, is to have men pay attention to you. She tries this, but it ends up failing her quite dramatically.
Terisa grows extraordinarily over the course of this book, and I can’t wait to read the sequel. The ending is a shock on top of a shock dipped in shock sauce, and is mostly unresolved. However, by the end she’s brave enough to openly defy and honestly challenge the men who are after her. She’s starting to see how important she is. Although she doesn’t show any signs of this mysterious ability she has, I really want to know how she’s going to resolve that.
I got that “I’ve got to read this guy’s other books” feeling, that I haven’t had so strongly since I read The Eye of the World. I like his books so much I assumed he was dead.
I’m hooked on Donaldson’s work now, and I’m getting ready to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, but in the meantime I found a book of his novellas and short stories. Guess what the first story has? Strong female character. They aren’t a new thing, and they aren’t the invention of feminism. They are just good storytelling. My original point still stands: weak characters that stay weak and don’t serve the right point of view are useless. But a weak character who has a hidden strength and is riddled with conflict or blocked from seeing her own strength is a good story in itself.