I've been thinking about strong characters a lot recently because I had some advice about making my main character in a novel stronger, less idealistic.
When I heard it, I couldn't agree more. It really resonated. And I thought, man, what do I love best when I read women's fiction? A strong character. And because I'm in revisions with a new story that I love, I paused a moment to make sure this new protag was as strong as she could be. I'm guessing agents and other readers want that, just as I want that.
(Note: I'm not saying every character need be strong. But for what I'm writing, and the story I've got, mine does.)
So, what makes a strong, kick-ass character?
If there's any spots in your story where your protag is acting dumb, you need to probably cut that. This probably includes scenes where the protag allows herself to be led, or fails to take the opportunity to think things through, and instead just lets things happen to her. Princess Leia in Star Wars is a great example of an intelligent character. She sasses Darth Vader in the opening scenes (original film) and then later takes an active role in directing the Rebellion assault against the Death Star. Plus, she had the smarts to hide the plans to the Death Star in an R2 unit and send it out! (And she's a great markswoman, too.)
I had a scene right in the first chapter of my WIP where a mean ex-boyfriend toys with the protag's persisting affection, for his own gain. Instead of telling the guy where he could shove it, she was all, "okay, yes I will do it, okay." And then tried to be clever by making him agree to go out with her before she'd do the favor he wanted!
Ugh! Delete! No! We can all see right through that. Unless we're very young, in which case we're still learning. But this protag isn't very young, so there was no excuse. And I kind of disliked that she'd be so blind. Delete! Instant strength.
This one ties into the first two. Determination is something you usually have when you've got healthy self-esteem and intelligence, but you also want a character who will go after what he or she wants--which is why it's so important to know your character's overall story goal. A great way to show this is by throwing seemingly insurmountable obstacles at your character, and have him or her go around it without thinking about it. Or, think just a little but not worry about it, just a sense of bucking up and getting on with it.
Whatever you throw at your character, you want him or her to bounce back without dwelling on the setback too much, without stopping to whine or feel bad or even vent much. The nastier the obstacle, the less the character should respond, probably. In my current WIP, I put my protag through a terrible medical issue. And did she mope or feel sorry for herself? Did she sit in her house and let the problem take her down a few days? NO! I made her get up and get going.
Can you think of any other traits a strong character has? Would love to get a discussion in the comments on this.