A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Developing strong characters – and keeping them that way

So, I don’t think I can say much more than the fantastic Zoe Marriott and Sangu Mandanna about how to develop strong characters in your writing. Read their posts if you haven’t yet! But I do think that I have something interesting to say about developing strong characters – physically strong, that is!

Sometimes when I’m reading books (especially in the fantasy genre), I read about either super strong or super fit humans and I’m suddenly flung out of the text to think – but how are they so strong? All these guys do is sit around and drink ale!

I notice it a lot more ever since I trained for the Edinburgh Marathon last year. All I could think of was about how much training it took for me to achieve my ‘peak’ (still not that peak) physical condition. There’s a common complaint in fantasy about how horses seem to have unlimited endurance, with characters able to ride them for days on end, across thousands of miles and varied terrain. Anyone who knows anything about riding, knows that horses need pit-stops too! But what about people?

Man, if elves kept jumping on my back I'd need a break too.

Man, if elves kept jumping on my back I’d need a break too.

The main character in my book, Raim, is a strong character. He’s got to be: he’s an apprentice to the most elite warrior group in his world. In the beginning, he’s been constantly training with heavy swords, sparring with other apprentices, lifting heavy objects onto the backs of camels – all activities designed to keep him fit. (Or even better than fit – have you seen his muscles on the front cover?!)

But eventually (and this isn’t too much of a spoiler!) Raim finds himself in an environment he’s not used to: without water, proper nutrition and anyone to spar against. It was at that point that I realized just how much physical fitness played a part in Raim’s character development: without training, he felt useless; without breaking a sweat through hard work, his mind also goes limp. In addition, for almost his whole life, he has been defined by how strong he is. When that is taken away from him, how does he cope? What else does he learn about himself? Suddenly I was learning so much more about him, just by asking myself what seems like a dumb question: how do you stay fit in a fantasy world?

So then I had to do the reverse: I had to give his fitness back to him. Raim needs to be strong. But how could I do that without putting him in the fantasy version of a gym and write some scenes with him pumping fantasy-iron? (p.s. that SO would not work!!) In the end, it worked out that I could use the unique environment Raim found himself in to develop his physical strength – and hopefully, too, his character strength – in ways he never could have foreseen.

I know another Author Allsort who’s had to deal with this: Emma Pass! Her main character in ACID, Jenna Strong, is an absolutely kick-ass female lead, who takes down many foes. But it’s no accident that she’s so good at being strong. Emma is careful to build in the story of how she reaches that point: what made her become so kick-ass, how she learned techniques to keep herself safe, and – perhaps most importantly – why she had to do so. She does it subtly – no one wants to read about endless hours of training – but you know that Jenna has put herself through the paces to get to where she is.

And, of course, thinking of the characters’ journey beyond the actual story you are telling doesn’t just go for physical strength – that was just a fun tie-in to this week’s theme! It goes for whether a character is a deft thief (just how did they becomes so good at picking locks?) and natural liar (when did they realize they could blag their way out of any sticky situations?) or any number of character traits. Exploring why your characters are the way they are is the key to creating real depth in your tale.

Anyone have any favourite ‘strong’ characters? My vote is still with Jenna Strong!

amy2Amy McCulloch was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, UK, and moved to Ottawa, Canada, when she was 11. She attended Immaculata High School, where she developed a love of geeky things like science fairs, yearbook, RPGs and The Lord of the Rings. After high school she started studying at the University of Toronto, where she graduated with a B.A. (Hons) in English, specializing in Old English and Medieval literature (her love for Geoffrey Chaucer will never die).

After a year out backpacking around Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia, she moved back to London, UK, to find a job in publishing. She now works as commissioning editor for HarperVoyager, where she works on such amazing authors as George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Raymond Feist, and edits brilliant new stars of SF & Fantasy like Blake Charlton, James Smythe and Janet Edwards.

At the beginning of 2011, she signed with the amazing Juliet Mushens of The Agency Group for her debut YA fantasy-adventure novel The Oathbreaker’s Shadow. Random House Children’s Books will be publishing in June 2013.

Feel free to get in touch!

Pre-order The Oathbreaker’s Shadow on Amazon UK

About Amy McCulloch

Amy McCulloch is a Canadian writer of seven novels, living in London UK. She is represented by Juliet Mushens at Caskie Mushens.

One comment on “Developing strong characters – and keeping them that way

  1. Jessica
    April 19, 2013

    In Shadows of Tomorrow (coming out sometime early next year), I write about characters who are at the peak of physical fitness. I made a point of showing how much hard work it is. The main characters spend every morning in training together, as well as often doing private training in the afternoons and as part of their job having to go off and fight scary monsters. If you’re going to write characters who are physically awesome, you have to show how they get that way.

    Your idea of taking a strong character and having him get weaker is an interesting one. I’ll have to go and give it a read.

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