Q&A: Reject Cynicism. Inner Strength is about Courage

Thoughts on the gentle and compassionate character that is perceived as weak but has “inner strength”? What is your personal definition of inner strength in the context of this archetype, and would it actually be beneficial in a semi-realistic setting? And how would you go about deconstructing, and subsequently reconstructing it? I hate cynical endings that show kindness is meaningless or a hindrance, I was wondering if I could subvert such a message without eyeroll-ness using such a character.

Coming out with the hard questions, huh?

The truth is there is no right way to write this type of character because “inner strength” isn’t a generic term but a personal one. In terms of meaning, strength changes from individual to individual. So, for a writer, that means defining what “inner strength” means to you.

Strong is a State of Mind.

Let’s redefine “inner strength” as courage. Courage is not being without weakness, it’s about overcoming fears and insecurities. It’s about facing uncomfortable truths even when the lies those truths hide make up the fabric of your memory.

There’s no single right answer or way to go about portraying a character who is courageous in their daily life, who stands up, who faces down what makes them afraid, and who tries even knowing they might fail. Kindness is a gift given to someone else, and while you might hope for reciprocation you’re not guaranteed a response.

“This is about what I can do,” this type of character says. “This is not about what you or what you deserve. I’m kind because I believe in kindness. You can be cruel to me, that’s you’re choice. I’ll continue to be kind to you because that’s the approach I’ve chosen.”

You don’t need to subvert, or deconstruct, or reconstruct. What you’ve got to do is play the archetype straight. Write the character who genuinely believes kindness can change the world. You don’t need a character who starts out “strong” and inner strength isn’t easily quantified in the general sense. You need a character who is wiling to stand up for their beliefs, even when their insecure, frightened, unsure, and hopeless. Creating a character who genuinely is mentally and emotionally strong is creating a character who is learning how to be strong as they go through their experiences, in figuring out what that means for them and for you, discovering how they got there, throwing aside cynicism, and in the end believing that  kindness really can make a difference.

You’ve got to decide what “inner strength” is in the context of your story. For me, inner strength is the most important quality for any character. I define “strength” by their emotional experiences, how they deal with them, if they face them, their decisions, their beliefs, and how those shape their story within the narrative. Each one has their own qualities, their own strengths.

“Yes, the world can be a dark and dangerous place. Yes, people can by cynical and self-interested. Yes, cruelty, indifference, and ambivalence are all easier to accept. Yes, sometimes, changing even one small aspect of this world seems impossible. Hope can be frightening, it’s painful to see your dreams crushed. I know this task is Sisyphean, every time we get that boulder to the top of the hill it just rolls back down. Sometimes, for me, even just getting out of the bed in the morning can be herculean. But you? You’re just using cynicism to excuse action. In your world, we’re already doomed. That attitude just protects the status quo. I won’t stand aside. I won’t do nothing. I won’t let fear stop me and I won’t let you stop me either. I’m going whether you come with me or not.”

The irony for all the cynics will tell you their way is more “realistic” is that it’s much more difficult to maintain hope, to stay hopeful, positive, and to keep chasing after your dreams. It’s more difficult to be kind than it is to be cruel. You risk more in being open to others than you do in being closed, and its much harder to keep sticking your hand back into the fire after you’ve been burned. The mistake comes with assuming that being kind is easy. It is under most circumstances, but there are those where you need to dig deep to maintain that smile. It’s easy to see the flaws and failings in other people, and much harder to reach out. The mistake is in assuming these characters have never seen the world’s darkness, that they’re sheltered, and that once they’re exposed to that darkness they’ll change their tune. That’s not necessarily true.

Now, there are those kinds of characters whose kindness is based in both innocence and ignorance. Who are open because they have the privilege of living in an environment where they don’t regularly encounter cruelty, where no one has specifically been directly cruel to them, where they’ve never had the values they espouse challenged. Then, there are the characters who have had their values challenged. The ones who locked hands with misery and despair, who went through their crucibles, and came out the other side fire forged. These characters genuinely believe in the values they espouse, all the way down to the extreme end of pacifism where even when their life is threatened they never raise a hand to defend themselves with violence. They choose words instead.

There isn’t anything unrealistic about characters choosing a path of peace over one of war. Diplomacy is a real skill set with real value in the real world. There are plenty of people out there every day making a difference, by giving time to good causes, who chase after their own dreams of a better world. There are plenty of examples out there to show you can’t make a better world through violence. Plenty of different philosophies on the subject too.

Strength comes from growth, from picking ourselves back up when we fall down, and standing up again. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, there’s no shortage of pitfalls to knock us back down to square one. That “inner strength” comes from fortitude, from the willingness to keep going, from acknowledging our own failings, and being patient with others for theirs.

So, the question becomes do you believe in the values this character espouses? Can you be genuine when you write them? Can you be honest with their struggles? Can you be honest? Can you write from the perspective where you believe in what they stand for, but are willing to challenge them and put those beliefs to the test? Are you willing to let them fall short? Willing to see them fail?

Maybe I don’t want to be gentle all the time? I always try to be kind! I try and I try, and I try, and I’m sick of it! I’m not getting anywhere, and when I do you’re there with some witty crack about how it couldn’t get better than this! Why are you doing this to me? How can you go through life like this doesn’t affect you? People are suffering! They’re suffering and I can’t do anything about it!

Ultimately, the difference between a character who affects the audience and a character who is eye-roll worthy is whether you admit that they’re human. Even then, so what if they are eye-roll worthy? Sometimes, you need to start with a cliche and then when given context the character emerges. There’s nothing generic about this sort of character’s strength, they are an individual whose beliefs are challenged and shaped by their experiences.

Bravery requires we take risks. Risks mean that sometimes we fail, but we can’t allow fear of failing to stop us. Learning about “inner strength” requires taking a long hard look at yourself. There aren’t any special tricks to getting past the boulder, no special means of ensuring success. Sometimes, you just need to be willing to stand there and risk letting the boulder hit you. The cynic will tell you that its better not to try anyway because you were always going to fail. However, the honest truth is that you don’t know until you try.

The act of facing your fears is growth all by itself. Putting yourself out there, even if you fail, is an act of courage.

That’s really how we do it.

One step at a time.

-Michi

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