Anatomy of a Scene With a Realistically Strong Character

In which I break down a scene that contains a formula for depicting a character that is both strong and realistic. 

I’m not going to rant about this. I’m simply going to say that, in my opinion, a lot of authors, in an attempt to write a “strong” character, particularly (though not exclusively) when the character in question is female, end up creating a character that is unrealistic and a poor role model. Then I’m going to move on, because you’ve probably read a lot of posts on that topic (I know I have).

Instead of focusing on the negative, I’m going to share a scene that I think is successful in portraying a character that is strong but realistically so.

(The other thing I want to quickly say is that there isn’t really one type of personality that we can call a “strong character,” as everyone is capable of showing strength, and might do so in a different way than someone else would).

By the way, I’m talking about The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I just finished). I almost decided not to do this post, because after having this idea, I read on in the novel and became increasingly frustrated with Esmeralda. Still, this particular scene is a good example, especially taken by itself with no context.

Even if you haven’t read this book, it’s probably okay to read on. It’s not really much of a spoiler. And, if you are a writer, you might find this a useful formula when trying to create a realistically strong character moment.

Step 1: Danger

Why: The best test of someone’s strength is to put them in a dangerous situation. People under stress tend to reveal themselves for who they truly are. You can tell us that the character is strong, but we won’t believe you until you show her being strong in circumstances that call for strength.

How it’s accomplished here: When Esmeralda is taking sanctuary in Notre Dame, she is attacked by Frollo, who begs her to love him and kisses her repeatedly, despite her demands to let her go.

Step 2: Character Confronts the Danger in a Realistic Way

Why: No one likes a passive character. When a character is in a bad situation, we want to see her doing something to try to overcome it. At the same time, a character who is able to vanquish any and all enemies without breaking a sweat is unrealistic. Worse, once we see that happen a couple of times, all suspense is lost. The next time you put that character in danger, we don’t break a sweat either, because we know it’s not going to be a big deal. In fact, why even keep reading the book? It’s necessary, then, to find the balance: show us the character doing something to resist the danger, but keep it within the character’s reasonable abilities.

How it’s accomplished here: At this point in the novel, we’ve already seen Esmeralda ward off amorous advances with a concealed dagger. Of course, now she is unarmed, but she tells Frollo to let her go or she’ll spit in his face. That only works for a moment. She then uses her fists, but her blows have little effect. She’s a fifteen year old dancer, not a professional fighter. She’s used to defending herself with a weapon, not with her fists. It would be unrealistic if she were able to suddenly overpower a man who is much larger than she is.

It is okay for a character to be strong without possessing exceptional physical strength. I know that’s been said, but I’d like to emphasise it.

Step 3: The Character Accepts Help (That Has Already Been Set Up)

Why: You know what takes strength? Admitting when you need help. Pride takes no effort. Refusing help is easy. After a character does everything that they can reasonably do, it’s okay if they accept help from another character, as long as that has previously been set up earlier in the book. If your character is going to need the help of another character at some point, set that up early, and make sure it’s as unobtrusive as possible so that readers don’t think much of it at the time. If you wait until the moment that the character needs help to have someone else swoop in and fix everything, that is what’s known as deus ex machina. And we as readers have decided, as the centuries went by, that we hate that. (I think deep down we probably always did.)

How it’s accomplished here: Earlier, Quasimodo gave her a whistle that she could use to summon him if she needed anything. He’s pretty much deaf from ringing the bells, but he can hear that frequency. At the time that he gives it to her, we’re thinking in terms of perhaps food or water or something like that. But now, when Esmeralda is yelling for help and no one can hear, she remembers the whistle and blows it. Quasimodo comes to the rescue with a large cutlass.

Step 4: Ultimately, It MUST Be Your Character Who Takes the Final Action

Why: Someone else can help when your character is helpless, but if you want to show your character as strong and capable, they must take the decisive action at the climax of the scene, resulting in the resolution of the scene. A strong character can summon a friend for help, but they shouldn’t be content to sit back and let that friend do all the work.

How it’s accomplished here: Quasimodo is much stronger than Frollo and really wouldn’t need any help from Esmeralda at this point. But, just before bringing the cutlass down upon the assailant, he recognises the face of his master. There are two people in the world that have Quasimodo’s loyalty and affection, and now he finds himself caught between them. He kneels between Frollo and Esmeralda, tells Frollo he can do what he wants but that he must kill him first, and then offers him the cutlass. At this point, Esmeralda quickly seizes it and dares Frollo to approach. Obviously, he leaves, knowing that she wouldn’t hesitate to use the weapon. So ultimately, even though she needed Quasimodo’s help, it is Esmeralda who overcomes her antagonist in this scene.

Step 5: The Character Reacts Realistically to What Happened

Why: In a character-driven story, the emotional impact of an event on the character is what gives it meaning. If the event has no emotional impact, then it doesn’t belong in the character-driven story, even if it’s very exciting. Now, listen up when I say this, because I’m not a person who is very comfortable with my emotions, but I still know this to be true: even the strongest people have emotions. It’s okay for a character to cry when something upsetting has happened. Emotions do not weaken a character. 

How it’s accomplished here: In a short period of time, Esmeralda was accused of murdering the man that she is infatuated with, thought he was dead, found out he was alive, faced with execution, snatched up just in time by a bell-ringer with a frightening appearance, and given sanctuary in Notre Dame. After spending some time in this sanctuary, she had perhaps started to feel some semblance of security.

But then, she is disturbed from her sleep by the priest who stabbed the man she thinks she loves, who proclaims his love for her and forces kisses on her. She struggles with him, receives help from Quasimodo (whom she is a little afraid of), defends herself with a cutlass, watches Quasimodo violently knocked to the floor as punishment for helping her, and then goes back to bed in the same room she was just attacked in. And she’s only fifteen! So obviously, she cries. She is upset because she has just been through something very upsetting! She doesn’t give in to her emotions until the danger is past, but once it is, she must react realistically.

To Recap:

So, there you have it! That’s a formula that you can use when crafting a scene in which you want to show your character to be strong. To review:

  1. Put the character in danger
  2. Have your character confront the danger within the bounds of their reasonable abilities
  3. Let the character accept help when needed
  4. Make sure it is your character, and not the sidekick or other helpers, who takes the final action to overcome the antagonist of the scene
  5. Let your character react in a way that is realistic in context of their personality and proportionate to what has just occurred.

And that’s it!

One final word: As the book went on, I became quite frustrated with Esmeralda and her obsession with Phoebus, who is a huge jerk and never cared about her or really did anything to warrant such unreasoning devotion (If I heard her say that name just one more time I think I would probably have had a stroke). Despite that, in this scene and several others, she behaved quite admirably. So, I still think she’s an okay example of a strong character overall, and a really solid example in the scene I outlined above.

And that’s all I have to say about that! What are your thoughts?

Have a lovely day!

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6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Scene With a Realistically Strong Character

  1. Love it!!! You make a great point with the need for a character to accept help, but still ultimately solve the problem themselves. Though….I would say the one exception to this would be the Damsel in Distress moment… a trope (or lack of a trope?) that rarely shows up in today’s ultra-feminist Lit, which I think is rather a same. If executed correctly it can give both the male and female involved in the scene character development…and it is a tangible expression of loyalty/love etc. As long as the female character in question already has a scene earlier SOMEWHERE in the book to establish her competancy at some sort of skill, then having her be rescued won’t undermine her strength, it will simply reinstate her ability to accept help–like you said–which is a STRENGHT and it gives the male character a chance to be a MAN.
    Reading this post has gone me quite interested in reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame….all I know of the plot is a vague idea of the 90’s animated Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame…but I am most definitely intrigued.


    1. I so agree with you about the value of a properly-done damsel in distress moment. It is a shame, isn’t it, that a lot of people aren’t willing to accept even the faintest hint of that anymore. Especially when you are establishing a romantic relationship, it’s a great way to endear the male character to both the reader and the female character, and to show that he’s willing to pus himself in danger to protect her, and thus is worthy of her. This need not demean her or belittle her competency. Really, the important thing is, not the sex of the character who performs the decisive action, but that it is the protagonist of the scene (who may not necessarily be the protagonist of the work as a whole, especially if you are dealing with a large cast) who accomplishes it.

      I have never seen the Disney version, but from what I understand, it is QUITE a different story. I definitely recommend this novel. Hugo restrains himself to really only one major digression, so it’s probably a better introduction to his writing-style than my beloved Les Miserables. 🙂 But (and hopefully you don’t consider this a spoiler—I just know I wish someone had told me) prepare yourself for tragedy. The book starts off rather light-hearted and comedic (well, light-hearted for medieval Paris, anyway…) so I wasn’t really prepared for the massive tone-shift partway through!

      Liked by 1 person

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