There are a lot of ways that a character can be strong. There's the kicking ass, swinging an axe, slaying vampires kind of strong, and then there's the quiet internal fortitude of the steel magnolia variety. I think "strong character" is more about the latter than for former. It's about emotional, not physical, strength.
But what makes a character internally strong? For me it boils down to two things. The first is doing what's right. Sometimes this means being kind, standing up for something, or protecting someone. No matter what it is, it's related to that goal. But anyone can do the right thing when it's easy. So the second element to strength is doing the right thing even when it's hard. It takes the strong ones to do something difficult, unpopular, or dangerous -- to fly in the face of convention in order to do the right thing.
I'm supposed to talk about a strong character here. It took me a very long time to pick just one -- I thought about Aerin from Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (she slays dragons and showed me a girl can be the Hero), and about Jane Eyre (maybe not strictly young adult, but one of the best examples of sticking to your guns), Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle (picks herself up and actually begins to enjoy life after being cursed), and I finally settled on one of my more recent reads for an example. I'm going to talk about Dashti from Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days.
Dashti grew up in the wild steppes as a mucker, "the simplest of commoners". Her father died when she was a baby, her brothers abandoned her and her mother when she was eight, and finally her mother died from a summer "floating fever", leaving Dashti all alone. All Dashti had was one last animal, which she traded for a position as a lady's maid in Titor's Garden. The first day that she's supposed to start in her new household, Dashti walks in on an uproar. Her lady is refusing to marry the man her father has chosen for her, and will be locked up in a tower for seven years or until she sees sense. None of the servants are willing to be imprisoned with her. Only Dashti, seeing that her lady is young and terrified, is willing.
My lady was squeezing my arm so tightly now, my fingers felt cold. One of her cheeks was pink from his slap, her brown eyes red from crying. She reminded me of a lamb just tumbled out, wet all over, unsure of her feet and suspicious of the sun.
She’d be alone in that tower, I thought, and I remembered our tent when Mama died, how the air seemed to have gone out of it, how the walls leaned in, like to bury me dead. When Mama left, what had been home became just a heap of sticks and felt. It’s not good being alone like that. Not good.
Besides, I’d sworn to serve my mistress. And now that her hair was fixed and her face washed, I saw just how lovely she was, the glory of the Ancestors shining through her. I felt certain that Lady Saren would never disobey her father lightly. Surely she had a wise and profound reason for stubbornness, one blessed by the Ancestors.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll stay with my lady.”
Then her father up and slapped me across my mouth. It almost made me laugh.
So Dashti goes and is holed up with a sobbing noblewoman who soon sinks into a dark depression. Dashti is the one making sure the laundry is done, the place is clean, there are meals to eat, and the rats don't eat their supplies. She sings and she keeps going and she holds on to hope that one day they will get out. Dashti has dark days in the tower but she always picks herself up instead of succumbing to her fear. In some ways, Dashti has an innocent's unwavering belief in her gods and that her lady is blessed by the Ancestors, but this is also a story based on a fairytale (Maid Maleen), and Dashti is its Hero. By holding on to those simple ideas of right and wrong, she stays pure and does what a Hero does: saves the day.
- All alone in the world
- Steps up for a stranger when no one else
- Survives in a prison for
- Supports a weaker person just because she
- Still has faith in what she believes
- Saves the day (I'll be circumspect because I don't want to spoil you, but trust me, it takes strength).
Even though Dashti has low status and a simple outlook, she became the Hero. How? Because she stuck to principles when it was very difficult to do so. No one else would do it. Dashti becomes even more amazing because with how little support she has, you'd think she'd be the one breaking down. Instead, she's the one keeping others going. That is a strong character, and by the end of the book, her unflagging spirit and humility left a lasting impression. She had my utter respect.