East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Strength is not just kicking ass (and vice-versa)

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Something funny happened the other day – funny up to a point, as I will try and explain later.

One of the usual debates started, about reading and writing and what else, and the discussion turned to strong female characters, and we were given a brief lecture about how

a woman will never be stronger than a man – it’s a matter of muscular mass: the strongest woman warrior will always be at the same level of a mid-range male warrior, and she could never beat a stronger opponent


Now, this statement is – of course – mindboggingly asinine on two counts1

First: in writing, when we talk about a strong character we are not (usually) talking about the weight the character can bench-press.
Strong characters are those – both male or female, of course – that are well rounded, well characterized, with a high impact on the reader’s imagination. A strong character is one that makes a strong impression.

For instance, I am currently re-reading The Pickwick Papers, and I’m pretty sure most of the characters in Dickens debut novel are pretty strong – contrasted to the plot, which is not (nor it needs to be).


And granted, none of the Pickwickians is the sort that would bend iron bars with his bare hands – they would probably find the idea alone rather shocking.
But they have staying power – in the sense that they remain with the reader long after the last page is gone. They are strong characters.

And yes, we would expect someone discussing writing to know the difference between a strong character and a brawny one, but there goes the neighborhood (more on this later).

Second: I usually find rather funny when a self-styled expert in matters military comes down to reducing the whole thing to a question of muscular mass – thus denying a few dozen centuries of fighting techniques, martial arts (both Eastern and Western), and “inner school” combat training.
Granted, were it just a matter of muscles, warfare would be a much simpler affair…

“Gee… the guys got arms like sacks filled of footballs. Not worth the effort, we retreat…”

warrior-womanAlas it is not so – and fighting is a weird sort of activity that involves muscles, central nervous system (aka brains, but not only) and a whole lot of biochemistry.
Plus the hardware.
The time and the place.
Local conditions.
And the imponderable.

I sort of wonder if this attitude comes from roleplaying games – where fighting usually hinges on Strength more than Agility, sometimes Luck (only if the checks fail) but not that much Intelligence or Wisdom.
Constitution comes into play only to sink damage.

The whole discussion, as I said, was pretty funny initially, but then left behind a certain sense of void – it’s like a lot (not all, mind you, but a lot) of the fantasy fans hereabouts (and many of the most vocal) were happily regressing to their pre-adolescent state of mind, and all the talk of wonder, magic and adventure had been replaced by endless celebration of kicking-ass.

As a writer in the genre, and one that tries to write strong characters (no matter their gender),  I am beginning to worry about the health of my readers, and of my field.

  1. and it reminded me of a guy that once stated that a brilliant researcher in the field of science cannot also be female, young and attractive, and therefore any young attractive brilliant scientist in a movie or novel was an offensive sexist cliché. Weird chap. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

One thought on “Strength is not just kicking ass (and vice-versa)

  1. Reblogged this on Iho's Chronicles and commented:
    Il combattimento non è mai solo forza fisica, anche se alcune meccaniche di gioco di ruolo per semplicitàsemplicità effettivamente lo riducono a questo.

    Al riguardo per fare un altro esempio oltre quanto già detto nell’articolo uno dei pensieri fondamentali del maestro Yang Chen Fu era Yong yi bu yong li cioè usare il pensiero e non la forza muscolare. Altrettanto importanti nella pratica sono concetti quali distinguere il pieno dal vuoto e cercare la calma nel movimento.


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