Strong, multi-dimensional characters are one of the best ways that writers can engage readers and keep them hooked on their stories.
As a reader and consumer of pop culture, I've liked a lot of different characters who engage me in different ways, but it's rare when I encounter a character that I think of as a friend or someone I connect with in a personal way. When I meet that kind of character, I emotionally engage at a deeper level. A few examples include Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jane in Jane Eyre, Elinor Dashwood from the film version of Sense and Sensibility (1995), and Mal and Zoe in Firelfy.
Most recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed by Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, in Vikings on the History Channel.
She’s particularly interesting because she’s based on a real person, but there’s a lot of fictionalizing and incorporating legends and traits of other women from the time period. Personally, I think this is great because the fictional version is probably more interesting than the actual person was, and writers have done an amazing job of making her a must-see character.
So, let's do a kick rundown of Lagertha's character through Seasons One (I’ve tried to minimize spoilers, but there are a few along the way. Sorry).
1. She's a beautiful, happy, hard-working wife and mother. She's also feisty and sexual and has great relationships with those around her.
2. She is also a legendary shieldmaiden. She’s a warrior who everybody knows and respects and even fears. She can—and does—beat anyone who tries to harm her or her family.
Let’s stop there for a minute. Within the first few episodes, we see that she’s a fighter. She’s strong and opinionated and lethal. But she’s also sweet and compassionate. Over the years, writers have often tried to overcorrect perceived weaknesses in women by making them into badass, bitchy, warriors who wear tight black leather and either dominate men or sleep with them to get what they want. Dr. Christina Rowley calls this trend “a ‘hyper-feminine’ spectacle of sexuality that must ‘compensate’ for her warrior characteristics” (Gendered Space, 320).
But Lagertha doesn’t do that. She isn’t over-sexed. She isn’t mean and power-hungry. She’s kind and decent. She’s feminine and empowered. None of those traits should ever be mutually exclusive, but they often are in fiction. The writers of Lagertha have combined just the right amount of soft and edgy traits to make her well rounded, multi-dimensional, and oh-so-likeable.
3. She’s also suffering from fertility issues. Together she and her husband Ragnar have a son and daughter, but they both want more children. For a Viking leader, nothing is more important than sons. They will fight with him; they will follow him to battle and inherit his lands and titles (although not exclusively boys in Viking culture—more on that in the 2nd season); they convey his strength and worth. For Lagertha, not being able to provide that for Ragnar is devastating. She feels like a failure.
4. Ragnar dethrones the earl, making him and Lagertha the power couple. She becomes pregnant. She has everything she thought she wanted.
5. BUT, she is also worried. She knows that Ragnar has a restless spirit. He wants to travel the world and conquer. He wants more, more, more. She worries what that will mean for her.
6. She miscarries. Ragnar leaves, taking their son with him to explore and conquer. She is left to deal with a plague that starts wiping out their village. She is sad, alone, and scared. And then, in what I believe is one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on TV ever, she loses her daughter the same moment she is losing her husband. I’ll let you watch it to see how.
This was the season finale, and I had such a strong reaction to it that I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. By that point, Lagertha was someone I loved and felt a human connection to, so when she experienced so much loss and her greatest fears were realized, it was devastating for me as a viewer.
In Season Two, Lagertha goes on to make hard choices. I didn’t always agree with them, but I understood why she made them because her character was so fully developed, they made sense for her. The writers would have been cheating if they'd written her any other way. She reinvents herself in important ways, making the most of her strengths without losing sight of her tragedies and losses.
So, who cares?
Well, as a writer, I’m always trying to figure out what makes amazing characters work. Of course there are as many character types as there are ways to write them, but my takeaway from Lagertha is that writers can keep readers engaged by implementing the following traits in their characters:
· They’re normal/relatable. They have traits or roles that we can identify with in our own lives.
· They have strengths. There’s something powerful or unique about them that makes us want to be more like them.
· They have flaws or weaknesses or handicaps or obstacles. We can identify with their heartaches and their attempts to overcome something hard.
· They have victories. They know successes and joys, and as readers, we love celebrating those with them.
· They define themselves by interactions with other characters. They aren’t in a bubble. They’re affected—positively and negatively—by those they love. They have fears and hopes and know how their own fulfillment can be dependent on other peoples’ choices.
· They have setbacks. Fiction is all about tension, and tension is all about kicking the characters when they’re down. If it hurts readers that we as writers are causing our characters pain, then we’re doing our job right.
· They redefine themselves. They don’t wallow or stay in a slump. At least not forever. For likeable, relatable characters, they have to pull themselves out at some point and rethink where they fit and why.
· They become a new, stronger, better character. This doesn’t always happen (especially in literary fiction), but in genre fiction we like the sense of closure. That somehow all of the trials that the characters have gone through have not been in vain. They become something different. Their character arc is based on them evolving and emerging, at least internally, victorious.
There is a whole cast of interesting characters in this series.
Ragnar, Lagertha’s husband, is great with kids. He loves deeply and passionately. He spares people he is expected to massacre. In many ways, he inverts expectations of Viking brutality. But, he does other things that I hate him for. His brother Rollo means well. He’s loyal and can be compassionate. But he’s also greedy and traitorous and keeps screwing up—he rapes, he murders, he turns on his brother. But I can empathize with his jealousy and remorse, which makes me occasionally root for him.
And then there’s Siggy and Floki and Bjorn and so many others. I could go on all day. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s worth checking out. Watch the characters—so many of them are complex and interesting and relatable.
What about you? Do you have your own Lagertha—a character who you’ve connected/identified with deeply? For you, what qualities should characters have in order to be engaging?