Themes in Fiction #8 – Inner vs. Outer Strength

Picture by Bhope34

Picture by Bhope34

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi



Strength is a very desirable attribute, particularly among characters. Characters with strength are not going to be passive – they’ll be exciting, active, ‘doers’ who shape the story world around them rather than floating along in whatever direction they are taken. But strength doesn’t have to be whether or not you can bench press another person. Strength comes in lots of forms, and sometimes mental strength can win out over physical strength.


Half a King by Joe Abercrombiehalf a king

Yarvi, the main character in Half a King is considered a weakling by everyone because of his crippled hand. He can’t hold a shield, his sword work is pathetic and he’s an embarrassment to his title of ‘Prince’ and later ‘King.’ But Yarvi proves to have more inner strength than any of his enemies imagined, using his intelligence and determination to get his revenge on those who wronged him and his family, persevering through incredible hardship, growing in both inner and outer strength along the way.

It’s an idea that plays on the ‘brain vs brawn’ stereotype. Yarvi lacks strength, but because of that his enemies underestimate him, don’t consider him a threat. And because of that he is ultimately able to best them.

lord of the ringsThe Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

It’s a common theme in Lord of the Rings that the Hobbits – small, insignificant, simple people – have reserves of inner strength not possessed by men. I’ve touched on this in the Power Corrupts theme, as it’s similar.

Bilbo and Frodo’s resistance to the Ring that so easily corrupts others speaks volumes of their inner strength. The fact that Frodo and Sam are able to complete their dangerous and difficult quest to Mordor is further evidence. They aren’t heroes. They aren’t warriors. Sam is a gardener. And yet they are able to save Middle Earth.

Mixing It Up

Sometimes characters do have the ‘outer’ strength, but lack the inner. The story then becomes about them gaining that inner strength to enable them to use their ‘outer.’ I say ‘outer’ because my example involves magic, rather than brute physical strength, but I’m taking ‘outer’ as the thing that comes easily. Inner strength is the fortitude to use it.

In A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin, the main character Matthew is possessed of great magical power and strength. However, when it comes to responsibility and the need to use that magic he’s a bit like, ‘nope, no thanks.’ Responsibility is the last thing he wants, but unfortunately, things are after him, and things are after people he likes, and he has to step up.

I love the trope of ‘extremely powerful but extremely incompetent’ – it makes for adorable characters – and proves, I think, that inner strength is far more important than outer. It’s your ability to use what you have, and stand strong in the face of adversity that gives you ‘strength’ much more than Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles ever did.


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