As writers, we all want to encourage a powerful bond to form between our audience and the protagonist so that readers care about the hero or heroine and root for them to succeed. How we do this is through empathy, which is a feeling of understanding and connection that comes about when we successfully put the reader into the character’s emotional shoes.
The Power of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is a necessary element to building empathy, but like all powerful things, it is a blade with two sides. On one hand, as people, we connect to displays of vulnerability because it gives us a glimpse at what lies beneath the mask a person wears day-to-day. When someone reveals a truth, an emotion, a deep belief or their biggest fear, they expose their heart to someone else. The willingness to be vulnerable (a necessary ingredient for love and intimacy, for example) is about saying, “this is who I am. I am sharing this real self with you.” It is self-acceptance and courage at the highest level, the purest form.
But vulnerability means being open, and that means risk. We’re going out on a limb, opening ourselves to whatever comes. Pain. Emotional wounds. Judgement, blame, criticism, rejection, humiliation, exploitation, and a host of other things no one wants to feel. This is why it is human nature for people to try to avoid feeling vulnerable and to act strong, even when we are not.
To create credible characters, we want to mirror the real world. This means that like real people, most characters will resist showing their vulnerable side, too.
Do you see the conundrum here? We need to show readers our character’s vulnerable side to help empathy form, but as mirrors of real people, the character will fight us, refusing to let down their guard and acknowledge their soft spots. What a head trip, right? Here we thought we authors were in charge, but nope.
Luckily, authors tend to be, er, sneaky. (Okay, okay, manipulative.)
When our characters are being all alpha tough and refusing to let people in, we can turn once again to the real world for help. Some situations just make a person feel vulnerable. There’s no choice. So, if we identify “universal triggers” for vulnerability, it won’t matter how stubborn our characters are. Simply by deploying a trigger, we’ll be able to place them in a situation that leaves them feeling exposed.
Through their actions, their thoughts and by making them look within at their greatest fears, readers will see a POV character’s soft side. Better still, because these are real world events, readers themselves will know exactly how the situation can lead to that feeling of vulnerability.
Here are some ways to make your character feel – and appear – vulnerable, whether they want to or not.
Through not knowing what will happen next.
People crave control, of having power over what the future will bring. Take that away and you are left with the feeling of not knowing, of having no influence or say in the outcome. By placing the power in another’s hands through choices, actions and decisions, you rob your character of control. The resulting feelings of frustration, anxiety and even despair are all ones that reinforce vulnerability. Readers have all felt a loss of control at some point and so will deeply identify with the character’s range of feelings.
Through the mistakes they make.
Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes. Not only do we hate it when one happens, we tend to beat ourselves up about it, growing frustrated and disappointed for not being smarter, stronger or better. Characters who make mistakes feel authentic, and it humanizes them to readers. Besides, mistakes create great plot complications & conflict!
Through personal failures.
Not succeeding at what one has set out to do is one of the most heartbreaking moments an individual can experience, and it is the same for our characters. A hero’s personal failure, especially one that has repercussions for others, is one way to break down those steel walls and show our hero as vulnerable and human.
Through a death or loss.
A deep, personal loss is never easy. Often a person only realizes what they had or what something meant when it’s gone. Again, this is a universal feeling, something all readers can identify with. Written well, seeing the hero experience loss will remind readers of their own past experiences. Death is final, but other losses can be potent as well. The loss of hope is particularly wounding.
By having one’s role challenged.
Whatever the character’s role is (be it a leader, a provider, a source of comfort , etc.), having it challenged can be devastating. Roles are tied to one’s identity: the husband who loses his job may no longer be able to provide for his family. The leader who made a bad decision must witness the resulting lack of faith from his followers. The mother who fails to keep her child safe feels unsuited for motherhood. When a role is challenged in some way through choices or circumstances, it creates self-doubt, making the character feel vulnerable in a way readers identify with.
By casting doubt on what one believes.
Each person has set beliefs about the universe, how the world works, and the people in it, allowing them to understand their place in the big picture and instilling feelings of belonging. When knowledge surfaces that puts trusted beliefs into question, the character suffers disillusionment, a powerful feeling that can make them feel adrift in their own life.
Disillusionment is an emotional blow and everyone has suffered one at some point. This can be a good way to trigger that feeling of shared experience of vulnerability between character and reader.
By experiencing fear or worry for another.
This ties into that loss of control I mentioned above, because one directly or indirectly has a lack of influence over circumstances affecting a loved one. Fear and worry can also create road blocks about how best to proceed. It’s one thing to take risks that only affect oneself, and another to take risks that will impact others. The paralysis a person feels over what decision to make when it impacts relationships is an experience readers understand.
By having one’s secrets brought out in the open.
Secrets are usually hidden for a reason and are often the source of guilt or shame. When one’s secrets are revealed, the character is stripped of their security, and they believe others will view them differently as a result. Readers can empathize with this raw feeling of being exposed. (This link has lots more information about secrets.)
Showing vulnerability is all about emotion, so if you have it, pull out your expanded 2nd edition Emotion Thesaurus the next time you want to find a unique way to show, not tell, that feeling of being exposed.
As you can see, there are many other ways to bring out a character’s vulnerable side. What techniques do you use on your cast of characters?