Grow Reader Empathy By Showing Your Protagonist’s Vulnerable Side

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

brokenVulnerability 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.

vulnerablePeople 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?


Image 1: Foundry @ Pixabay
Image 2: RossandZane @ Pixabay


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, Fear, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Grow Reader Empathy By Showing Your Protagonist’s Vulnerable Side

  1. Pingback: The Recipe for a Great Protagonist | ToTheWrite

  2. Karen Hallam says:

    Brilliant, indeed, and so helpful. Being a plot-first writer, this post is a keeper. I love your Emotional Thesaurus book. Thanks, Angela!

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  5. Rebekah says:

    These are all wonderful, and really got me thinking…especially the one about a role being challenged or lost.

    My question is, what are some ways to show vulnerability in the everyday? Many of the examples in the article sound like major plot points (death, feeling out of control for Reason), so what sort of ways can we show a tough character’s softer side in the in-between scenes?

    I am struggling with this right now in my WIP. Tl;dr version: My protag is a detective who was betrayed by his former squad team when he blew the whistle on internal corruption, and he’s since moved to a new city to start fresh. He is feeling defensive and standoffish due to the harsh wound of betrayal from those he thought he could count on, and so is being a bit of a jerk to keep his new co-workers at bay, but at the same time he deep down really wants to fit in and be accepted.

    My problem is how to balance his snarky tough-guy veneer with some softer moments that allow the readers to relate, but I’m coming up blank on how to do that without making him sound desperate for attention or whiny. Any idea would be appreciated. 🙂

    • Hi Rebekah,

      I think you could show his vulnerability through what he does to be accepted. For example, maybe the first day he shows up in a suit, but everyone else is dressed more casually, a button down shirt type deal, sleeves rolled up, etc. Simply by showing him take note of this the first day and then the second day showing him getting ready by putting on a button up and roll his sleeves…you’ve just shown his desire to fit in without him needing to say it. If he didn’t care what people thought, he’d dress however he wanted. But he does care. he doesn’t need to say it.

      Think of other little ways this would work. Someone really loves a certain type of food–Thai, Italian and often orders it in. He could offhand recommend a restaurant that he knows that is the same type, one that the co-worker doesn’t know about. On one hand it seems like such a small simple thing, recommending a restaurant, but on the other hand, he could have said nothing. No one knew he knew about this place, maybe no one even asked him directly for a recommendation. He simply offered the info. The fact that he did that again shows his desire to be involved in the conversation, to fit in, be accepted. You could do this through helping out with something at work, putting someone in touch with a good mechanic…lots of different things. Sometimes the small things are actually big things.

      • Rebekah says:

        Thanks Angela! These are all such wonderful ideas. And they woke up my Sleepy brain cells enough to brainstorm my own…

        This is just what I needed! You are awesome. 🙂

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  7. Bernadette says:

    Loving this! Getting that sense of authenticity is a real challenge, especially finding that balance. I find the sense of role being challenged and the concept of control so closely tied together. Like in the example of the leader who’s no longer able to command his/her followers, coupled with the fear of mutiny and betrayal. Thanks! This is definitely gotten my brain tingling with ideas 🙂

  8. Ian Dennis says:

    This is really interesting, because I think that one of the biggest and best ways to create a three dimensional character is to show them both at their weakest and strongest. I really appreciated all the suggestions you gave on showing a character’s vulnerable side- some of them I hadn’t even thought of using. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Celia Lewis says:

    My Evernote is getting full of these fabulous posts, Angela. They remind me of the improvisation acting course I took to fill in some arts credits when I went back to university to get my Masters (MA) in Counselling Psychology. Some of the exercises we did were to show ‘weakness’ or vulnerability in our postures… I flippantly told the acting prof (a prof actor also) that he could teach the very same exercises in my counselling psych courses but with a different discussion. He was so annoyed with me – “this is ART” he thundered in his very deep voice. But truly – he could have. Sitting a certain way [slumped, or half-off the chair], or always leaning on a wall/pillar, twisting legs, ‘broken’ in posture of the chest, head down somewhat, arms wrapped around torso…
    I absolutely love this post. It is so real, so helpful, in the writing process. Thank you for sharing your understanding/knowledge of how to write effectively.

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  11. Sara L. says:

    Love this post! Then again, I love everything I’ve ever read from you ladies, anyways. 🙂

    I don’t think we can stress the importance of character vulnerability enough. Especially with the emphasis of “strong female characters” – it’s not an accurate concept for many reasons, and this is one of them. Our characters can’t be emotionally strong all the time, just as we can’t be emotionally strong all the time. There will be moments when we’ll crack, snap, or cry. It’s natural. And if it happens to us, it should happen for our characters, too.

    As for my WIP’s MC… I would say she shows vulnerability in the story through death / loss, having her role challenged, making mistakes, and having her secret brought out in the open. (I’d elaborate more, but I don’t want to spoil things too much!) And while she doesn’t exactly fail anyone or at anything, her fear of failing others shows through at times. Would fears of the items you listed count as a kind of vulnerabilty?

    • Definitely. Fear and vulnerability are tied at the hip so to speak 🙂

      Why as people we feel vulnerable is because we have learned through negative experiences that being open about who we truly are (our beliefs, our feelings, our hopes and aspirations, our desires, etc.) is not always treated kindly by the world. Criticism, rejection, purposeful harm…these are all things we (and our characters) experience at some time or another when we do show our openness. We learn from this–we learn to protect ourselves, to put on our armor, to not be so open. But sometimes if we really want something, we have to risk the possible hurt in order to obtain what we want most: telling someone we love them, hoping they will say it in return. Declaring we are going to chase a dream in hopes those around us will support us and help. Being honest about our emotional pain in hopes that we can alleviate it.

      Your character’s fear of failing others comes from a deep need of acceptance. She wants to be accepted by others, loved, valued. So, she must have had experiences in the past that did the opposite: made her feel not valued, not loved, not worthy. However, as she strives to master her fear and discard her need to “please others” to feel valued (her wound), the real lesson she must learn is how to accept herself, good and bad, and love herself, viewing herself as worthy and not needing others to make her feel this way. When she can do this, she will master vulnerability in the sense that she can be honest and say, “I won’t always make others happy, I won’t always give what other need, but it’s okay, that’s who I am and I am human.” She is being open, honest, vulnerable, yet her own self worth and acceptance of who she is means she controls her own power, and her vulnerability and ability to be so open is a sign of extreme strength.

  12. Thank you Angela! I’m finally back to blogging again, and this was a great post to read. You are amazing!

  13. Kaleiyah-P says:

    YES! This was exactly the problem I was dealing with yesterday as I was writing my rough draft. I was doing everything in my power to make my protagonist vulnerable, but then she became too vulnerable–to the point of weakness and me not feeling any empathy for her. But empathy comes from the fight to stay strong, not the circumstances.

    Thank you! This was exactly what I needed 🙂

    • That is exactly it–getting the short end of the stick doesn’t create empathy–it is what a character does despite hardship that pull readers into their corner. 🙂 Glad this post helped.

  14. As always, we tend to fall back on the same old methods. For vulnerability, it’s usually being hurt in some way. This is a great list to help us reach beyond what’s easy and come up with new ways to make our characters vulnerable. Great job, Ange!

  15. Another great post and one to save. THANKS!

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