Written by JJ Barnes
A vulnerability is a weakness or fear that impacts your personality and behaviour. Character vulnerabilities can be used in a number of ways. I’ll explore how to write them and different ways to use them in your story.
Vulnerabilities For Motivation
Your characters need to be motivated to achieve their goals. You join them at this point in their lives because of a story to tell, and the story is them attempting to accomplish a goal. It could be an internal goal such as find the confidence to perform on a stage, or it could be external such as save a kidnapped child from a monster. As long as at the inciting incident you motivate your characters, they have a story to tell.
By developing character vulnerabilities, you can easily demonstrate why they are motivated, and why their story matters. For instance, if your character wants to perform on the stage. Their vulnerabilities are built around shyness and insecurity. They struggle to perform because this fear is too powerful and will take work to overcome. You immediately see why this is a challenge. It matters because their goal depends on them facing such a real fear, and a fear many of us are familiar with.
In Coyote Ugly, Violet wants to be a song writer. She is told that the only way she will sell her songs is if she gets them heard. You are told her goal, sell songs. You’re told her motivation, that’s what she loves to do. And the vulnerability that is the story motivation is overcoming her stage fright. You see why she wants to sing on stage, you see that she is scared, and you’re invested in watching her take on that challenge.
For an external goal, the vulnerability is also external. Your character wants to save their kidnapped child, and it’s the love of another person that is that vulnerability. This is why baddies in stories will leverage the safety character’s loved ones. A person you care about is a vulnerability and the audience knows why they are motivated and why it matters.
In Taken, Kim is kidnapped and Bryan, her father, wants to save her. That external vulnerability of his daughter, whom he loves, going missing explains his motivation. You see what he wants and you see why it matters, and that vulnerability of loving her enough to hunt her down brings you into the story.
Vulnerabilities for Characterisation
Characters need to feel human in order for your audience to invest in them. If your characters don’t feel real then their story won’t feel real, so you’ll be kept at a distance from it. You won’t sink in and feel it surround you.
Giving characters vulnerabilities is an excellent way to develop and humanise them. We all have things we worry about, things we care about, so your characters should too. Give them insecurities that can be played on when obstacles are put in their way. Emotional bruises from pain in their backstory that flare up when poked by events in your story. Give people they love and care for, people they are protective of.
In Behind Blue Eyes, Nephilim is intended to have her humanity taken from her by the process of her human body being made part cyborg. However, it’s in her vulnerabilities that you learn the truth. She is not as cyborg and invulnerable as The Angels are supposed to be. She has felt sadness and regret about the pain of the people they kill, and she remembers pain from her own past. This vulnerability makes her an interesting character and allows her to go on a story arc that most Angels in that world would never experience.
Giving Antagonists Vulnerabilities
It’s more instinctive to give a Protagonist character things they care about and are affected by. However, your Antagonist needs to be a deep and interesting as your Protagonist. Make sure their vulnerabilities are demonstrated as a factor in their behaviour. They’ve been hurt or they’re scared of losing something or someone. They’re real and they’re human, and therefore their story matters too.
Even an Antagonist who is truly monstrous can have very human vulnerabilities at their core. However hard they try to mask them. In Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis, the antagonist Graham acts invulnerable. Especially compared to the Protagonists Emmy and Books. Graham is confident and violent and strong. However, in that showy confidence lies well masked vulnerability. He fears being caught, and takes numerous steps to prevent it. But this is in conflict with his fears being not recognised for his crimes and accomplishments. During his murders, he makes voice recordings addressing an audience that doesn’t yet exist to imagine he is being admired, even though he isn’t.
Vulnerabilities For Conflict
Your story needs conflict. Conflict is what keeps each scene active and interesting, and keeps your story moving forwards. The main conflict of your story is what your Protagonist wants, their story goal, and the fact they don’t have it. By keeping them actively in pursuit of their story goal in every scene, your story will move forwards and be entertaining.
However, each individual scene should have layers of conflict, and all the characters should have conflict between them. This doesn’t mean they’re always fighting, but it does mean they are somewhat at odds with one another. Their vulnerabilities will cause them to react to things that are in conflict with the vulnerabilities of others.
For instance, in What Ivy Wants, Ivy and her mother are in conflict because Ivy is struggling to get her life together, and her mother wants her to accomplish things. Ivy’s vulnerability is that she is feeling weak and unable to focus on her future because of her broken heart and confusion. This conflicts with her mother’s vulnerability which is love for her daughter, and pain at seeing her waste her life. Neither is wrong for their vulnerabilities, but they are naturally at odds with one another because of them.
Draw On Your Own Pain
To write vulnerabilities, draw on your own pain. You don’t have to have lived the exact experience that your character is in to have lived through their vulnerability. If you’ve ever had your heartbroken, bleed those emotions in your character who’s going through a divorce. Similarly, if you’ve ever been frightened, pour that into the character who running from a serial killer.
If you’re scared of failure, give that to a character. Draw on your experiences of loss, pain, heartbreak. Do you love someone so intensely that you live in fear of their death? Are you scared of crowds or public speaking? Whatever you feel vulnerable about, use it. Live those feelings through your characters and your story will benefit for it.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose