Vulnerable Characters: How to Write Compelling Characters

What makes a character so compelling you have to laugh and cry with them through the book’s adventures? That you get so involved in it all that the author creates a fan instantaneously?

One of the things that really works–particularly in romance–is a vulnerable main character. If you don’t believe me…think of Wolverine from X-Men. In the movies he has a vulnerable side that makes women swoon.

To quote author Julie Farrell “Both Beth and Mandy [from Jean Oram’s Blueberry Springs series] have a great balance of being ‘feminine’ and powerful. And sometimes being strong means making yourself vulnerable. It’s not just about arm wrestling! … Those are the times where the rewards are greater. When you go to the place where you confront what you fear the most, you’ll come out the other side totally transformed.”

Didn’t she put that so well? It struck such a cord with me and really put words to what was swirling around in my head. In fact, our conversation lead me to look at the books I was currently reading and which heroines had really dragged me into their journies lately.

And yep. Vulnerability was top of the list.

How to create a vulnerable character in your novel. Writing tips for compelling characters.

I would argue that making your character vulnerable at some point is vital to making them intriguing, multi-layered, and someone the reader can really empathize with. Thereby giving over their heart and becoming involved in the story.

That’s the why of it.

What does being vulnerable look like?

First of all, being vulnerable does not mean being weak. It means being a character that has something to lose. Something eating them emotionally. Some tender bit they need to get over in order to get what they need and want.

For example: Believing you aren’t loveable. A recent death that has you torn up inside. Believing you aren’t good enough. Aren’t pretty enough. That you will be used if you give up your heart. It’s that little something inside that the hero or heroine will protect and try to hide.

It’s that little doubt inside that on a bad day makes you want to cry.

That.

Why does being vulnerable matter?

Characters have to grow and change in a story–that’s the whole journey. The reason for the story. In order to do that they have to smack into walls and fall into pits and confront and wrestle with their biggest fears. It has to knock them down so when they stand again they will be that much stronger, that much taller. Characters have to let down their barriers and let change into their lives.

Think of it this way: When we exercise we tear down our muscles. We actually rip and tear them. We stress them. Put strain on them. But that process makes them stronger. When they repair, they make themselves bigger, stronger, more powerful. By tearing them down we enable them the opportunity to come back stronger.

That’s why action movies are so exciting. We get to watch (in a physical manifestation) the hero battle demons (sometimes real!) in exciting and thrilling ways. He has a vulnerable side that the bad guy tries to exploit. And only be moving past that and becoming stronger can the hero best the bad guy and win.

We love it because for the duration of the movie or book we get to be that person battling our inner demons, our vulnerabilities. We get to believe that we, too, could be heroes and win the battle.

And that’s why we need strong characters with a vulnerable side. If you want to read more about strength in characters and what that can look like you might want to check out the post I wrote over on Alys B. Cohen’s blog. Like Julie pointed out, there is vulnerability in strength. And one could argue, strength in vulnerability.

Talk to me. What character has made you laugh or cry or get completely swept away lately? Was it a romance? Action adventure? Share what grabbed you in the comment section.

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6 comments on “Vulnerable Characters: How to Write Compelling Characters
  1. farrelljulie says:

    Thank you for quoting me Jean – I’m honoured!

    I love characters who are brave. But bravery comes in all different forms. It’s all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway! 🙂

    Great post!

    • jeanoram says:

      You are most welcome. And thank you for allowing me to quote your side of our conversation, Julie. You got me thinking. 🙂

      There are so many ways to be brave, aren’t there?

      • farrelljulie says:

        Absolutely! Consider, for example, a tough, macho guy, who’s biggest fear would be telling his dad how much he loves him. Context is all, as they say!

        There was one time when, for me, driving on the motorway would make me physically shake with fear.

        When we meet people like that in fiction, I think we can relate to them more than an action hero type, precisely because they’re facing their vulnerabilities, in the hope it will make them a better person or their world a better place. 🙂

        • jeanoram says:

          Well put, Julie. And by watching them face theirs, we can vicariously face our own. And maybe pick up a few tips as well for when the time is right for us to face our own. 😉

  2. Jemi Fraser says:

    Love this whole post and the comments too! I do think those vulnerable characters pull us in and make us care about them. One of my favourite characters is Eve Dallas in JD Robb’s In Death series. She has so many layers and is a fabulous combination of strong and vulnerable!

    • jeanoram says:

      Oooh! I will have to check it out, thanks Jemi! And thank you for the compliment. I know I definitely care about a vulnerable character. It makes them so real and layered. 🙂

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