Vulnerable Characters

It’s difficult in the revelry of making a character whom you love to push them, pull them, and tear them down because we see so much of ourselves in them and a sensible person wouldn’t willingly foment such a grievous challenge to their well-being. But rarely do we examine the lives of those who sat content in the quiet corners and rarer still do we seek to emulate or live vicariously through them. The emblems of our restricted desires seek adventure, and where adventure lays so do harrowing risks.

The first obstacle for the new writer is presenting physical vulnerability for their protagonist. Riding on the ego trip of playing God with a story, it’s tough to kneecap the badass who doesn’t take guff from anyone. As kids we all have the Superman fantasy of being stronger than everyone, being able to do anything. Channeling that into an almighty superhero or martial artist or mercenary team (as I did on my first go around) is ecstasy for the writer and boredom for the reader. Without challenge there’s no tension and having the protagonist clear out his tenth room full of baddies without breaking a sweat will become a challenge for the reader.

It disrupts the fantasy to have the writer’s plaything get scuffed. Good. I have lottery fantasies and those are half-baked wish list at best. Want me to stretch them out for a hundred thousand words?

The solution is a simple as the problem: Hand crushed in an animal trap? Learn to fight one handed. Work with the issue. Fight, fail, get up, overcome. Here the writer (through the character) must acknowledge their innate specialty won’t resolve every problem they encounter and they’ll have to rely upon less polished skills developing those in the process. It doesn’t even have to be a heady swerve to an otherwise base power fantasy story. The axe swinging barbarian brute might require an enchanted mcguffin from a Goddess he can’t defeat in battle forcing him to try and seduce her.

I’ve seen many inexperienced writers fall in this trapping due to an overly taut relationship with their vicarious protagonist. Men, women, young, and old, the mental fragility is that any criticism of the character isn’t in total control then what does that say about the writer? To any writer in this headspace I ask you, has your life been a flawless field of gumdrops? Probably not otherwise you’d have little to write about. But there in those moments of strife you found inspiration to write. So why can’t your character go through those same struggles and find a way to carry on?

It sounds like corny fiction but in the real world when you landed chest first on some playground equipment during a game of tag and had the wind knocked out of you in front of everyone you didn’t think it too cheesy to clamber up and keep playing. It was just a game, you say, “Nah, I’m cool” and move on. Real life is far cheesier than fiction. Having your protagonist fall on their face and dust themselves off isn’t dreck; it might be the most realistic thing in your story.

The next obstacle for a new writer, once they understand what occurs behind the plot like a car enthusiast opening the hood of their dream machine for the first time, is finding their characters in emotional distress.

Recently I picked up a story I’d put down months ago and came upon the spark for this piece. The protagonist, an older girl born to be a sacrifice, expresses a high degree of sass from her debut and doesn’t let up. From the farewell party to the ceremony she always has a sure remark and on her lonesome steels her courage to press on within a paragraph of each raised doubt. Even after a near death experience when her benefactor asks if she’s okay she cuts a, “No thanks to you” remark before the author redirects her back to the plot.

This is something I see a lot from writers trying to characterize kids and young adults. The level of emotional control and surety goes far beyond realism, which is fine because it’s fiction, but the reasons for that character trait are rarely ever due to the character’s overall being. I read these characters lose parents and friends and the only home they’ve ever known in the first couple chapters so often without any attempt by the author to explain their acceptance of these tragedies.

Was the kid held in a gilded cage all his life, having his destiny as the spare to the throne in case the named heir dies drilled into him on a daily basis so that when his brother whom he’s never met or even contacted dies he sees it as a fulfillment of his duty rather than feeling the pain of the loss of family? Can the author please think about this on a deeper level with internal justifications?

From the author’s eyes the emotional strength serves many purposes. The character (usually the protagonist) is built up with a strength pleasurable to the audience while maintaining an underdog visage from their suffering. The quick turnaround form the character’s recognition of their suffering to their resolve to continue keeps a fast pace while avoiding long soliloquies on a repeat subject. If the character never says no to a challenge then they’ll always follow the plotline the author created for them and the author doesn’t have to face that challenge themselves outside whichever plot template they feel comfortable with.

But a rounded character is susceptible to emotional vulnerabilities. Carrying multiple, conflicting beliefs and desires will generate internal strife over how best to achieve one’s goals or even minimize pain. Between sacrificing the prime of your life taking care of an in-law who hates you or leaving them to the uncaring service of an old folks’ home doesn’t blossom effervescent joy so much as it leaves you to pick the least bad option.

If the character doesn’t have to quarrel with these issues it’s likely because the writer has solved the problems for them. In the book I referenced the sassy protagonist wants to follow her benefactor through the dangerous woods despite being told to stay back causing the benefactor to change his mind because — sass. Sure she almost dies because of her decision allotting her agency but the world bent to remove all challenge between points A to Z. “And it’s not like she was in like real danger because she could totally fight her way out even though she doesn’t like know that yet cause she’s super strong really.”

I’d rather see the character stew on the refusal and how she thrashes against the new restrictions placed upon her physically and mentally. Pitted against a sense of the walls closing in around her like stomach lining in heaving convulsions as an amplified reminder of her youth spent in near confinement as she struggles to convince herself of her self-worth and autonomy after once more having her life’s path decided for her and the drawn out escape sequence where she battles the voice telling her to just go back where it’s safe and where she feels comfortable. Or sass. Sass your way into and out of conflict because my OC ain’t no punk.

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