Friday, 15 April 2011

Vulnerability - An Important Character Trait

The post on creating sympathetic characters triggered some comments about vulnerability and got me thinking. Is vulnerability the most important characteristic a character can have?

Start with baby animals. They're small and fluffy, but surely part of the appeal is their vulnerability. My fat, old cat was once a teeny kitten small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. I can remember feeling her little heart pounding against my palm as she met the dog for the first time. The dog - then an exuberant 2 year old Border Collie - must have seemed a giant to her wide eyes.

And what did that terrified scrap of tabby fur do? Hissed, and spat and fluffed up her bottlebrush tail. The dog could have killed her with one snap of his jaws, but she was having none of it. Vulnerability, combined with a lack of awareness of the vulnerability is surely a large part of the appeal of baby animals. The fluffy chick doesn't think it's cute, it just sets off to scratch more dirt. The floppy eared puppy scampers around the bigger dogs, oblivious to the potential danger. And this transfers to people. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - a character defined by vulnerability - is not self-pitying but resilient.

From the reverse angle, there's something very appealing about strong characters having a vulnerable spot (a bit like the Athena poster of a muscle-bound bloke cuddling a newborn baby, which was nearly as popular as the tennis girl with no knickers). That moment when the tough commander breaks down, or the stern head teacher softens and reveals their human side is a film cliche, but memorable moments are made from the strong showing their vulnerability.

One of my favourite books as a child was Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutgers Van Der Loeff, and my favourite bit (which still has me welling up just thinking about it) is the scene at the end when John, who has shown such strength of character to get himself and his 6 younger siblings across the mountain passes on their own after his parents die, breaks down and reveals that despite all this, he is still just a child. Strong, but vulnerable. Vulnerable but strong. Gets me every time.


Elizabeth Currie said...

A character can't be convincingly 'human' without vulnerability. All 'real people' (ie all of us) are vulneable in some way. As in the animal kingdom, many people develop convinving ways to disguise their vulnerability too (aggression, ie seeming scary - 'don't mess with me!') is a common one. Even one of the original mythic superheroes - Achilles - had his 'vulnerable spot'! A lot of immature and poor writing can create characters (alter egos often) who are 'all that' & consequently seem completely unbelievable. A balance of strengths & weaknesses & showing how a character progresses along their life developmental pathway through confronting the problems raised by their own vulnerability is what makes an interesting & convincing narrative!

Jim Murdoch said...

But what about Scrooge? He is also vulnerable. It takes a bit more effort to locate his weak spot than with most characters but he has one. Even superheroes have their weaknesses. For some it’s an Achilles heel (like kryptonite for Superman) but for others it’s a personality behavioural issue that they’re always dealing with. When I was writing the character in my most recent novel I decided to give her a schizoid personality disorder but the more I read about the problem the more I realised that I had to dial it back, to make her high-functioning, because if I didn’t then she would have been impervious to everything going on about her and that’s no good.

Sarah Duncan said...

Couldn't agree more Elizabeth.

Jim, that's an interesting character problem to work with, the vulnerable character who doesn't understand vulnerability.

Claire King said...

I've been thinking about this since you first posted it - it struck a cord with me because my main character in my first novel is clearly vulnerable, but too naive to realise it, and I think much of the strength of the story lies in that fact.
Are there any characters that are invulnerable? I've been watching a DVD of To Play The King recently, if you've seen it? It strikes me that Francis Urquhart is one of those characters (or even if he has human vulnerabilities they have nothing to do with how sympathetic he is as a character). He is the Hero-Villain, and we like him because despite him being a nasty piece of work, he's intriguing and compelling and at least has more character than those around him.

Sarah Duncan said...

He's a brilliant example of a Hero-Villain. Isn't part of the pleasure the odds always appear to be stacked against him, but somehow he manipulates the system to come out top? And he makes the reader complicit in his machiavellian manoeuvres so it's us against them. It's ages since I read House of Cards so I'll have to go back and check.