How to Make Characters Vulnerable to Readers

by Jami Gold on November 7, 2013

in Writing Stuff

A turtle in the middle of a road with text: Are Your Characters Vulnerable?

Most tips for creating sympathetic characters point out that our characters need flaws. And that’s very true.

But it can be a real trick to show flaws for characters who bottle up their emotions in an attempt to hide their weaknesses. While very common, that defense mechanism can leave very little for us, as authors, to show.

In my own writing, my desire to create strong characters led me to sometimes emphasize how they didn’t let things bother them. And sometimes that emphasis came at the expense of sharing their fears with the reader.

This was a Bad Thing. *smile* Our characters might not be vulnerable to anyone else, but they usually need to allow a bit of vulnerability with the reader so the reader can form a connection with them.

Some stories or voices might be so compelling that they can get away with unsympathetic and/or completely invulnerable and closed-off characters. But in general, characters who are vulnerable to the reader are easier for readers to embrace.

So how do we create a crack in a character’s armor where a reader can connect to them? It might depend on how self-delusional they are. *grin*

The Self-Delusion Scale

While a “normal” character (who would probably be quite rare) might admit their fears, characters who bottle up their emotions won’t. How we expose their emotions anyway might depend on how self-aware they are.

Do they recognize their weaknesses and know they’re covering up their fears? Do they consciously avoid thinking of them? Or have they internalized their fears so much that they can’t acknowledge them in any way?

Each of those levels creates different opportunities to show vulnerability to the reader. Characters are unique, and how they react to challenges will show what kind of a person they are inside.

Note that one character might use multiple coping mechanisms to deal with different weaknesses. So a character might fall into all three of the types described below.

Type #1: The Self-Aware, Closed-Off Character

Along the scale, this coping mechanism is the easiest to show, and many of our characters’ weaknesses will fall into this category. (It’s actually a rare character who would reveal their weaknesses to others, especially at the beginning of a story.)

This approach is also mentally “healthy,” so characters wouldn’t necessarily “grow out it” over the course of the story. Instead, we’d see the character overcome their fears despite how difficult it is. They’d need to dig deep for the strength to do what needs to be done.

Characters using this defense mechanism are aware of their flaws and make a conscious choice to cover up their weaknesses. All of us can probably think of some of our flaws that fit into this category.

I can be painfully uncomfortable in group situations (to the point that I’ve had panic attacks before every in-person writing conference I’ve attended). On the inside, I’m cringing and thinking everything I say is idiotic and any silences are uber-awkward and my responsibility to fix. But if you met me in person, you’d never know all that was going on in my head, as on the outside, I’m friendly and outgoing.

Both are the real me. It’s a conscious choice on my part to push my outgoing nature to the foreground to cover up my internal freak-out.

Similarly, we could show this dichotomy in our characters with their actions and behaviors conforming to the “strong character” expectations, while their thoughts would be more revealing. This can be a perfect situation to use deep point of view.

We wouldn’t necessarily need to give the play-by-play of their weakness like I did for the effects of my discomfort above, but we could have the deep point of view walk the reader through their thought process to cover up something. We could include internalizations that expose a fear and their determination to push past it.

Her stomach flipped over, imitating the pancakes she’d eaten for breakfast. But she wouldn’t know if she could do it unless she tried. And she was beyond sick of being left behind. Even sicker than her stomach’s protest at what she was about to do.

Type #2: The Character in Denial

This coping mechanism is the second easiest to show if we know a few tricks. Characters who use this technique might not be conscious or self-aware enough to acknowledge their weaknesses. However, they still struggle with their flaws. The trick with these characters is show that struggle.

Assuming we’re in a non-omniscient point of view (meaning a first person or limited third person POV), we might not be able to come right out and state what these characters’ issues are, what their fears are, what they long for that’s different from their current situation. But we can give hints and use subtext.

We can show them start a thought and cut themselves off or push the thought away. While they might not actively recognize their situation, they can actively deny those thoughts a place in their head. We can also use words that seem slightly out of place from the rest of the thought to reveal their subconscious mindset.

Simply by showing what they’re not thinking, the readers will see hints of what’s going on behind the scenes in their head. Sometimes what isn’t said can be just as revealing as what is said. Or sometimes a few words adding more specificity than needed can reveal their priorities.

Her father walked away without a single word of praise for her top grades. Would it be so much to ask—?

She cut off the pointless thought and trudged up to her room.

Type #3: The Internalized Character

This coping mechanism can be the trickiest to show because characters who use this technique have internalized their situation so completely they can’t see an alternative. Without that ability, they can’t think about how things could be different—or even cut off such thoughts.

Instead, these characters have internalized their weaknesses and fears into a false belief. My post about false beliefs gives fifteen ideas on how to show a character’s fear when they’re not consciously aware of it.

We can also show these characters’ weaknesses by creating situations that poke at their soft spots. The more specific we make their reactions—their thoughts, their actions, their evasiveness, their defensiveness—the more clear their false belief will be. The reader will see the truth of their character despite their lack of awareness.

She leaned closer and grabbed his arm. “What do you mean you can’t come to the dance with me? You promised. We were going to dress up, hang out, and make fun of all the losers who came by themselves.”

Now what was she going to do tonight?

Additional Tips for Building Vulnerable Characters

Deeply Understand Their Weaknesses: Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s new The Negative Trait Thesaurus has more tips about how to show flaws and weaknesses, along with tools to help us brainstorm and develop those traits.

Use Subtext: Many times a reader’s understanding of the flaws will come from the subtext, the negative space. What or who are they avoiding? What are they not saying or doing?

In the last example above, subtext provides two clues of her fear: she thinks people who would go to the dance alone are losers, and the thought never occurs to her to go by herself after he cancels on her. Therefore, she’s afraid of going alone and being alone. She’s afraid she’s a loser and needs the “prop” of someone with her to convince herself she’s not.

Use the Rule of Three: Whatever we decide to show about their weaknesses, remember the rule of three. The rule of three states that we should expose readers to an idea three times.

  1. If we mention something once, it can seem out of character.
  2. If we mention something twice, readers might suspect it’s important but not pick up on the pattern.
  3. If we mention something three times, readers will know it’s important and recognize the pattern for what it means for the character or story.

Get Feedback: After a trusted beta reader or critique partner has read our story and given feedback, ask questions. Write up the characters’ fears, goals, motivations, etc. in straightforward language, and ask your reader if they didn’t pick up on any of those details, or if any of them should be strengthened. If they didn’t pick up on one of a character’s fears or desires, more development of that aspect is needed.

This can be a tricky thing to get right. We don’t want to be too “on the nose,” but we also don’t want readers to miss out on some of the character’s layers. Otherwise our character will seem superficial, no matter how much development we’ve completed behind the scenes.

Our goal is to bring those layers onto the page, where the reader can see character aspects they relate to and recognize within themselves. Where the reader can form connections with our characters. And where the reader can enjoy the full extent of our imagination. *smile*

Do you have characters so guarded they don’t want to reveal themselves to the reader? How have you cracked their armor? Will any of these tips help you? Do you have any other suggestions or tips to add?

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35 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Jeanette O'Hagan November 7, 2013 at 7:40 am

Great post Jami. Thanks.

Reply

Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 8:20 am

Hi Jeanette,

Thanks! As I mentioned in the introduction, this is something I’ve struggled with in my writing, so I figured I’d share what I learned. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns November 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

This was something I really struggled with too. Especially since I prefer to write in first person. A couple of my MC are very closed off and internalize everything. One is better at admitting his weaknesses, the other is terrified of admitting them. So, I’ve used a combination of the techniques you mention. I usually have to go back through a few rounds of editing to get it to sound decent and not forced.

Reply

Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Hi Davonne,

Exactly! My most difficult character in this regard was actually the first original character I wrote. I thought I’d never figure out this character emotion thing. EVER. LOL!

Now, it’s still not easy for me, but with enough editing passes, we can get there. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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marilyn forsyth November 7, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I’m in the process of editing my book at the moment and your mention of the Rule of 3 was a timely reminder. Thanks so much, Jami. Always find your posts enlightening.

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Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Hi Marilyn,

One of my writing besties and I were just reminded of that rule (and the reason for it) when we went through her latest WIP. Most things I thought were missing from the story were there, but they’d only been mentioned once or twice. My reaction–dismissing them as being out of character–was what really reminded me of WHY the rule exists. 🙂

Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda November 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Excellent timing with this post, Jami! I’ve got a MS I’m planning on revising soon, and I set out to make the hero a closed-off, demanding alpha. I wasn’t sure how to do it since it’s in 1st person from the heroine’s POV. You’ve given me some ideas on how to make it work better. Thanks!

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Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Hi Amanda,

They’re a tricky character type, that’s for sure. 🙂 Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung November 7, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Ooh cool. Yeah I hate it when you have a highly developed character but your readers can’t see any of the layers and therefore assume your character’s flat. XD I need to work on making things more visible too.

Yes, I definitely have characters who don’t reveal/ hide their weaknesses. The character in denial I have a lot, and I also do the (thought)….(brushes the thought away) kind of thing. Or I just say they stopped themselves thinking that thought and thought about something else instead. Sometimes I wonder if that’s too overt. But if it’s less overt, it might not be noticeable enough, lol.

The internalized. Yeah some characters, in the limited 3rd person or even the 1st person, just get really emotionally worked up over an issue from their own perspective, but readers can see that they’re wrong or unfair, haha. There’s this man who really detests this little boy that his wife wants to adopt, so in the man’s 1st person POV, he describes the little boy in SUCH an unreasonably negative light, lol. But maybe it’s easier to see that he’s biased because we also get scenes from the wife’s 1st person POV where she describes her potential son in a much more positive light.

The self-aware, closed-off character? Hmm…not sure if I have them yet–I probably do—though my in denial characters might be in this category too.

In general, I think it might be easy to show their fears if you’re writing in the 3rd person limited and get to narrate what’s going on in their heads—they can’t hide their thoughts from us, haha. And you can always describe their emotions/ feelings/ dilemmas directly–though maybe that would be telling, not showing. But maybe I’m used to this method since the literary classics do this all the time, lol.

In the 1st person, I suppose it’s not too hard either as what they narrate can show us how they’re really like–as you said, what they’re not saying is a clue to the reader about what’s going on inside.

But I think what would really be challenging is if the character you want to make vulnerable is NOT the POV character. I.e. you can only see them from the outside–no access to thoughts either in the first or third person! Then you’d have to rely on their actions and speech. Or on their personality/ interests/ likes/ dislikes/ quirks that the POV character tells us about or shows us. You could do tone of voice and gestures/ facial expressions too, but that would depend on how observant the POV character is of them—or if the POV character is even INTERESTED in observing them, lol. So getting to reveal the fears of a “non-POV, just observed from the outside” character would be really fun to try to do. Not sure if I have a character like this yet, but I probably do.

Reply

Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Hi Serena,

Exactly! If we’re doing all that character development work, we want it reflected in the reader’s impression, right? 🙂

Ooo, yes, when they’re the non-POV character, we have to use external clues to show that struggle. Or the POV character could notice and wonder “what’s up with them?” to draw attention to the struggle. Sometimes the POV character might jump to conclusions about what might be the non-POV character’s issue (sometimes accurately, sometimes not). 🙂

Hmm, I’ll have to think about that to see if I have any other ideas for that situation. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung November 8, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Good suggestions. Lol I’ve definitely seen books that use the what’s up with them or the jumping to conclusions methods! I sometimes do it too. But sometimes it’s ME who’s wondering what the non-POV guy or girl is on about and I jump to conclusions about them. XD

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Jami Gold November 8, 2013 at 8:57 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yes, that’s quite possible too. 🙂

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Angela Quarles November 7, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Timely! I think that’s my problem with my current heroine–I think she might be a type 3–she doesn’t really know yet what her problem is, LOL. I was talking earlier in the month to a non-writer how difficult this is to show when writing in 3rd because we can’t rely on an Omni narrator to tell the reader what this person’s problem is. (She’d wondered why I just didn’t come right out and say it and I was trying to explain how she can’t really do that if she’s not consciously aware of it). Another hard thing to show is emotion, if that character’s fear is feeling deep emotion and shies away from it. I got some early comments to add more emotion, and I was like–but, she’s, she’s! But I did give it a go and tried to add some where it made sense, but then one Beta reader did say she was puzzled about her because she seemed so in touch with her emotions so didn’t understand why she had issues with them. Argh. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what the eff I’m doing writing-skill-wise.

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Jami Gold November 7, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Hi Angela,

Yes, it was some of our conversations about this issue that got me thinking of how to address the problem. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve had plenty of characters drive me crazy with this as well. LOL!

And don’t worry–you do know what you’re doing. I’ve seen the proof! 🙂 I just think we all struggle with finding the right balance to create the impression we want.

I hope this gives you some ideas for your heroine. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles November 8, 2013 at 6:18 am

It does, thank you! And glad I helped inspire some of this. 🙂 I definitely think that bit of advice you gave at the end was really helpful to me during my Beta with you (showing what my intentions were to see if I got them across) as it showed me what I didn’t get across effectively, and I love your levels of Rule of Three–makes so much sense!

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Jami Gold November 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

Hi Angela,

It was your story bible that showed me how valuable that “here’s what I was trying to get across, did I succeed?” step could be. 🙂 Thanks for triggering all these thoughts to help us all!

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Elizabeth Lang November 10, 2013 at 12:54 am

Good one. Very informative. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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Jami Gold November 10, 2013 at 9:32 am

Hi Elizabeth,

I hope it’s helpful. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Lindy Moone November 14, 2013 at 4:22 am

Very thought-provoking article. I’ll especially keep in mind your hints regarding questions for beta readers.

I must admit that what I’m most proud of in my own book is that readers really care about the characters. This was pretty hard to do, when much of the book seems like wise-cracking farce and several characters are keeping secrets, both from others and — sometimes — from themselves.

I had one character who fit your first category: closed-off but (mostly) self-aware. I revealed her true nature by having her secretly observed doing something that seemed out of character.

This may be an old ploy, but when handled well, it’s a wonderful way to show a character’s true feelings. Plus, of course, the reader gets the voyeuristic thrill of discovering the truth herself, and the character doing the observing now has secret information. Information that can be used for good… or for evil!

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Jami Gold November 14, 2013 at 8:40 am

Hi Lindy,

Yes, the more I write, the more I realize it’s near-impossible to succeed without that beta reader style of feedback. 😀

Ooo, that scene does sound fun! Great point about it being a voyeuristic thrill. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Ettina December 26, 2014 at 2:19 pm

In my story, I’ve got a bit of a challenge. I’m writing a story with an internalized character. But I can’t count on the readers seeing through her, because it’s a fantasy and part of what she’s denying involves magic. So I have to work in sideways hints to tell the reader what the protagonist is denying.

Context: The protagonist’s sister is a ruthless psychopath, who got badly injured by a failed murder attempt. The sister needs the protagonist’s help to cure herself, but she also needs to rip out the soul of this guy they’re holding prisoner (her own soul is damaged, and she needs to replace it with someone else’s). The protagonist knows full well that ripping this guy’s soul would normally be an important component of what they’re trying to do, but refuses to believe that would even be on the table for her sister, so she’s convinced herself that her sister must have found another way. As time goes on, she’ll run into more and more hints of what’s really going on, and continue to deny it. But I want to make it pretty obvious to the reader, long before the protagonist is forced to admit it. (If she is – I haven’t decided if she’ll realize the truth or come to a tragic end while still deep in denial.)

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Jami Gold December 27, 2014 at 11:18 am

Hi Ettina,

Good point about sideways hints! 🙂 I’ve included those as well, with comments along the lines of “Wait…does this mean xyz? No, couldn’t be.” LOL! Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Jess Hunter September 16, 2015 at 6:11 am

“On the inside, I’m cringing and thinking everything I say is idiotic and any silences are uber-awkward and my responsibility to fix. But if you met me in person, you’d never know all that was going on in my head, as on the outside, I’m friendly and outgoing.”
This is me too!!!!! Thank you so much for posting. This page is definitely going in my tool belt 😀

Reply

Jami Gold September 16, 2015 at 7:49 am

Hi Jess,

Glad I could help you feel not-alone on that issue. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

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