vulnerabilities, not weaknesses

It’s been a while since the first time I heard a writer tell me that they did not want to give their character a weakness. But since then, it’s something I hear quite frequently.

The problem is that “weakness” is a terrible word for the vulnerability a character needs for there to be a story that exists beyond “competent character does thing competently.” No matter what kind of story is meant for which ideal reader, vulnerabilities maintain the tension necessary for the protagonist (and the reader) to be unsure of future success. In the story of the upper-middle-class protagonist trying to get into Julliard, the work only has uncertainty if something internal or external challenges the protagonist before their acceptance or rejection.

External conflicts can come from anywhere in the kid’s life. Their parents could get a divorce in their final year of high school. A friend or sibling could get sick, addicted, hurt, or fail in a way that could drag the protagonist down with them. Even if it “just” distracts them from the multiple hours of practice in addition to all the character’s other obligations, the vulnerability has a cost. Their mentor could even die if the author wanted to do a full hero’s journey.

But as long as what is holding the Julliard kid back is external to their mental state, the character can still succeed if they buckle down and work harder while dealing with the external conflict. It’s only when another dancer joins the dance school and the protagonist sees what a truly “gifted” (read: a person who developed the talents they were given even harder) dancer can do that they can struggle internally with their decision to dedicate their lives to get into a school with a 7% acceptance rate.

A character without weaknesses is a character that can be played by Vin Diesel or Jamie Lee Curtis. They are so strong going into the story that the plot revolves around a crucible that will test their metal. But those characters still have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the author (and the antagonistic force.)

To return to Samwise Gamgee, Sam didn’t need to change who he was or what he believed to help Frodo do his thing so they could go home. So while he didn’t change or needed to change, the world went from being infested with the armies of Mordor to not being infested with the armies of Mordor. He did have plenty of vulnerabilities.

For one, he was just a Hobbit in a world full of Balrogs and Nameless Things. He wasn’t trained to fight, but he loved his Mr. Frodo so much that letting him go off alone was inconceivable. The task Frodo accepted seemed impossible and against all odds. Failure at any point would lead to total war taking over the entire world. He and Frodo survived until the good guys won, but Frodo had changed so much by what happened that he could never go home again even after his mentor got ununalived.

Sam was such a strong character that he could weather the storm and be unchanged by it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have vulnerabilities that made doing so the hardest thing he’d ever done. The Julliard kid still has to learn that getting into that 7% acceptance rate is nothing compared to standing out in a class full of equally talented, equally skilled and equally driven classmates.

A character’s vulnerability doesn’t have to be something they are bad at that they have to get better at in order to accomplish their goals. It is what separates the illusion of false conflict from the obstacles the character has to overcome in any genre that could actually stop them from achieving their objectives. Conflict isn’t arguing or space blaster fights. It’s what keeps your character from what they want or need.

I’ve read so many stories over the last decade where the character’s greatest fear and hope are revealed through dialogue like the author is checking that off a list. I have never read a single scene where a character explains to someone else exactly what they are afraid of that was anywhere near as effective as a character showing the reader their vulnerabilities through their actions.

But as long as “there are no rules” is taught to mean “first drafts are structurally perfect” learners learn telling the reader something is as effective as showing them it on an emotional level.

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