In my last post I applauded Gaelen Foley for her brilliant use of vulnerability. I’ve read on since then and somehow an incredibly promising book just sort of fizzled out. So I want to explore how she used and abused the vulnerability card and see what can be learnt from it as a writer.
Our hero, Billy Blade, is a dangerous and dangerously intelligent gang leader in the rookeries of London. He ran away from his aristocratic home at the age of 13 because his father regularly beat him up and made him feel that he was worthless and unlovable.
What I would expect from a hero like this is that he’s morbidly suspicious of anything tender he might feel for someone else. But Foley allows Blade an immediate and yearning vulnerability. He longs for a less desperate life, for Jacinda Knight, and for the possibility that she just might like him.
This immediately endeared him to me. It made me realise I feel a little bit contemptuous of heroes who are so woefully stupid when it comes to their own feelings. And when Blade returns to sophisticated London and braves the contempt of his fashionable peers just to be near Jacinda, he becomes even more endearing. He was powerful and potent in the rookeries but his vulnerability turns him into something of a beta-hero, or the out-of-place underdog.
(That being said, I think you can also make it work to have a hero so distrustful that he obstinately refuses to understand his feelings. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is a brilliant example of this. Her hero won’t admit how he feels, but he is undone and made vulnerable nonetheless.)
what didn’t work:
I’ve thought about it quite a bit and come to the conclusion that the story fizzled because Blade gave in too absolutely to his vulnerability. He follows Jacinda back into society, and because he is so desperate to be with her and to be worthy of her, he submits to her attempts to civilize him and becomes the perfect gentleman.
In doing this he was following his secret yearnings/longings, but as a character he became indistinct and, dare I say it about what was an enormous character, boring.
In the last few chapters he redeems himself somewhat, bringing the two sides of himself into accordance with each other. But by that time I didn’t care as much, so it was a bit lost on me.
So annoying! I was 100% with them at the beginning.
Vulnerability works so well to create an interesting character. It complicates them; it divides how they perceive the world and how they act from what they really desire/fear; it makes them unpredictable; it makes them human.
But I think it only works in glimpses. Think about how you feel without your defenses. It’s incredibly powerful to be vulnerable, but also damn uncomfortable and not, I think, sustainable over long periods. We have certain defenses for a reason, and I think it’s important to know when it’s more dramatic to use the power of defenses or of vulnerability.
Also, those defenses we build that come to define who we are are what gives character.
erm, and the lesson?
What I take from this as a writer is that vulnerability needs to be used in the way I imagine painters use highlights or those certain colours you don’t even necessarily notice in a painting that bring out everything else more vividly. I think that if a character is too comfortable with being open and vulnerable for prolonged periods, or if their life comes too perfectly into line with their secret fears/desires, they become unbelievable or at least they lose all dramatic interest.
It could be useful to think about what you want a character to achieve/feel in any given scene and whether being powerful or powerless serves this, and whether that feeling comes from vulnerability or from long-held defenses.