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Sympathetic characters are vulnerable; they are flawed, needy, and have wayward tendencies. In other words, they are thoroughly human. No one wants a superman unless there is a chink in his armor. Every character needs to be brought to his knees by his personal kryptonite. You must make your characters suffer. There is a natural tendency among writers to coddle characters because they care about them. Don’t do this. You must throw agonizing circumstances at your character, the worst possible stuff, to cause true vulnerability.
Readers are drawn to characters that need help. A wounded character gives a reader a reason to root for a character. Wounds can be internal or external; for example, we empathize at the outwardly scarred hero who is trying to rebuild his life, or the inwardly broken debutante who is trying to escape the prison of her life. Injured characters inevitably force readers to respond. The readers may be horrified or even terrified by the wounds our characters bear, but they will also be hooked and read on to the end of the journey if only to see whether the wounds fester and bring destruction or if they heal and bring hope.
A character’s vulnerability often comes from something hidden in the character’s life. A character with a secret will engender empathy with readers. This character’s secret lies beneath the surface, and if uncovered it will rip apart the frayed fabric of your character’s life. Perhaps the character has done something wrong and now lives to make amends, even though everything will unravel if the misdeed becomes known. Our humanity is compelled to care for such an individual. The vulnerability rises out the seesaw of tension created by the secret.
Another way to create vulnerability in a character is to give him or her a burning desire for something. This desire shows inner strength but intense desire, even for a good thing, can work against a character. Tension is created by the potential of disaster that will arise if desire overcomes your character. Think about this. Dangling the opportunity of great power in front of your basic good guy serves as temptation. Desire is born and its power is seductive. Your character’s lust for power serves as a point of vulnerability. Your readers will care. They will want to know if this hunt for power will destroy your character or perhaps recast him in the mold of evil. They will want to know how other characters will leverage this desire to suit their own plans.
Give your characters flaws, wounds, secrets, and desires to make them less perfect and more human, and they will be more vulnerable and compelling.
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