Another Side to "Character Vulnerabilty"

One of the problems most, if not all, writers have is that, no matter what most of us claim, we tend to dwell, if not obsess, over what the readers and reviewers don’t see that seems perfectly obvious to us. And each of us, as writers, has certain predilections. One of mine, shared by some other writers, is to write about strong and powerful individuals.

I don’t and can’t bring myself to write about detective mages so stupid that they make four or five major mistakes, any one of which should have killed them, in every book. I don’t write about weepy and helpless women, nor about powerful but stupid villains.

But, of course, a good book is about overcoming challenges, and readers want to see protagonists tested to their limits. One reader told me, “Make sure you really abuse your heroes.” One of the possible problems with this is that external challenges may not be the real obstacles. I’ve seen incredibly talented people essentially throw their lives away, and I’ve seen moderately talented but ambitious people succeed where more talented but less driven individuals failed. So one of the formulas suggested by writing gurus is that internal challenges should mirror the external ones, or vice versa.

All that said, very little can stop an incredibly talented, intelligent, and driven individual. This means that, in books as in real life, powerful individuals are seldom realistically threatened or done in by others. Yet there seems to be a feeling that fictional characters who are “too strong” are not believable because they have no weaknesses. Part of that is because most of us can’t identify with them, and we’d prefer to identify with the underdog. That’s why the story of David or Goliath — or Seabiscuit — still resonates with people. But strong characters do have weaknesses. They can be done in by a combination of other powerful individuals, by their own weaknesses, or especially by their ties to others.

This certainly isn’t a new concept, but it tends to be overlooked, although it was laid out fairly bluntly in Gordon Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not. No one can stop Tam Olyn… but he turns aside from destroying an entire culture because of love — and would in fact be devastated if anything happened to Lisa. There’s certainly no one individual who could stop my own character Alucius by the end of Scepters, but he is and will always be held hostage to the love of his homeland, which is highly vulnerable, and his way of life. In the end, the near-invincible Mykel and Dainyl both end up vulnerable and hostages to life and those they love. In a similar sense, the women of Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country control everything, and yet remain hostages.

Yet, all too many readers and reviewers tend to think of external vulnerabilities as the most challenging. Whether external or internal vulnerabilities are the greatest depends on the character and the situation, which is as it should be, not upon a preconceived assumption that large and visible dangers are always the hardest to overcome.