I just watched a TED talk by Brené Brown about vulnerability. I love TED talks. Every time I watch one my perception about life shifts a little bit, and as a result, so does my approach to writing. In the case of Brown’s talk, I was in tears as I thought not only about my own vulnerability as an artist—clearly her message was hitting the mark with me—but also the importance of vulnerability in the characters I create.
The thing is most of us hate feeling vulnerable. We hate feeling out of control. We get paralyzed by “what if I put myself out there and I get turned down or ridiculed or end up going down a road I didn’t want to go down?” Yet, as humans we have a fundamental need to be connected to the world and to each other in order to feel truly alive. Therein lies the struggle: to feel connected, we need to be vulnerable and show who we are, but our instinct is one of protectionism. As writers we become vulnerable every day we create. It’s part of our calling. We describe and reflect the vulnerability of life, so others will be moved and their lives shifted as a result.
But vulnerability takes courage, and writers are human. We all struggle to be courageous day in and day out. I mean, how can you keep feeling courageous when a piece gets rejected or ignored over and over? How do you continue to write a story that takes you to dark places in your own life you’ve probably worked years to bury, but is needed in order to make the story authentic? Yet that journey is exactly what is necessary. As Brown even says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity.”
And what does this mean for our characters? Our characters have to reflect the same human struggle we face ourselves in the most real way. If we can effectively show a character’s struggle for connection, readers, in turn, will feel a deeper connection to our work. (Maybe this is partly what Maria was talking about in her last post about finding her character’s voice.)
So, how can you create characters that reflect this inner humanity? Well, one way, of course, is to start with yourself. Examine when you feel vulnerable. I mean, really examine it…without fear. The better you understand your own humanity, the better you can reflect the humanity of your characters. As a start, I found some ideas from Writing Through Life journaling blog.
Another way is to start with those around you and then turn what you discover onto your characters. Here are some steps:
- Describe when they feel vulnerable and why. Is there some memory triggered?
- What physically happens to their bodies in that state? (e.g., forehead tenses, palms become sweaty)
- What do they say in reaction? (e.g., turn to blame someone else? Try to exert control in the situation or command that they are “right”?)
- What do they do as a result? (e.g., many try to numb the feeling of discomfort by drinking or eating excessively or taking pills. When developing your characters, remember these actions also numb joy and love at the same time, like Brown indicates.)
- Now, write when they feel the opposite, i.e., in control. What does that look like? You can repeat the other steps from this point of view.
As Brown concludes her talk and I’m near the end of my Kleenex box, she reminds us that what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful. So, keep your courage to be vulnerable as you write because it is fundamental to what makes your work beautiful too.