Vulnerability In Fiction: Teaching Jaded Characters How To Trust By Angela Ackerman

Delighted to welcome Angela Ackerman of Writers Helping Writers & One Stop For Writers, writing coach, speaker, & co-author of many bestselling resources, including one of my all-time favourite fiction writing book series, which if you’ve been in your writer’s garret for the last few years, are so invaluable, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without.

Here Angela offers her potent & equally invaluable writing tips on vulnerability in fiction & teaching jaded characters to trust.

Vulnerability is one of those fascinating topics I find hard to let go of, probably because in real life, we spend so much time avoiding it, and yet true happiness can only be achieved when we fully embrace it. Confused? I wouldn’t be surprised. Vulnerability is a two sided coin that often lands on its edge.

Stressed writer woman

Let’s see what Miriam Webster has to say about vulnerability:

  • easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally
  • open to attack, harm, or damage

Yikes, that doesn’t sound good does it? No wonder we’re so guarded with our feelings, careful about our personal information, and choosy about who we trust.

Interesting word, though: trust. Because of course we have to trust some people, don’t we? We have to let someone get close enough to see the real, authentic us. Life would be lonely and unfulfilling without at least one person to have a meaningful connection with, someone to share our most intimate dreams and desires, safeguard our secrets, and support us when we voice our fears.

So what does MW say about trustworthiness?

  • able to be relied on to do or provide what is needed or right
  • deserving of trust

So a trustworthy person we can be open with regarding our deepest beliefs, fears, and feelings. We can show our inner selves without fear of being hurt or having personal information misused.

In other words…this is someone we can be vulnerable with.

Vulnerability is really all about laying ourselves bare. It isn’t necessarily a negative–sometimes, we crave it. We want to expose ourselves, for our deepest core to be seen.

The Power of Meaningful Relationships

When we trust someone, we want to open ourselves to them because doing so signifies a high level of self-acceptance. We are comfortable showing our “true self” (beliefs, emotions, dreams, ideas, weakness, and strengths) without fear of judgement. We can simply be ourselves and set aside the mask we show to the world.

Vulnerability is what allows people to connect on a deep, meaningful level. You can’t have a healthy relationship without vulnerability. You can’t have intimacy without vulnerability. You can’t have love without vulnerability. So why is it that the thing we fear is also the key to what we want most, this need that drives us to form trusting and caring relationships where we can be ourselves?

Universal Needs Drive Behaviour

Love and Belonging is one of the categories of basic human needs (as defined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs) that drive all people to act. In real life, we seek connection with others because we need to feel like we belong, that it is safe to be ourselves with certain individuals. This is why we bond with family members, form friendships, and search for that special someone.

Fiction Mirrors The Real World

Fiction is a reflection of the real world, especially when it comes to our characters. The strongest, most compelling characters are those who are authentic, true-to-life. They feel, think, and behave like real people. So if Love and Belonging drives us, it must motivate our characters as well (especially in Romances!)

And this is it gets tricky. Because while we know our characters have this deep need to belong, we also know they are deeply damaged. We made them that way. They have suffered pain, emotional wounds that leave them paralyzed when it comes to trust. Somehow, we must help them move past their pain. We must convince them that a willingness to being vulnerable by trusting another will lead to something deeper and more meaningful than they ever imagined.

It’s a tall order.

So how can we get through to jaded characters who refuse to let their guard down and be vulnerable?

  • Show Vulnerability Lead To A Positive Outcome

Put the character struggling with trust in a vulnerable situation. Perhaps a secret of theirs becomes known. Perhaps they are being mistreated in some way. Maybe they simply need help and can’t bring themselves to ask. In any case, show another character do the right thing and help (or protect), rather than “take advantage” as the character has been conditioned to believe will be the result.

  • Share A Burden and Discover The Load is Lighter

People have common worries and fears. They don’t want to make mistakes, they worry about decisions, they fear what they can’t control. Have your character confide some of these fears or worries through dialogue, and rather than it leading to being rejected, made fun of, or having one’s concerns brushed aside, the other person shows support. Maybe they share a time when they felt the same way, or tell the character that they did the best they could with the information they had. Either way, it creates a shared moment where the shield is lowered and the two connect through trust and a willingness to be vulnerable.

  • Find Common Ground

Empathy is powerful and works incredibly well to soften jaded characters. Characters with a hard exterior may try to act tough, but when they see someone going through a situation that triggers emotional memories of their own past wounds, they can’t help but empathise.

Even more important, many will feel compelled to act, either to intervene, to support, or to commiserate. And of these outcomes forges a moment of shared trust with vulnerability being the vehicle that causes it to happen.

Changing a character’s mind about vulnerability is not easy, nor something that can happen quickly. Trust is earned in inches, not miles. Build in several smaller moments that lead up to bigger ones and the willingness to enter a vulnerable state to trust will seem authentic to readers.

Thanks, Angela! Read more on relationships, vulnerability, and empathy here:

Grow Reader Empathy By Showing A Protagonist’s Vulnerable Side

Vulnerability: The Key To Compelling Romantic Relationships

The Path To Vulnerability Leads To Deeper Relationships

Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of several bestselling resources including, The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Two new books will soon join these: The Urban and Rural Thesaurus volumes, which help writers write stronger, more vivid imagery by profiling 225 Fictional settings and the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures associated with each.

Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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  1. says

    Thanks, Angela.

    This point struck home with me: “Have your character confide some of these fears or worries through dialogue.” So much emphasis is placed on show, don’t tell nowadays, but dialogue provides a way for characters to tell, in their own distinctive speech patterns, what is driving them. Appropriately used, this could reduce word count and speed the pace.

    • says

      Oo yes, completely agree, Kathy. I think Ruth Harris said it best when she said: “Rules kill…good fiction.” You may enjoy this offering from her blog by Anne R. Allen: 6 Reasons “Show Don’t Tell” Can be Terrible Advice for New Writers I also love using dialogue as a way to initially create a scene. Sometimes it can be a powerful way to find out what the characters are really feeling, and in turn how to move the story forward, building from that place. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

    • says

      Dialogue is an excellent way to show vulnerability in snippets, and allows us to show as well, so many subscribe to show DON’T tell, but show AND tell can open a very personal door between characters, and encourage empathy on the story level and reading level. 🙂

      Sorry for the late response–I had responded when this came up, but I think the Internet must have eaten it. 😉 happy writing, and thanks Jo for welcoming me here!


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