So I have a character who is often very vulnerable. She's easily scared, put down, and often fails at what she's trying to do. But there are a lot of times when she gets serious (particularly in battle, as it's a fantasy novel) and is a very capable fighter. However, the two characters seem so distant from each other, they often seem like different people. I want to lessen the gap, at least in my head, about the two sides of this character. Any thoughts?


3 Answers 3


Vulnerability can be used to communicate capability and humanize your character.

Communicating capability isn't just about the character being a constant badass. You've probably seen a lot of bad action movies where the main character has zero personality besides being "tough," "awesome" and "badass," especially when it comes to female characters - the stereotype of them being reduced to just that one personality trait is well-known and widespread. Having your character just be super awesome and never vulnerable at all, with no internal monologue about what she's doing or how she feels, is essentially no better than having her be cowardly and passive, as either way the character is purely a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. It's harder to relate to somebody who never opens up to others, shows weakness, or talks about their feelings in real life, and the same applies in writing. You probably already know the trope of the "stoic hardass who doesn't like to show feelings."

Instead, consider the fact that most of your audience are humans. (Probably.) They are vulnerable, flawed and imperfect, just like your characters - they probably have a lot of fear, doubt and internal struggle in their daily lives. These things are what make a character relatable, but more than that, it's a character that can overcome these burdens who comes across as truly heroic.

What does that mean? It means that true courage and capability is not a lack of vulnerabilities, but rather the ability to overcome them when it matters. Your character isn't strong because she's able to totally ignore and block out her fear, and have zero vulnerability - rather, she's strong because she fights to overcome her inner demons and fears in a relatable way, and grow as a person by showing moments of vulnerability to others. If she's terrified in combat, she battles within herself to surmount that fear and fight anyway. If she's conflicted about having to confront an inner fear or phobia, she fights hard to do so and prove to herself she's strong enough. All of that is infinitely more relatable to your audience - and communicates far more strength and capability as a person - than just the character fighting with a constant aura of grim, stoic badassery and having nothing interesting to think about or say while doing so. I think this is the ideal way to write a character who is both vulnerable and capable, by having one side feed into the other. She is capable because she can overcome being vulnerable.

And this isn't even all to mention the most wonderful part of a capable, strong character showing moments of vulnerability, which is that one single, powerful moment of weakness and love showing through the cracks can be the best part of your book.

My favorite scene from "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" shows as much:

"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!" It was worth a wound - it was worth many wounds - to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain."


Vulnerability is a character trait, whereas battle prowess is the result of continued training.

The two are not mutually exclusive. It follows on the other hand that vulnerable characters are affected by the world around them rather than guiding events, they tend to be reactive, and oftentimes they just give up when there is an easy way out. In dire circumstances, the vulnerable may react, and win thanks to their training.

In "The Art of War" Sun Tzu states multiple time that pressing on desperate people will make them wade through hell. The statements are given without any comment on the subjects' character.

Some cherrypicked references:

Do not press a desperate foe too hard. -- Chapter 7: Maneuvering

On desperate ground, fight. -- Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. -- Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; -- Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

The only assumption at this point is that soldiers have been continually trained and will resort to their muscle memory if they need to save their life. In any other situation they may just do the bare minimum, or entirely avoid being involved.

Just be coherent and don't fall in the Mary Sue's trap of having a vulnerable character take decisions that would expose their weakness.


Rationalize it

Having a character who's vulnerable yet capable works because real people can be both those things. Pulling it off means that your character will be three dimensional, realistic. To get there, you have to understand why and how real people have facets like this, then pick what makes sense for your character.

There are a lot of different reasons out there. People who are typically shy can get carried away by their emotions, shedding their hesitancies in the moment. (The stereotypical example is women who get protective of children and animals.) On the flip side, sometimes trauma causes a person to withdraw in certain situations, and sometimes it swallows almost their entire life. Or even whenever she appears capable she's just an imposter, hiding her true feelings of fear. Or could it be that she really did work hard to find her one outlet, her one passion where she can escape her usual failures? You decide.

Include the rationalization

Having you understand the rationale only helps one person.

It's common enough to see complaints from audiences about "plot holes" despite the actions (or more often inaction) of the characters being explained by their personality traits. This often happens because the readers can't understand the perspective of the characters. Make sure your audience empathizes with your character instead of mentally (or physically) yelling at her for making poor decisions. Have your readers feel the judgmental gaze of the people who put her down, for example, so that they can understand and respect why she wouldn't talk to them, even when it would have saved everyone a lot of anguish down the road (a la classic misunderstanding).

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