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Monday, August 3, 2020

Vulnerable Vibes vs. God Mode

As you probably all know by now, I do a lot of editing. I also do a lot of writing. Every once in a while I find myself looking at a story where the protagonist is overly sensitive and vulnerable for most of the time. On the other hand, I also sometimes find myself looking at a story where the protagonist is too . . . well . . . powerful or maybe even invincible too much of the time.

But often, the best protagonists and stories show some of both.

And I would surmise that by tapping into both, you can write a more powerful story, because as I've talked about before, it's not hitting the same concept over and over that makes a story more emotionally powerful, it's hitting it and its contrast. It's crossing opposites that makes a story more powerful. Sameness can actually dull the impact.

While I try to avoid gender stereotypes, I will say from my experience, that GENERALLY speaking, if a protagonist is too sensitive and vulnerable too much of the time (and often needs help and rescuing to boot), it's usually written by a female (and just so you know, I've been guilty of this as a lady). And that GENERALLY speaking, if a protagonist is too powerful and invincible too much of the time, it's usually written by a male. However, most stories I look at are rather well balanced.

So why am I talking about this today?

Well, because even if you aren't in the extreme, I believe any writer can benefit from being aware of the two extremes and learning how to utilize each end of the spectrum.

Ideally, we should be seeing your protagonist be both vulnerable and powerful.

While there are some particular points where this is most effective (which I'll get to), it's usually a good idea to have some of this throughout: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

And in a lot of stories, each aspect may become more . . . potent, as the story progresses. So in a sense, the character may face more, stronger vulnerable moments as the story progresses, and simultaneously more powerful moments as the story progresses . . . possibly (you know how it is with writing 😉)

In the Beginning

In the beginning of a story, it can be helpful to identify one thing that causes your protagonist pain or one thing that he or she regrets. This lets the audience know this person isn't perfect--they're vulnerable. It also helps raise sympathy for him or her.

Likewise, it's often a good idea to introduce one thing that the protagonist is especially good at--like a special skill or ability.

In fact, these two components may even be tied together somehow. Perhaps she has a magical talent that she's really good at but that also brings her pain.

In the Middle

As the story progresses, your protagonist will face new challenges and have to make new decisions. This should include moments of risk and vulnerability as well as moments that demonstrate skill, competence, and growth. 

These may not always be tied to the exact same things as what was in the opening (but typically they at least connect together, cause I mean . . . it's an ongoing story 🙃)

In the End

Structurally speaking, each of these sides of the protagonist will hit hardest near the end.

Usually, at the end of the middle or the beginning of the end (depending on how you prefer to slice and dice stories), during what some may call The Ordeal, All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul, or Plot Point 2, the protagonist hits a critically vulnerable moment. This is often his or her lowest low, where it feels like everything is lost. This can be a great moment to tap into and render how your protagonist is vulnerable.

Even with protagonists who may appear indestructible, there is usually a moment where they are stuck, tied up, tortured, at the mercy of the villain, must rely and depend on someone else, or must seek help, or healing . . . or at minimum, it seems their goal is now out of their reach.

It's a great moment to lay on the vulnerable vibes.

Soon after this (or because of this), or near the end, the protagonist will become empowered in a way he or she wasn't before. This may be literal--like literally becoming stronger--but it can be a number of things. He or she may acquire new knowledge, a new skill, a new object, a new perspective, a new love, and enter what I like to think of as "God Mode"--not just because it's fun, but because in many old myths, this was often the point where the protagonist actually became a god. Over time, that happens less often, and instead it's more likely the protagonist will somehow become more godlike, because they have become more empowered.

This is when it is great to see the protagonist at his or her strongest, where the story serves well to highlight the hero's special abilities and skills.

Sometimes, like say in a superhero movie, God Mode will be obvious. But for other characters, it may be more subtle, such as magically burning the antagonist into blisters when you are an 11-year-old wizard, or solving a legal case as a Harvard student, or being able to confess you love someone and get that long-awaited kiss, or simply, surviving death from a monster.

Through the climax there will be moments of each aspect, but these are two moments where it's typically very effective to hit each end of the spectrum, hard.


Like all writing rules, such guidelines can be bent or broken, and you will find exceptions.

It's not unusual for a protagonist to lean a certain way.

You may have a protagonist that starts off already very skilled and powerful, like BBC's Sherlock.

Or you may have a protagonist that starts off very vulnerable, like Harry Potter.

But in each case, the audience is still exposed to Sherlock's weaknesses and Harry's powers, even if neither protagonist is fully aware of them at the time.

Because of the nature of plotting and genre, some characters will lean more one way than the other through much of the story, such as 007 vs. Bella Swan (if I'm allowed to say that).

But even 007 will have moments where he is at the mercy of antagonists and even Bella will have circumstances where she wields the most power.

Consider Costs

Often the vulnerable moments are more powerful when the heartache or pain comes as a cost to the protagonist's journey. Sad things happening to him or her is one thing, but having to endure them in an effort to reach a goal is more effective. This also means that to some extent, the protagonist bears responsibility for whatever difficulty they are facing.

Likewise, God Mode is usually more satisfying and cooler when it is earned--when the hero has to do something to obtain it. It's like a reward for whatever effort they put in, whether that's working out, learning magic, putting in study hours, saving money through a job, scouring for years for the love of their life--whatever.

These costs can come from the backstory, but there should be additional costs along the journey.

So if you start with a protagonist who is already very empowered, it's usually more satisfying and likable if we learn that she had to make a bunch of sacrifices to get to that point.

However, perhaps the story is about how she's been handed everything by her parents on a silver platter and she's about to have a wake-up call. That's fine too, just a different effect. And a different story.

So, make sure to be aware that you hit both sides of the spectrum, that you don't get stuck on one side for too long, and that you consider how to write each effectively.


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