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The Importance of Vulnerability in Relationships with Angela Ackerman

Posted By Carrie Spencer On January 15, 2014 @ 12:09 am In Characterization,Craft of Writing | 24 Comments

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Whether your characters exchange those furtive first glances or give in to the undeniable chemistry they share, opening their hearts means making themselves vulnerable. The fabulous Angela Ackerman returns to talk about why vulnerability plays an important role in creating a believable story.

Angela AckermanThe connection between two characters is one of the most magnetic forces in storytelling, especially in romance novels. Whether they welcome the relationship, fight it, or fall somewhere in between, emotional friction creates an energy that leaves readers anxious to see what will happen next.

Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. Pain? I know, it sounds crazy. Here’s why.

1) Romance isn’t simple. You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together convinces readers they belong together. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.

2) Healthy relationships (especially romantic ones) require vulnerability. To really dig into this, we need to first look at vulnerability in real life. It’s usually cast in a negative light, used in the context that if we don’t avoid it, bad things will happen. If we don’t lock our doors, we’re vulnerable to thieves. If we don’t protect our personal information, people may steal it. Negative experiences teach us to be wary of appearing vulnerable, so we take care in who we trust and what we share. We dress a certain way, act a certain way, hide our hurts and pretend we are strong.  Characters, to be realistic, should think and act the same way.

But there is another side of vulnerability: acceptance. When a person accepts themselves, faults and all, they are able to show their true self to others rather than hide it. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Being genuine and honest allows a person to connect with another on a deep level. In romances, characters who are willing to be vulnerable put their true feelings out there, opening the gateway to love and intimacy. Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.

So where does the pain come in? Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for characters who have been hurt by those they once loved. A character’s past is often a quagmire of painful events making it difficult to let down one’s guard and trust.

The Emotion ThesaurusFor example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. She will harden herself, maybe push people away, using emotional armour to keep from being hurt. But this also blocks any new trusting relationships from forming, something she may deeply want. Even when she finds a man to love, it is a difficult process to strip oneself of that armour and be vulnerable enough to forge a strong relationship, risking hurt once more. The character’s desire for the relationship must outweigh her fear of being hurt.

As writers, the need for vulnerability creates a giant obstacle. Why? Because it is our business to create characters who are broken, jaded or struggling in some way. Yet somehow we must show them it’s okay to trust. We must find a way to give them the strength they need to let go of their fears of being hurt and open themselves up to another. The question is, how do we do that?

1) Hone in on the desire for “something more.” A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize this, and yearn for something to change. This is the first step.

For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.

2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability. There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear only to find out they understand because they fear it too. Or asking for help and then getting it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.

3) Understanding how the past has affected your character and having them see how negativity is holding them back is an important step forward. In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.

The path to vulnerability is often the meat of a romance, so it’s important to get a good grasp on it as it plays into the obstacles, hardship and struggles that must be overcome to end with a deep, loving connection.

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How do you encourage your characters to “test the waters” of relationship vulnerability?

Handsome Hansel will be dropping by on Friday – you won’t want to miss it!

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Bio: ANGELA ACKERMAN is a writing coach and co-author of the bestselling writing resource, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression [2], as well as the newly released Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Attributes [3] and its darker cousin, The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws [4]. You can find her on Twitter [5], Facebook [6] and at Writers Helping Writers [7] (formerly The Bookshelf Muse).

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24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The Importance of Vulnerability in Relationships with Angela Ackerman"

#1 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On January 15, 2014 @ 12:57 am

Bookmarked! This is great, Angela – thank you so much! I especially like this line: “Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.”

VERY helpful!

#2 Comment By Jacquie Biggar On January 15, 2014 @ 1:31 am

I agree with Becke, great post, gave me a lot to think about. For me the line about my character wanting more really resonated. Thanks for the insights

#3 Comment By Mary Jo Burke On January 15, 2014 @ 8:22 am

Hi Angela,

I have a character get burned in a prior relationship and very wary of the next. Trust is a huge issue.

#4 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 9:47 am

So glad this helps. Vulnerability gets a bad rap–often we only focus on the negative side of it (opening ourselves up to harm or abuse) but the positive side is what makes life worth living: being genuine, offering and receiving love and affection, and creating meaningful connections.

#5 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 9:50 am

This is a really important thing to hone in on, because as people we are all looking to become something more and achieve inner growth. So, when characters show this same need and work toward self-growth, readers are pulled into their experience because they too are on that same journey.

#6 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 9:53 am

I think most romances contain trust issues…heck, most relationships do! And one of the hardest jobs a writer faces is changing their character’s mind about being vulnerable, and encouraging then that the goal outweighs their fear of being hurt. Through believable positive reinforcement, anything is possible. Good luck with your character & helping them to find the pathway to trust. :)

#7 Comment By Davonne Burns On January 15, 2014 @ 11:03 am

This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m nearly 75k into my WIP and this exactly what my MC is struggling with. He’s never been allowed to be vulnerable either physically or emotionally and opening up to others is practically anathema to him. Trust is extremely hard won with him even though he craves acceptance.

My main issue has been finding ways for him to come to trust and open up to another character that doesn’t seem contrived. I’ll be going back over my manuscript with these points in mind.

Thank you!

#8 Pingback By Psychotheraphy Through The Ages | WRITERS HELPING WRITERSWRITERS HELPING WRITERS On January 15, 2014 @ 11:08 am

[…] I’m gallivanting across the internet today! At Romance University, I’m discussing the Importance of Vulnerability In A Relationship. Whether you write romance or not, this will help you deepen the connection between your […]

#9 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 11:55 am

Try to think of small ways he care share or be open about something and not get shot down. For example, he could confide about something that bothers him, or an observation he’s made. Having another character simply say “I feel that way too” or “I’m glad you said something” is a simple way to show a person can share and feel good they did it. Another example would be to be caught in a situation that makes a person feel vulnerable, but not be taken advantage because of it. For example, making a mistake and instead of being reprimanded, being told by someone else they’ve done the same thing too. Small positive reinforcements that it’s okay to be vulnerable and not everyone will take advantage is a pathway to trusting and being able to share something a bit more personal.

I don’t know if this will help, but here’s a post I did at another site on Character Vulnerability that lists 8 ideas on how to make your character feel vulnerable. It might offer some ideas about situations you can bring about to show the character that others can and will show kindness in vulnerable moments, encouraging trust: [14]

#10 Comment By Tamara On January 15, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

Great post, Angela. I totally agree that trust plays a huge role in most romances. The hardest thing is to convince the character to take that leap of faith, but it is so rewarding on the other side.

#11 Comment By Davonne Burns On January 15, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

Wonderful! Thank you so much. You’ve already helped me think of several ways to show this. I think it will not only show his vulnerability but also his emotional growth through the rest of the story.

#12 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

Emotional growth and vulnerability are all tied together, especially emotional growth that is linked to the character’s wound (Character Arc) which helps him succeed at his goal (outer motivation). But that’s a subject for a different post, lol!

#13 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

Definitely! The presence of hope is critical too. The character needs to hope that there is a way to be happier, no matter what he or she has faced in the past. Hope is what causes them to fight for what they want and need, and overcome their flaws that hold them back.

#14 Pingback By The Importance of Vulnerability in Relationship… On January 15, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

[…] Whether your characters exchange those furtive first glances or give in to the undeniable chemistry they share, opening their hearts means making themselves vulnerable. The fabulous Angela Ackerman returns to talk about why vulnerability plays an important role in creating a believable story.  […]

#15 Comment By Carrie Spencer On January 15, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

Afternoon Angela!

What a fabulous post! I want more! =)

For a character who’s been burned, like Mary Jo’s, and therefore doesn’t trust…would the black moment then be based on that to tie it all in together? Say the Hero not trusting the Heroine, and that brings about the black moment?

Or does it not have to tie all together?

Thanks so much for posting with us today Angela!

carrie

#16 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On January 15, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

Hi Angela,

Your post is just what I needed! When I’m mapping out my characters GMC, it’s the trust and vulnerability issues that are always the main obstacles that prevent them from moving on, and I worry that those issues have become my ‘go-to-clutch’ and that the characters will come off sounding too cliche.

Heading over to Amazon to buy your book. Thanks for another terrific post. Always happy to have you with us!

#17 Comment By becca puglisi On January 15, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

What a great post on the importance of vulnerability! Thanks for breaking this down for us, Angela.

#18 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

I don’t quite know what the trust issue centers on or how it’s triggered again, so it’s hard for me to say, but I’ll try to illustrate with an example.

The black moment is when the hero/heroine “re experiences” the same pain from the past wound again. It doesn’t have to be the exact same situation, only the same pain. Let’s say the character’s mother was living in poverty and chose to put her up for adoption at age five yet keep her twin. Abandonment and feelings of poor self worth are the pain from that wound. All she thinks is, why keep her and not me? Am I defective?

Now as an adult, you could put her in a situation where the same feelings are triggered. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same scenario, only the same pain. Like maybe her boyfriend dumps her for someone else, “trading up” (maybe the new woman is wealthier, prettier, more successful, or whatever). Suddenly the situation of someone else being chosen over her is happening all over again and the pain from the wound bleeds anew.

Then after the black moment she realizes something about herself, something she was blind to before. Perhaps she sees her boyfriend for the shallow jerk he is and that he only was with her for her looks (or wealth, success, whatever.) This puts his rejection in a new light: it says nothing about her worth, but his. This epiphany leads her to realize that she is worthy and special all on her own and she doesn’t need others to make her feel this way. With this realization, she can let the pain and fear of the past go.

Now for her to get to this realization, she would have had to have some exposure to positive reinforcement when feeling vulnerable leading up to this epiphany. A co worker who builds her up when she mutters something about being inadequate. Sharing worries with a friend and being told that it’s normal to feel that way. A thank you card from a neighbor thanking her for looking after her dog when she was in the hospital, and how much her kindness meant to her. Small things to build her esteem, and that start her brain thinking on a new path.

In this way, it all ties together. Does this help?

#19 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

I think trust and vulnerability are issues we all have, lol!

If you can describe your characters feelings in a way that readers can relate to, it will remind them of their own vulnerability & hurts and an empathy link will form.

I would do a lot of digging into their backstory to really understand their wounds and needs. By knowing your character deeply, you’ll be able to write them authentically. And don’t be afraid to dig inside yourself too. When we use our own hurt and experiences, it helps the writing feel even more genuine. :)

I hope the books help you–thanks so much for giving them a test drive! :)

#20 Comment By angelaackerman On January 15, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

Thanks Becca! :)

#21 Comment By Christine @ Better Novel Project On January 17, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

Great post! I think this applies to the romance element of any genre, even if it’s just a side-story.

Thanks!

-Christine @ Better Novel Project

#22 Comment By angelaackerman On January 20, 2014 @ 10:36 am

I absolutely agree. Even if the relation isn’t romance based, for it to be meaningful there has to be trust and trust requires vulnerability to be shared and respected.

#23 Comment By Traci Kenworth On January 26, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

Very true.

#24 Comment By Brendan from Now Novel On January 30, 2014 @ 6:23 am

Some great tips, thanks Angela. I think sometimes we think that our characters are too super-human and don’t give them the opportunity to be vulnerable.

We went into a couple of other classic missteps for your romance novel here:
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[8] Weekly Lecture Schedule Jan 13 – Jan 17: http://romanceuniversity.org/2014/01/11/weekly-lecture-schedule-jan-13-jan-17/

[9] The Gentle Hero with Dee Tenorio: http://romanceuniversity.org/2013/07/15/the-gentle-hero-with-dee-tenorio/

[10] Empathy. It’s Where Characters Are Born – Handsome Hansel: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/11/02/empathy-its-where-characters-are-born-handsome-hansel/

[11] Lynne Marshall Presents: Is There a Secret to Creating Likable Characters?: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/11/28/is-there-a-secret-to-creating-likable-characters-with-lynne-marshall/

[12] Handsome Hansel – Be A Parent To Your Characters: http://romanceuniversity.org/2013/12/06/handsome-hansel-be-a-parent-to-your-characters/

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