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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Three): Vulnerability

Vulnerability.  We've all experienced it at one point or another.  It was emotional when you were trying to work up the courage to ask that cute girl to the junior prom.  It was physical when you faced the class bully in the parking lot after school.  The right amount of vulnerability at the right time can convince a reader to sympathize with a protagonist.

In his Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) introduces us to three highly vulnerable protagonists.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are children.  Violet, the oldest, is only fourteen while the youngest, Sunny, has barely started cutting her baby teeth.  What's more vulnerable than a child?  Try three children who have just been orphaned and placed in the hands of a despicable relative bent upon exploiting them.

Throughout the series, Snicket places the Baudelaires in one vulnerable situation after another.  First, creepy old Count Olaf tries to marry young Violet to get at her inheritance.  When the children escape, he systematically kills off every adult who attempts to aid them.  Eventually, he even succeeds in turning the police against the children by framing them for his own supposed death.

James Patterson preps his readers within the first three chapters of his YA novel Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment.  After escaping a secret lab where she and her friends have been genetically altered and equipped with wings, Max and the 'Flock' hide out in an out-of-the-way house high up in the mountains.  Things go terribly wrong, however, when a pack of mutant half-wolf, half-human creatures kidnap Angel, the youngest member of the Flock, and transport her back to the terrifying lab.

Patterson develops Angel's vulnerability by describing her personal space as being "like a nest -- full of stuffed animals, books, most of her clothes."  She has "blonde curls" and Max loves Angel most because Angel is "just so incredibly sweet and loving herself."  By the time the evil Erasers show up to grab her, readers are quickly ready to worry about Angel and to root for Max to save her.

Anytime you wish to open a door to reader sympathy, consider placing one of your characters in a position of extreme emotional or physical vulnerability.