Friday, August 20, 2010

Vulnerability For Dummies

A longtime pleasure has been your investigation of the potential for unseen connections between pairs or triads of words.  At times, unseen meanings and relations jump forth at you like little kids in border towns, selling Chiclets gum.  On other occasions, what you supposed was already apparent jostled at you like aggressive bargain hunters at a Filene's basement sale.

The former circumstances bring unalloyed joy and noticeable surge to your writing energy.  The latter tend to produce the result of the butt of your palm as it strikes your forehead.  Both responses are, you believe, integral to the process by which you set words down on notepad or computer screen when you go about composing.

The words responsible for bringing this effect out from the wings and induced to take a bow are vulnerability and risk.  You have for some time been convinced that one of the things that brings a character--your own or someone else's--to a point of interest to you is the vulnerability that character brings to the story in which he or she appears.  Vulnerability equals the risk of being hurt as the result of a venture, a position taken, of neutrality affected, of an attitude.  Vulnerability means the risk of being wrong, making the wrong choice, facing the consequences of making no choice.  Vulnerability is a woman who loves to dance, who has had her feet trod upon a few times too many by partners who are not so nimble.  Yet her love of the dance draws her onward one more time.   It is a risk she takes and in the process of taking it, she endears herself to us.

Vulnerability is openness to being hurt, disappointed, rejected, dumped; it peers over the shoulder of happiness looking for a wedge issue and as such you have seen it and you have witnessed it in those about you.  The salient point in you observation is that even when it takes up residence in a person for whom you have no special fondness or respect, you nevertheless feel a tinge of empathy, however brief.  Poor S.O.B., you think.  About to get it.  Should said poor S.O.B. get too much of it, you are in danger of experiencing schadenfreude, which has an enormous rebound from the satisfaction you felt the S.O.B. deserved to the guilt you experience wishing it upon said S.O.B.

A character who has no vulnerability is difficult to like.  The goddess mother of Achilles understood this well, and left that small part of his body vulnerable so that her son could then go forth to appear in The Iliad and, for that matter, untold legends.  A character without vulnerability is a mockery of the human condition, even insulated from hubris and pomposity; a character who is afraid to love, afraid to take risks, afraid to change his mind, afraid to speak his version of the truth, or any combination of these is someone we can readily identify with because we readers have ourselves experienced all these fears and the unnamed fears of the unknown.  Readers, serious, well-read readers, are part romantics, part cynic; they expect something to go wrong because they are past the age of having learned to read, at which point birthday cakes have been the wrong flavor, cherished pets have died or been returned to the store from which they came, promises broken.  Subsequently, first and only loves have soured, friendships have been for any number of reasons abrogated, life has proved itself to demonstrate the calculus of unfairness.  Thus a reader encountering characters for whom nothing goes wrong will soon lose interest, thinking the suspension of disbelief has been misplaced by the author or the author's editor.

You read in anticipation of something going wrong, especially in the case of individuals who believed everything was just getting good or right or happy.  You wish to see how these individuals handle things going wrong.  Even if you secretly believe Achilles was a schmuck for taking umbrage as he did at the outset of The Iliad, you gradually understand what being a schmuck was under those circumstances, when such lofty stature was reserved for men of royal or military rank, and you could get on board in The Iliad with the comfort that being a schmuck in those days meant something grand and dramatic, possibly even tragic.  Now anyone can be a schmuck and our literature is the poorer for it.  Don't worry:  someone will think ill of you when some of your work appears in print or digitally because, after all, you have quite unintentionally made yourself vulnerable by putting your feelings and visions and leaps of imagination in the public eye.

Without risk the only consequences are regret and rationalization for the failure to take the leap.  With risk there is the great cornucopia of failure waiting, and even a character with a notable resume of failures brings something to the stage, a sense of utter nobility, stubbornness, or foolish, or a delightful combination of all three.  Who could want more in a character?

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