Tag Archives: gaelen foley

lessons in vulnerability

In my last post I applauded Gaelen Foley for her brilliant use of vulnerability. I’ve read on since then and somehow an incredibly promising book just sort of fizzled out. So I want to explore how she used and abused the vulnerability card and see what can be learnt from it as a writer.

what worked:

Our hero, Billy Blade, is a dangerous and dangerously intelligent gang leader in the rookeries of London. He ran away from his aristocratic home at the age of 13 because his father regularly beat him up and made him feel that he was worthless and unlovable.

What I would expect from a hero like this is that he’s morbidly suspicious of anything tender he might feel for someone else. But Foley allows Blade an immediate and yearning vulnerability. He longs for a less desperate life, for Jacinda Knight, and for the possibility that she just might like him.

This immediately endeared him to me. It made me realise I feel a little bit contemptuous of heroes who are so woefully stupid when it comes to their own feelings. And when Blade returns to sophisticated London and braves the contempt of his fashionable peers just to be near Jacinda, he becomes even more endearing. He was powerful and potent in the rookeries but his vulnerability turns him into something of a beta-hero, or the out-of-place underdog.

(That being said, I think you can also make it work to have a hero so distrustful that he obstinately refuses to understand his feelings. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is a brilliant example of this. Her hero won’t admit how he feels, but he is undone and made vulnerable nonetheless.)

what didn’t work:

I’ve thought about it quite a bit and come to the conclusion that the story fizzled because Blade gave in too absolutely to his vulnerability. He follows Jacinda back into society, and because he is so desperate to be with her and to be worthy of her, he submits to her attempts to civilize him and becomes the perfect gentleman.

In doing this he was following his secret yearnings/longings, but as a character he became indistinct and, dare I say it about what was an enormous character, boring.

In the last few chapters he redeems himself somewhat, bringing the two sides of himself into accordance with each other. But by that time I didn’t care as much, so it was a bit lost on me.

So annoying! I was 100% with them at the beginning.

Vulnerability works so well to create an interesting character. It complicates them; it divides how they perceive the world and how they act from what they really desire/fear; it makes them unpredictable; it makes them human.

But I think it only works in glimpses. Think about how you feel without your defenses. It’s incredibly powerful to be vulnerable, but also damn uncomfortable and not, I think, sustainable over long periods. We have certain defenses for a reason, and I think it’s important to know when it’s more dramatic to use the power of defenses or of vulnerability.

Also, those defenses we build that come to define who we are are what gives character.

erm, and the lesson?

What I take from this as a writer is that vulnerability needs to be used in the way I imagine painters use highlights or those certain colours you don’t even necessarily notice in a painting that bring out everything else more vividly. I think that if a character is too comfortable with being open and vulnerable for prolonged periods, or if their life comes too perfectly into line with their secret fears/desires, they become unbelievable or at least they lose all dramatic interest.

It could be useful to think about what you want a character to achieve/feel in any given scene and whether being powerful or powerless serves this, and whether that feeling comes from vulnerability or from long-held defenses.

every romantic hero is a superhero; every superhero has his kryptonite

One of the things I love about romance fiction – and I think it’s true for most genre fiction – is that the protagonists are superheroes. That includes the women, by the way, I just thought that “every romantic hero/ine is a superhero/ine; every superhero/in has his/her kryptonite” didn’t make for a catchy title.

Each character is absolute in their own specific way and it makes them infinitely powerful. Take Edward Cullen, the hugely popular romantic hero: his vampire nature is as unchanging as the granite his body resembles, so when he makes the great shift of falling in love with Bella it is absolute and forever. And, not only will his love for her never abate, he also has the superhuman capacity to feel things with extraordinary intensity and depth.

See, superhero!

In old-school romance, I think the superpower is quite often the characters’ incredible beauty, which is a kind of lame superpower, really.

My favourite one, I think, is Leo from Lisa Kleypas’s Married by Morning. He’s explaining to Catherine why he was destroyed by the death of his first love and he says: “I love like a madman.”

Leo’s superpower is the way he can love. Pretty seductive, no?

Now to the kryptonite…

I think it’s most often the person they fall in love with, which is entirely fitting. Such a great example of this is in the book I’m reading right now, Gaelen Foley‘s Lady of Desire.

Lady Jacinda Knight meets Billy Blade when she gets lost in the London rookeries, where he’s king of the local gang. She meets him in his element, at his full, wild power. He is physically and psychologically potent.

There is an incredibly touching/powerful scene when he follows her back into her London, all the way to Hyde Park, and she has no choice but to socially cut him before the society lads with her take him on. Then Blade re-takes his rightful position as an earl and braves the public humiliation of wearing purple when it is not the done thing, just to see her again.

What makes this plot work so very well is the vulnerability Jacinda creates in Blade. He follows her to a place where he loses all his power, because his longing for her works against all his instincts, to the core of who he is.

Then there’s the quite literal example of this more metaphorical idea. In the film Hancock (spoiler alert) two superheroes/gods are destined to love each other for all eternity, but whenever they come physically near each other they begin to lose their powers. That is always when they are most vulnerable.

Cryptonite takes away the alien superman and puts a human in his place. Someone flawed. Someone fearful. Someone immensely lovable.