A Vulnerable Character

We were talking in last week’s post about A Man at Arms falling into the “Western” genre, even though the book is set in the ancient world—much as many samurai movies are Westerns, as well as post-apocalyptic tales (Mad Max, The Book of Eli), mutant tales, and even, in my opinion, John Wick movies.

Okay. How does that help us? If we’re assembling elements of a nascent story, trying to make them come together into a coherent narrative with three acts and a theme and a crisis/climax/resolution, how does it help us to identify our material as belonging to a particular genre, in this case a Western?

Natalie Wood and John Wayne in “The Searchers:”

Here’s one thing: we know that the moral narrative of most Westerns hinges upon a Vulnerable Character.

Not the hero.

Not the villain.

But a third character (or characters) whom the villain is oppressing and whom the hero will, in one form or another, come to defend.

In Shane, this “character” is the homesteaders, particularlzed by the Starretts—Joe, Marian, and Joey.

In Seven Samurai, it’s the villagers. In The Searchers, it’s Debbie (Natalie Wood), kidnapped by the Comanche war chief, Scar. In Unforgiven, it’s the prostitutes of Big Whiskey, Wyoming.

In Casablanca, the Vulnerable Character is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). I would, in fact, classify Casablanca as a Western.

I think of this Vulnerable Character much like “the Rival,” which Shawn tells us is an absolute necessity in the Love Story genre. It’s possible as a writer to literally sit down and ask ourselves, “Who is our ‘Rival?’” Or “Who is our ‘Vulnerable Character’?” And if we don’t have one, to make one up from scratch—just because we know we have to have one. It’s a convention of the genre.

In A Man at Arms, I didn’t do it that way. The character popped into my head just on instinct. 

A nine-year-old girl. Mute. Ragged. Feral. Someone easily dismissed as less than human, a freak. Instinct told me that this character should be pursued by the Bad Guys—the Romans. They must want her for some reason, even though I didn’t know yet why.

I’m still not sure why having a young, mute girl as the Vulnerable Character appealed to me so much. Maybe because I sensed that, as the story evolved, this character would show herself to be anything but what she first seemed to be. And that in the end she would prove to be the supreme warrior in the drama.

But what really counted was this character’s relationship to our hero, to the solitary mercenary Telamon of Arcadia. She would have to be the agent of his transformation—as the Starretts and the Japanese villagers and Debbie and the prostitutes of Big Whiskey turn out to be for the protagonists of their stories.  Somehow, I told myself, Telamon must become emotionally involved with her. He must come to care for her and be called to defend her.

Can you see how this material is starting to come together, even at this early stage–when we don’t have an actual story?

But we’ve got the working parts. We’ve got a hero, a villain, a McGuffin, a geographical and psychological “world of the story” (the Sinai desert, where the chase will take place), and we’ve got a Vulnerable Character around whom our hero’s Big Change will revolve.

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31 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on April 28, 2021 at 4:05 am

    Great post Steve. To me it makes a lot of sense to work up from the needs of the archetypical Western, and plugging in the correlates of those needs (vulnerable victim, damaged hero, etc). Or perhaps I’ve spent so much time studying the Story Grid book and going through the old podcasts with Tim and Shawn and SG articles, that I no longer think of a ‘Western’ as requiring frontier towns in 1840s America.

    I just finished rereading A Man At Arms, and again got that lump in the throat in the final scene. Beautiful. The tacitness of R and T speaks volumes. In poetry we’re trying to evoke the infinite by using the space between the words. Language can only take you so far.

    Just wanted to say: as if Steve hasn’t already done enough, bringing another beautiful and moving novel into the work, the five weeks of promos was great. I had a blast. Hope we all did.

    Joe buddy, sorry I haven’t got around to replying to your last email. Will do.
    Peter

    • Brian Stadium Nelson on April 28, 2021 at 7:47 am

      Peter,
      I was delighted to see you won the Spartan Dagger! The MI crest is a quill and dagger crossed (Infantry is crossed rifles, SF is crossed arrows, artillery crossed cannons). When I asked about the meaning of the crest as a youngster something to the effect of, “Pen mightier than sword, and the dagger is what your fellow MI officers will use to stab you in the back!”

      Ha! The implied insult is that the MI career field is filled with ‘leaf-eating cowards who only attack from behind.” I really doubt that is what the folks at Army Heraldry were thinking–maybe the ‘pen is mightier…’.

      In fact, our unit was TF Dagger when in Afghanistan. I imagine it has a fine place on your mantel already.

      Couldn’t go to a better and more prolific commenter here–well, next to Joe Jansen of course! Have a great day and I applaud you. So happy for you.
      bsn

      • Peter Brockwell on April 28, 2021 at 7:58 am

        Hey Brian,
        Thank you, that’s kind and really selfless of you. I must take issue though, in that I do genuinely learn far more from you and Joe, and others of course, than I can ever hope to add to the discussions.

        It’s a beautiful prize, and really they all were; all priceless. A big thank you to the Guv’nor for laying all that one, and for bringing us together here.

        Really interesting about those escudos, thanks! All now noted in my writing files!
        Peter

      • Peter Brockwell on April 28, 2021 at 8:07 am

        Joe, I suspect you have an extensive basement armoury, filled with Goat N Hammer weapons, themed by century and location, a chamber for each extinct society or culture….?

        • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 8:28 am

          Peter… nothing by Goat N Hammer, but I do have a couple of custom-made tomahawks. This one is by a blacksmith who goes by “Beaver Bill,” and reproduces a tomahawk that appears in a painting by frontier artist Andrew Knez. “Encounter” depicts the moment before a 1778 skirmish between frontiersman Benjamin Logan and a party of Shawnee warriors. The opposite side of the tomahawk bears the inscription, “To your arms soldiers and fight,” which appeared on an original from the period.

          https://www.dropbox.com/s/160xwn4xjvw1wvq/Beaver%20Bill%20Hawk.jpg?dl=0
          https://www.dropbox.com/s/c88ekrwh2hbbn3t/Beaver%20Bill.png?dl=0

          Also a reproduction of a tomahawk owned by Meriwether Lewis, which is thought to have been carried on the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition (and some collectors think may have been built by my gunsmith/sheriff John Small). A little story about that reproduction here:

          https://joejansen.blogspot.com/2017/02/meriwether-lewis-and-two-tomahawks.html

          • Peter Brockwell on April 28, 2021 at 9:30 am

            Joe, that is a unique and beautiful piece, and the story of how you came by it…! To say I was moved is an understatement, and I have placed a comment on your post.



          • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 8:28 pm

            Thanks, Peter. Marvin Kemper is a fine fellow, one I’m privileged to call friend.



    • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 7:56 am

      Oh, yeah… pugio! Glad to see your name was drawn. Goat N Hammer does some nice work!

  2. Joe Jansen on April 28, 2021 at 7:32 am

    I don’t have any particularly well-formed thoughts around this morning’s post. More like random pot-shots of thought.

    Have you ever seen a movie trailer that draws you into buying a ticket? And you sit through the film and realize that the trailer contains all the salient plot points and there’s nothing left to surprise you in the theater? The trailer gives it all away.

    Contrast that with a movie trailer that gives you enough to draw your interest and entice you into a seat. You’re in the dark with your popcorn and you get into the second and third acts and realize, “Holy crap, I had no IDEA this is where this story was going. This is amazing, better and deeper than the trailer even suggested.”

    Herein lies the challenge with A Man at Arms: giving enough of the plot, enough of the characters, to get someone to pick the book up, without giving away those moments that catch your breath and make you utter, “I didn’t see THAT coming, but it makes perfect sense.”

    Eventually, we’ll be able to talk about it. Heck, if you don’t know by now that Catherine and the baby died at the end of “A Farewell to Arms” (another novel with “arms” in the title), we can’t coddle you forever. Still, know about Ruth, that “in the end she would prove to be the supreme warrior in the drama.”

    Peter, I too am reading for a second time — trying to let the pacing and the technique and methods of scene-setting and dialogue… letting all of that soak it. (Last email was probably too lengthy… at your leisure, old sort.)

    • Brian Nelson on April 28, 2021 at 7:58 am

      Joe,
      I also have nothing coherent to say. As I was thinking about the need for a vulnerable character, I thought, “Well of course. It is who we, as readers or movie goers, immediately get behind.” Then I thought about some of my own darker thoughts in real life. Most of the time I also go to defend the vulnerable character on impulse, in fact I would tell my buddies who were combat arms officers that I was, “Defender of the Nerds’ as an MI officer. Frequently these young men and women are not the type to appear on recruiting posters…but they are game changers in combat, COIN, FID, and any overseas mission.

      “How do you measure a well timed, “DUCK” before an ambush?” as our collectors frequently found enemy chatter indicative of an imminent attack?

      What about the other times? There are times when I witness weakness that the bully in me comes out. I need to think about this more to see if I can identify exactly when/where–but my suspicion is when I see weakness in someone who’s being paid to be strong. When I sniff it in leaders, weakness of character, there is an almost visceral contempt that comes from deep inside. Could be that I associate those types as bullies (which they frequently are), and I want to bully the bully.

      Ahhh–I just realized the difference between vulnerable and weak in my own thinking. Weak is something that is a result of choices, vulnerable is outside of one’s control.

      Interesting how good ole Mr Pressfield and the commenters on this site pull insight out, and likely improve readers as people in the interaction. Maybe Renita was onto something last week with her comment about a ‘men’s circle of higher intelligence’.

      Have a great day!
      bsn

      • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 8:59 am

        Brian… too many smart women in here for it to be just a men’s circle. 😉 In A Man at Arms, I’m taking note of David as fulfilling the role of… maybe not “the vulnerable” (and you’re onto something in differentiating “weak” from “vulnerable”), but David as being a character to who struggles to find his inner strength. It’s he who advocates leaving Telamon for dead. It’s David who sobs uncontrollably in the midst of an all-is-lost moment, when Telamon and Ruth sit stoic, with their shit wired tight. David does redeem himself (no spoilers), but I found myself asking what David represents in our own collective psyche. Our fear, our lack of confidence, Resistance, lack of trust — yet each embodying the potential for the heroic. David…

        I think we disdain weakness in others for the same reason we look askance at a homeless person (if we can admit that our smaller ego-selves do, in fact, have that initial response): we fear. We fear “for but the grace of God, there go I.” How close am I to poverty? How close am I to being the victim? How close am I to letting my mask fall and having the world see my inadequacy? So we lash out (bully the bully?), or we turn away from those shadow-selves (or the small, mind-based ego does).

        We can transcend this, and by recognizing our one-ness with the weak and the mighty, with the poor and the prosperous, we become heroes.

        What a great conversation in here today.

        • Yvonne on April 28, 2021 at 12:50 pm

          Joe, I found myself asking the exact question about David (what he represents in our psyche), and the question took me deep down for some personal introspection. I did not expect to have that kind of experience reading the book; it caught me off guard and was very powerful. AMAA has been one of those stories that continues to stay with me well after I’ve finished it. So many things about it I didn’t expect (in an excellent way!), both on a storytelling level, and on a personal level.

        • Mike on April 28, 2021 at 4:11 pm

          Joe,

          I agree with what you say regarding that visceral response to perceived weakness, and I agree with Brian’s distinction between “weak” and “vulnerable.”

          However, I didn’t react to the character of David with any disdain. He’s still a child, and has yet to set aside childish ways. Rather, I saw him more as an “aspiring hero” sort of archetype…. an everyman on the cusp of that extraordinary journey; a new recruit stepping off the cattle car, or a white belt on his first day in the dojo. Weaker than Telamon (or any Drill Sergeant or black belt), certainly, but due to inexperience more than any inherent flaw.

          David’s a character with whom the reader can sympathize, moreso than with Ruth or Telamon, or even Michael, purely because of his weakness. He is, as you say, our own “fear, our lack of confidence, Resistance, lack of trust — yet each embodying the potential for the heroic.” In this way, I feel he does a lot to humanize the journey they undertake. Our fear, our lack of confidence, Resistance, lack of trust — yet each embodying the potential for the heroic

          • Brian Nelson on April 28, 2021 at 7:58 pm

            Mike/Joe/Yvonne,
            Super busy day, and I’m taking a brain-breather from my code academy (wanna feel dumb, try learning code in one’s 50s!) to catch up on the blog.

            I was thinking about David a lot during when I read AMAA–and I think I identified with his character the most. I lost my own father at 5 years old, Mom married a turd–and I think I have been looking for a father figure my entire life. Maybe a bit TMI, but I did see myself in David. Trying too hard, wanting so deeply to be accepted. Envious of a GIRL who is a better warrior than he…

            Still too early for spoilers…but David’s difficulties were very difficult for me to stomach.

            Joe–totally agree that this fear-based response to weakness is untoward at best, an indication of fear/judgment replacing compassion/understanding as a defense mechanism…to a point. There are free-loaders, there are weak people in charge, there are toxic leaders (redundant with weak)–and I don’t believe we can wait for God to smite those bastards. Still doing some integration of my ancient ceremony a couple of weeks back…

            Great converstaion.
            bsn



          • Peter Brockwell on April 30, 2021 at 12:42 am

            Brian,
            Thanks for sharing re your own childhood and difficulties. Being vulnerable here with us is a kind and respectful gift to us and to the conversation.

            Just thinking broadly (only have two mins spare right now), David is our main POV char, so for him to be a neophyte in pretty much every aspect relevant to the story is probably what allows the most insight into Telamon and his world to be communicated to the reader. Also, there’s that thing from Zuckerman about ‘drawing the bow fully’. So (trying carefully to avoid a spoiler) for him to redeem himself, he must start from a place almost the inverse of his redeeming act.

            Urghh. Not sure I expressed that too well, but hey.



        • Joe on April 29, 2021 at 9:56 am

          Yvonne/Mike/Brian…

          On “vulnerability,” and what shores us up in the face of that, I came across this today, from Irish poet David Whyte, from his book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.” It seems to wrap its arms around many of the things we’re talking about:

          ***
          “The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

          “The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness … to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

          • Joe on April 30, 2021 at 7:03 am

            Peter, even with only two minutes to spare, I think your insights about David as the primary POV are good ones. And on the contrast between his level of fortitude (still gestating) and the fortitude of Telamon and Ruth, and how that brings their strengths more to the fore.



          • Mike on April 30, 2021 at 2:44 pm

            Joe,

            It’s interesting that you bring up a topic like isolation and the diminishing circle of friends in modern life.

            I was just reading about Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiment from the 70’s: There were already established findings that solitary lab rats, given the option between normal water and cocaine- or heroine-laced water, will opt for the drugs until they overdose. Building on this, Dr. Alexander placed rats in a community with other rats where they were allowed the freedom to do what rats normally do together. They stopped OD’ing.

            Social factors do seem to be a very neglected variable in conventional wisdom, and I think that sense of community is a big reason why the character of David is so vital to a story like AMAA. His relatability allows the audience a participant’s access to Telamon’s party.



          • Joe on April 30, 2021 at 4:30 pm

            Hey Mike. Good points, for sure. It’s been pointed out that the worst punishment an incarcerated person can suffer is solitary confinement. That is to say, being isolated is worse than being in the company of hardened murderers.



  3. Sam Luna on April 28, 2021 at 8:27 am

    The Western genre (in all incarnations) is my favorite for exactly the reasons you describe. And, it’s why I enjoyed A Man at Arms so much and probably why you’re finding so much success with it.

    Society wants people to be punished for their heinous misdeeds against the Vulnerable Characters among us. Not merely thrown in a jail, but REALLY punished — annihilated, made to suffer, wiped off the map. No one ever says “I hope that [pedophile/murderer/rapist] gets an excellent defense attorney and is judged fairly by a jury of his peers!” They instead describe some form of gruesome physical punishment they hope is inflicted, even though they know a mere prison sentence will likely follow.

    So we look to others to do that violence for us — even if it’s in the made up world of a movie or novel. That’s where Mad Max, Telamon, Eli, and Batman come in. The Western is the revenge fantasy where “real” justice takes place.

    Loved the book and these posts about the “working parts.” Like your “Foolscap Method” or 3 Act screenplay structure, it reminds us there is always a place from which to build a story.

    • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 9:35 am

      Good points, Sam. Fulfilling our need to see justice — when we aren’t always seeing it in the waking world at the moment. Experience love when we haven’t found it yet. Experience fear without actually being in mortal danger ourselves. Good observations you make.

      • Sam Luna on April 28, 2021 at 9:53 am

        Thanks Joe. Always look forward to my Writing Wednesdays shot in the arm with all of you.

  4. Kendall B Gardner on April 28, 2021 at 8:50 am

    I also just finished A Man At Arms, it is amazing. That said, it is also very educational to read these weekly missives and being able to reflect on AMAT.

    • Joe on April 28, 2021 at 9:42 am

      I, too, like seeing under the hood.

  5. Anonymous on April 28, 2021 at 9:01 am

    The classic westerns may have had their day but I have completely enjoyed some of the so-called new westerns such as “Open Range.” Lovely moments & acting in that one.
    I am still hoping for a wrap up of the saga of Mo the cat . I assume he has gone to the great cat tree in the sky but can we hear more about his part in all this?
    I am listening to “Gates” on Audible once again after reading it long ago. Perhaps sometime you will say more about the leap from BV to Gates, and when
    , how, you found time to do so much research on the ancient Greeks. The research alone would seem to have taken a full year at least of doing nothing else. Whatever called you to move between two very different subjects & especially to a book that was going to require SO much academic legwork? Remarkable.

  6. Linda Gardner on April 28, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Never mind. just found article about Durant books. Recommended.

  7. Yvonne on April 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    I really loved the previous posts about the development of “A Man At Arms”, but now that I’ve finished the book, it’s even more fascinating to see the process. Some stories are such a mystery on how they reveal themselves; as writers, we feel there is a character that’s supposed to be in the story but we may not at first know why, and as readers, we come across a character that we don’t at first understand their role until later. How stories come to be will never cease surprising and amazing me. Detailing all of these steps out is super helpful, Steve–thank you! (not to mention very interesting!)

  8. KATIE BERGGREN on April 29, 2021 at 8:28 am

    I love the community that has developed on Steven’s posts – it’s really sweet 🙂

    • Joe on April 29, 2021 at 10:10 am

      It’s fun to see, Katie. Glad you’re in it.

      I’m looking at your art. You’re good.

  9. lgardner on May 4, 2021 at 9:24 am

    I’m still listening to “Gates” on Audible which has proved to be a much more intense experience than reading it which I did years ago . The scenes between Alexandros and Rooster…such indelible characters. Wonderful narration, as as always from The Best. I can’t listen to a Tony Hillerman novel with any other narrator.
    I’ve wondered how you dealt with the regret over all the wasted time while you tried to find your way back to writing…the books you might have written if you had not spent years running away from the writing.
    It often seems less painful never to go back, because if a person can write well now, again, it means that person could always have written well during all the lost years of “shadow careers.”
    I never hear the “M” word mentioned, the fact that even very effective writers are never going to make even a small amount of money. It’s so much less painful to finally give up and turn on a bad movie you have already seen several times.
    Thank you again for your honest. As for the friends that keep reminding you that you are losing all of your chances to have a real life, which for women means the loss of any personal time during which you are not too harried and beat and preoccupied to actually do any worthwhile work, I have no good answers.
    As my friend’s husbands says, “If you wanted this enough, you would find a way to write!”
    As in, obviously you did not want it enough.
    The bottom line seems to be that you must take responsibility for your life and be willing to pay the whole price.
    And live with the consequences. As always thanks for your honesty . The Gods know what you gave up in order to create such wonderful books.

    • Joe on May 5, 2021 at 3:59 am

      Agreed that the audio narrator can enhance (or wreck) an otherwise great story. I’m thinking of John Lee (who narrated “The Afghan Campaign”) and George Guidall (who narrated “A Man at Arms”). The right voice can help put you IN the time period. (Conversely, I’ve abandoned audio versions of Tim O’Brien’s “If I Die in a Combat Zone” because the narrator was describing the bloody aftermath of a firefight like he was reading his grocery list; and shelved an audio version of a Lee Child thriller because the narrator sounded like Pee Wee Herman doing Harvey Keitel).

      I think your bottom line is spot-on.

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