5 Vulnerabilities Of Bestselling Characters That Instantly Upgrade Your Story By 500%


Photo Credit: Flikr, license

If you study the bestseller lists, you quickly notice that there are 5 common vulnerabilities of bestselling characters. Which means there is a clear pattern that you can follow to radically improve your story by 500%.

Leave them out and your story feels…lacking. Add them and they perform literary magic.

They help the author (often a big name, mega money heavy hitter) accomplish key writing objectives by designing them into the very fabric of the story.

“You can’t fix a design flaw with a paint job” – Christopher Kokoski

How The 5 Vulnerabilities Improve Your Story by 500%

  • Immediatly engage – vulnerability is mesmerizing
  • Ramp up reader empathy
  • Create more likable characters
  • Create more realistic characters
  • Enhance story dynamics – conflict, drama, threats, ticking clocks
  • Amplify immediacy – prolonged reader captivation = writing gold
  • Elevate interactions – every relationship is more interesting

The 5 Vulnerabilities of Bestselling Authors

  1. Vulnerable Vice/Flaw
  2. Vulnerable Condition
  3. Vulnerable Options
  4. Vulnerable Resources
  5. Vulnerable Relationships

Let’s deconstruct these Vulnerabilities so that you completely understand them and can apply them in your fiction.

First, it’s helpful to know the following three facts about vulnerabilities:

  • Gripping stories are rooted in vulnerability (across all elements)
  • There are intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) vulnerabilities
  • Vulnerability progresses in width and depth (gets both deeper & wider)

“If you don’t have vulnerability, you don’t have story.” – Christopher Kokoski

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 6.35.19 AM

No eggs were hurt in the making of this blog post

Deconstructing The 5 Vulnerabilities 

1. Vulnerable Vice/Flaw: Almost every bestselling character has a vice, flaw or weakness. Harry Potter is a kid. Professor X is in a wheelchair. Scrooge is greedy. Even Superman has kryptonite. Why? Because perfection is boring.

Vulnerability, on the other hand, is intrinsic, relatable and captivating. This is why underdog stories are so popular.

Vulnerable characters lack something essential that opens them to threat, hurt, loss, failure and even death.

Ironically, it is their lack and less-than-perfectness that makes vulnerable characters so loved by millions of readers.

2. Vulnerable Condition: This vulnerability encapsulates two sub-categories – personal circumstance and setting.

A great visual example of this vulnerability is the TV show, Naked & Afraid. The show is built on the vulnerability of the contestants. If you haven’t seen it, the show pits two naked strangers against some exotic locale for 21 days to see if they can survive.

Cue awkward naked first meetings, bug bites, big predators and more.

Whatever your view of the show (warning it is embarrassingly addictive), it is a perfect example of vulnerability. And remember, someone designed the show with deep vulnerability in mind.

The characters (contestants) are naked. If you have ever been naked (and it would be very odd if you haven’t), then you know clothing is nice protection. Stripped of clothing, the characters start out at a deficit. They are vulnerable to the elements, bugs and (this is vital) embarrassment.

Note vulnerability of condition can be physical (injury), environmental (jungle) and emotional (feeling embarrassed).

3. Vulnerable Options: One of the key markers of bestselling fiction is the limiting and reduction of options.

Options become vulnerable when they are few and threatened.

Naked and Afraid is once again a good example. The characters are trapped in an exotic setting for 21 days. They are naked, alone (for the most part – it is still a TV show, after all), and have limited options from the very get-go.

My novel, Dark Halo, follows a similar concept. The main characters are trapped in a remote location during the worst storm of the century all while battling otherworldly creatures for 72 hours. Get the novel here.

4. Vulnerable Resources: Bestseller characters not only encounter limited options but also limited resources.

Resources include food, water, shelter, transportation, weapons, medicine, fire (for cooking, warmth or protection), and more.

Characters with few resources are forced to be resourceful, which is another element of bestsellers. Read more about resourcefulness here

5. Vulnerable Relationships: Other characters often become the most important resource for the main character.

When authors threaten minor characters through all 4 prior vulnerabilities, readers obsessively worry about the main characters. This is part of great storytelling.

Vulnerable Relationships include physical injuries, death, separation, emotional conflict, personality conflict – basically anything that threatens them from teaming up to solve the story problem .

Applying the 5 Vulnerabilities to Your Story 

Here’s a quick, actionable guide to applying the vulnerabilities to your story:

  • Design your main character (protagonist and antagonist) with a flaw, vice or other vulnerability.
  • One way to hack Character vulnerability is to look at the story problem and ask “What character trait would make this problem worse or harder to resolve?”
  • Design a setting that is harsh, threatening and exposes the character vulnerability.
  • Always ask, “How can the story be more vulnerable?” Ask on every page.
  • Limit options & resources from the very beginning.
  • Remove more options and resources as the story advances – this deepens and widens vulnerability.
  • Threaten minor characters through injury, separation, conflict and sometimes death.

Remember, great vulnerability equals great story storytelling.


Christopher is somewhere feeling vulnerable. If you like this post, please let him know below in the comments – he loves hearing from you – and also please share this post with others. 


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in screenwriting, writer, Writing

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