Hello readers! I hope you’re all staying away from groups and doing your part to counter Covid-19 as best you can. Washing your hands, etc. If you are, good! If not, pick up the slack! The better we can do at slowing the spread the better off everyone will be.
Anyway, with that said, let’s get into today’s Being a Better Writer topic: Bravery. Yes, I know that’s a bit of a weird one, but I decided to go with brevity in the the title and expand on it here. Plus, I felt like it was a topic that might ease a few minds outside of the sphere of writing as well. I may be wrong, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
What I want to talk about today isn’t just the concept of bravery, but how to write a brave character.
Why? Well, after writing last week’s news post I got thinking about brave characters in stories and realized that I’ve seen two kinds. I’ve seen the characters that are actually brave, and then I’ve seen the characters who face peril and danger like robots, simply powering over it because … they do. That’s what happens because of protagonist.
The more I thought of this the more I realized that I really did see both kinds of “bravery” in stories out there, and that one of them is less “bravery” and more the author simply shoving their character through a situation without having them react to it in any way other than “win.” And that I could think of stories I’d read where characters absolutely were like that, where their “bravery” in the face of peril wasn’t really bravery, but more an emotionless “Writer says I must come out on top, so I shall come out on top!”
With that thought process now explained, I hope that most of you readers see why I decided this topic was a good fit, both for the blog and the current state of things. Because bravery isn’t simply “charge ahead because victory.” That’s actually more foolishness than bravery. Why? Well, let’s exam the Merriam-Webster definition of bravery for a moment.
The quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty : the quality or state of being brave.
Now, it does get a little self-referential there by nature of language, so for completeness, let’s check the definition of brave as well.
Having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty : having or showing courage.
Again, in the interest of completeness, let’s check the definition of courage while we’re at it.
Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.
Okay, that’s a pretty good dive. Now, tell me, with each of these definitions, what’s the common element tying them all together? What links them?
“Danger, fear, or difficulty” would be a good answer, but we’d still be missing one piece. “Mental or moral strength to face” appears before both of those term sets in each instance related to bravery, while with courage, it’s given as “Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand.”
The implication is clear. Our protagonist isn’t brave simply because we present them with danger, difficulty, or fear. They’re brave because they have the mental or moral strength to push past those things and overcome them.
If they don’t exhibit those things? Then they’re not really showing bravery or courage. Maybe they’re showing skill. Or just single-mindedness. But they’re not being brave. Just competent.
Sadly, I can think of a number of books that I’ve read where the characters are just that: Competent. They face peril and without much other than a slight note of “Oh, this will be a bother” they power on through. Most common in generic action stories, but I see this elsewhere.
Actually, let’s look to a film genre for an example of this: The generic 80s Action film. You know, like Commando. Now a lot of people love Commando for its ridiculous 80s action, but there’s never a moment in that film where either the protagonist or the audience are worried in any way by what’s going on. A complex defended by 80 soldiers? Our protag isn’t worried, he just walks through them with one-liners and explosions.
I’m not even joking, by the way, If you’ve not seen Commando, this is something the protagonist does without missing a beat. And while it’s fun, I wouldn’t call it bravery or courage. There’s no difficulty, danger, or fear to it.
Okay, let me rephrase that. There is “danger.” But it’s far removed from ever affecting the character. This is the film where the protagonist stands in one place, in the open, shooting for several minutes while being shot back at, effortlessly mowing down enemy after enemy while never being touched.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? It may be a fun bit of “action” but there’s no true peril or pressure against the protag at any given moment. It’s fun, but it’s not a brave protagonist because there’s nothing pressing against them that would call for them to be brave. As we established above, bravery is courage in the face of danger, fear, or difficulty. None of which we see in a lot of 80s-style action films.
Okay, enough on films. They’re good examples, but we’re more about writing books and stories. So then, how would this correlate to books?
In pretty much the same way: A protagonist who doesn’t really face any danger, difficulty, or fear. They’re presented with something that should be dangerous, that could be a challenge, might be terrifying … and then mow through it with all the difficulty of superman taking down a couple of bank robbers armed with pistols.
That’s not courage or bravery. It’s just a character doing stuff. About as courageous or brave as someone walking out to get their mail on a perfectly ordinary day. They’re not challenged, and they’re not given any real obstacle that affects them.
Affect is a key word here, I believe. A character that is truly facing something that is dangerous will react to it. A character presented with something difficult will struggle with it. Encountering something that makes a character fearful will cause them to be afraid.
Looking at the example of Commando above, we never really believe that the protagonist is in much danger because even when he’s being shot at, he never reacts to being shot at in any sort of manner that shows he believes he’s in danger at all.
But what about a character who is opened fire on and reacts. They dive out of the way, hiding behind something to avoid bullets. They check their angles to make sure they’re safe. The fight to keep their breath steady and come up with a plan, because even though they’re being shot at, they’ve got something they have to do, even with the danger.
Which of those feels more brave?
There’s one other aspect here we’ve yet to discuss, however: Mental or moral strength. You may recall these from our definitions above, where they were given as what someone uses to face danger, fear, and difficulty.
In other words, it’s not enough to have our characters face danger, fear, and difficulty to be brave. They need to have mental or moral strength to draw on to face those things.
This bit is where things get kind of nebulous and require you to know your characters. Why are they going to charge/sneak/enter a dangerous situation? What’s driving them to do so? And what’s going to give them the strength to face the danger, fear, or difficulty when it arises?
In other words, what keeps them going when the going gets tough? Is it faith in something? A promise they mean to keep?
Where does their strength to face the obstacles in their way come from?
For example, let’s look at a situation from Shadow of an Empire where a protagonist is brave: The showdown with Amacitia Varay. Meelo Karn, one of the two protagonists, finds that her partner has been taken hostage by the serial killer, who wants Meelo to face her. And so Meelo goes, moving alone through the back of a train where Varay has killed everyone else, knowing full well that Varay’s magic allows her to mimic and muffle sound and has the advantage of having laid a trap.
Is she scared? Of course Meelo is. Is the situation difficult and dangerous? Absolutely, and Meelo faces a lot of peril (though I won’t spoil what happens).
But she faces it anyway, pushing through the fear, worry, and pain because she cares about her partner, and she believes in justice, and that it is her job to bring Varay to it. Her belief in that justice, as well as her dedication to her partner, serve to give her the resolve to push past the fearful and dangerous moments.
The result is that Meelo doesn’t just encounter danger and fear, but stands up to it. The reader knows that she’s scared, that she’s worried. But they also see how she doesn’t let that fear and worry control her actions, but draws from her own internal will and belief to counter it.
She’s brave not because she doesn’t react to the fear and danger, or feel/experience it. She’s brave because despite feeling and reacting to those things, she chooses to push ahead anyway.
Ultimately, what we’ve been getting at here is that it’s not enough to simply throw a danger or a fear at our protagonist and call it good if we want them to be seen by our audience as brave. Simply having them smash through an obstacle in their path just puts them as capable.
Don’t get me wrong, that can be fun to read and enjoy. See the scene in episode two of Fireteam Freelance with Anvil and a power saw. It’s not brave, but it’s certainly fun.
But if we want our audience to see our characters being brave, then we have to show it. We need to put them in difficult, dangerous, or fearful situations, and then reacting to that, but pushing past it through their own internal strength. We can even show where that strength comes from, faith, believe, dedication, whatever.
Not only will this make our character more believable, more real to our audience, but it might help our audience overcome their own problems and issues by showing them how or why a character worked past their fears.
Again, courage and bravery aren’t an absence of fear, danger, or difficulty. They’re facing it and pushing on anyway.
Which is kind of the note I wanted to end on. Almost. As I said, I picked this topic in part because it’s a good writing topic, but also because in light of everything going on currently at the time of this post (worldwide pandemic) a lot of people are scared, facing danger, difficulty, or all three.
In light of that, some are having difficulty finding courage and bravery. If that’s so, then maybe it’s time to step back and ask “What drives me? What do I draw my strength from? What do I put faith in?”
Maybe you’ll learn or find something that’ll help.
But either way, be sure to apply today’s topic to your characters.
Good luck, now get writing!
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