I’ve written before about the lack (or at least the perceived lack) of truly good characters in modern fiction. All the rage is for troubled characters, flawed heroes, broken protagonists, and this is because it is much easier to write an interesting flawed character than it is to write an interesting good guy. Nice guys finish last (or at least that’s how the saying goes) because in fiction and in life they tend to be fairly boring. Of course, they don’t have to be boring (for instance, Superman wasn’t boring, Faramir wasn’t boring, Captain America wasn’t boring, etc). Further, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about the virtues lately, and thinking about the virtues always leads to thinking about the vices. There are few writers who I’ve seen handle the development of a vicious character into a virtuous character well, and one that always comes to mind is Glen Cook.
I’ve written about the development of Marron Shed before, and that isn’t the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how we write about courage. A lot of the time we tend to think of courage as simply the absence of fear, or perhaps those who have considered it a bit more deeply think of courage as pursuing something worth doing in spite of fear. However, I’m not convinced that either of these is really a proper view of courage. Courage is, to my mind, intrinsically linked with faith. We fear things because we don’t have faith in being able to control them. For instance: I am not afraid of the bowl of cereal in my hands right now. Why? Because it is entirely within my control. Similarly, I am not afraid of a caged lion. Why? because I have faith in the ability of the cage to control it (which involves faith in the manufacturers of the steel the cage is made from, faith in those who installed it, faith in the zoo to properly maintain it, etc). However, if you convince me that those steel bars are actually made of paper, then suddenly the lion isn’t really controlled and my fear springs forth.
Now, there are some things that we can control (such as my bowl of cereal), and some things that we can never control (such as the weather). We generally aren’t afraid of those things that are obviously within our control or of those things which are obviously impossible to control (though there are extremes on either end). For instance, I don’t spend much time being terrified of my pants, nor do I spend much time being terrified that a solar flare will consume the planet, or that a nearby star will supernova, or that a pulsar with vaporize everything. However, we do spend a lot of time being afraid of those things that we don’t control, but think that we can or should control. Such as poisonous spiders, car accidents, or someone breaking into our homes.
Plato argued that courage was the knowledge of what should be feared and what should not be feared, and I think that he’s on the right track here. However, I think that there is a better answer, at least for a theist. Courage, I will argue, is the faith that all things are controlled by a beneficent power, and thus that those ‘bad’ things that happen to me or to others are actually part of a larger plan. Further, I think that courage is generally faith in something (either our own ability to control the situation, a trusted superior or counterpart, technology, etc), even if that something isn’t a deity.
So, I think the question that we come to here is: how do we write this? And I think the answer is that you write good courage (or any virtue) in the same way that you write good religion. It’s easy to write a character who has no doubts, never makes a mistake, always does the right thing, and wins in the end. The critics are right, that character is boring. Real people, even good people, have doubts. They have temptations, desires, fears, and struggles. The difference between a virtuous character and a flawed hero is that the flawed hero is, at least in part, defined by his doubts, temptations, desires, fears, and struggles. They rule him like The Great Leader ruled North Korea, and the result is no prettier. Virtuous characters aren’t defined by their vices. They aren’t ruled by their vices. They struggle, and as a writer you need to get inside their heads, understand that struggle, and make it real to the reader, but however much they struggle, when it comes down to it: they do the right thing anyway.
The virtuous character rules his fears, temptations, doubts, struggles, and desires, and he forces them to serve him instead of the other way around, and that character can be very interesting to read about. The key here is to make the struggle real without defining the character by it. This is not an easy thing to do, because we often don’t allow our characters to become real people. We want the characters to serve the story, which means that we need easy, simply definitions for them. This is why its so much easier to write flawed characters: its easier to define them. However, when we let our characters grow out of our definitions of them before we start the story, I have a feeling that we might wind up with better stories.