What’s the secret to creating characters readers love? There must be a secret, right? Some magic formula that will make readers fall as madly in love with our characters as we have with other writers’ larger-than-life heroes and heroines.
You’re probably thinking I’m going to say, “Sorry, but no, there’s no magic formula. Just hard work and luck.” But, actually, that’s not so. Actually, there is a magic ingredient.
And that is bravery.
Readers adore courageous characters. We’ll forgive a character just about any flaw, but never cowardice. In the words of Dwight V. Swain’s immortal Techniques of the Selling Writer:
Don’t try to make virtue take the place of courage. Admirable qualities are fine as subordinate characterizing elements. But fascination is born of valor, not virtue…. A saintly character … may fall ever so flat—not because he’s saintly, but because he doesn’t, in addition, challenge fate.
In writing my fantasy novel Dreamlander (coming December 2), I got to explore six different kinds of bravery:
1. Heroic Bravery
When we think of heroes these days, we generally think of those who qualify for heroic bravery.
What is it? This is the kind of bravery that makes a character do crazy dangerous stuff, either to protect others or to advance a cause in which he passionately believes. He’s not a fool. He knows what he’s risking, but he believes the danger is worth it.
Examples: Spider-Man, Captain America, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker. The vast majority of blockbuster, action-adventure, and fantasy heroes qualify for heroic bravery.
2. Steadfast Bravery
Steadfast bravery isn’t as flashy as heroic bravery (although it exhibits bursts of heroism), but its patient doggedness challenges fate every single day.
What is it? This is the kind of bravery we see from someone who is enduring a bad or dangerous situation day in and day out. A POW, a soldier in the trenches, or an informant in enemy territory will probably exhibit steadfast bravery.
Examples: Courtney (in Dawn Patrol), like so many soldiers on the line, grits his teeth and holds fast in the face of death every single day.
3. Quiet Bravery
This one is perhaps the least flashy of any type of bravery. It can even occasionally be confused with cowardice.
What is it? Quiet bravery gives a character the courage needed to endure bad situations with grace and patience. It’s basically an offshoot of steadfast bravery, but it usually surfaces in situations that are less physically dangerous. Cancer patients, overworked single mothers, and trod-upon servants who maintain their sense of self-worth and hope all exhibit quiet bravery.
Examples: Literature is full of plucky orphans who endure their hard lots with a smile. Amy Dorrit (in Little Dorrit) and Sara Crewe (in A Little Princess) both qualify.
4. Personal Bravery
Not all brave characters are going to face death or save the world. Sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is take a chance to advance his own lot in life.
What is it? Personal bravery demands characters reach for the stars and chase their dreams. Instead of remaining in a bad situation and taking it and taking it, they risk everything for a chance at a better life. Personal bravery is perhaps the most common kind of bravery of all, since it’s something every single one of us chooses to exhibit at one point or another in our lives, whether it’s in dreaming of a better education, a better career, or just a life-changing trip around the world.
Examples: Jane Eyre, Jo March, and David Copperfield, among so many others, challenged their unappealing fates by braving the world and forcing themselves into uncomfortable positions with the hope of creating better, more fulfilling lives for themselves.
5. Devil-May-Care Bravery
Here we find the domain of the anti-hero and the fatalist.
What is it? Devil-may-care bravery isn’t bravery so much as a cynical realization that death (or whatever the worst-case scenario may be) will come no matter what we do, ergo let’s meet it with arms stretched wide. Characters who have nothing to live for can often exhibit insane courage, but they’re doing it from a place of negativity.
Examples: Durzo Blint (from The Way of Shadows), Riddick, and my own Marcus Annan all fall into this category. They’re powerful in their own right and they don’t care too deeply about what happens to them, which makes them recklessly and dangerously courageous.
6. Frightened Bravery
Finally, we have the most dichotomous, and often the most compelling, bravery of all.
What is it? Frightened bravery finds the hero a knee-shaking, gut-churning, terrified mess. But he rises above it. He enters the fray in spite of his terror, and, in so doing, becomes the bravest of all characters. Frightened bravery can go hand in hand with any of the other types (save perhaps devil-may-care bravery), since the very act of overcoming fear is what makes a character brave.
Examples: Harry Faversham (in The Four Feathers) is a particularly good example, since his entire story is about his wildly courageous attempts to blot out his own cowardice. The Youth (in The Red Badge of Courage), Lee (in The Magnificent Seven), and Danny (in The Great Escape) would all qualify as well.
None of these categories are exclusive. A character may well exhibit all six types of bravery during the course of your story, and often you’ll find the categories overlapping. In creating a strong character, it’s important not only that he qualify for at least one of these types of bravery, but also that you identify which is the strongest category, so you can further strengthen it on the page. Once you’ve done that, it’s almost a cinch readers will find your character fascinating.
Photo courtesy of K.M. Weiland.
Originally published on Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors