“Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s the courage that counts.”
While this quote from John Wooden might not be literally accurate in every instance, there is a good amount of truth in it. In writing, and in life too, one success won’t establish your character forever. It will build him up, giving him strength for the next challenge, but more challenges will come. And it is during failure that a character learns the most valuable lessons. But, in success or in failure, a character’s courage or lack thereof will affect how they act and react, no matter what the theme of your story.
Courage, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Or, as the common saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to continue on despite fear. A character needs courage to move forward, to lead, to make decisions and then hold up those decisions. They’ll need to fight, to rescue, to confront… they might not feel brave, but they continue forward anyway, even when there seems to be no hope. Without courage, a character will have a hard time making any sort of rational decision and then sticking to it.
For some characters, gaining courage might be part of the plot.
But many times, your characters already have a degree of determination and courage with which they enter your story and combat the various trials and struggles you throw at them. It’s probably in the background, something the character would fall apart without, though only partially recognized while in action. But a character’s courage will tell much more about them than how far or how hard they can fight.
As John F. Kennedy said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” A character might have courage, but what is it for? What fears are they overcoming? There will very likely be some aspects of life in which they’ll charge ahead no matter what the terror, while there are others which render them speechless, such as the common example of a young man who will throw himself into battle, but is tongue-tied when confronted with a pretty girl. Even the bravest character will likely have an area of life which could do with a little more courage.
What is the source?
But, even more important than what the courage is being used for, is where the courage comes from. What does your character hold on to so they can face fear without giving in to it? Is it the memory of a loved one? Is it thoughts of vengeance? Or is it trust in an all-powerful God?
Courage based on God will carry your character with more strength than any other kind of courage. They’ll be able to face danger, knowing God is in control. Obviously, however, depending on the spiritual life of your character, there may be many other sources of courage; some of which will cave in sooner than others. And, even if your character’s courage is based on and in God, it’s quite likely they will also have a familiar face to keep them going when things get tough.
And, sometimes, what looks like courage, and what could be counted as courageous if the emotions were different, is something else entirely. A burning anger or flash of revenge might send a character charging in battle towards overpowering forces. If done in a normal situation, this would be facing fear and going forward anyway. But when the character feels no fear and is performing the action only to satisfy his baser emotions, it’s not courage.
Courage isn’t just shown while charging into the face of death either. While courage in battle might be the most dramatic, it is far from the hardest kind of resolution. According to Robert Ingersol,
“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”
Things won’t always go well for your character, and it is their courage which will keep them going even when they are defeated. It will drive them forward to do the right thing, even though they know they can’t win. A character might be willing to die for his beliefs, but is he willing to suffer and continue living with them?
It is courage which will give a general the strength to order a retreat to save his men, doing what is best for his army even if he knows he’ll be branded a coward. It is courage which will allow a king to sit down and take advice from a farmer, admitting that the other is right. It is courage which opens the way for a character to leave everything he’s ever known behind for the sake of his faith. Courage in the face of death is admirable. Courage in the face of losing everything you love, the loss of reputation, or painful consequences you will have to live with every day can be much, much harder.
But, no matter their situation, your character will need courage to face the trials you’ll make them go through in your book. If they don’t have courage, then they’ll need to find some, and quickly. Figure out where your character has courage and where he needs to learn some. Search for the root of his courage. And then place them in situations where they must press forward, regardless of loss, death, shame, or defeat. For, as Harper Lee said, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Because, sometimes, you just might win.