Tag Archives: writing fear

Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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