Courage in Fiction

At Kill Zone Blog, this post by John Gilstrap: Courage in Fiction.

That’s a title that instantly catches my attention, as courage is such an important quality in fiction. That is, regardless of what other qualities the protagonist may have, he or she or it must have courage. Not necessarily gung-ho leap-upon-them do-or-die physical courage, but very definitely some type of courage.

So let’s see what Gilstrap has to say about this crucial protagonist quality …

Okay, there is a long intro about important vs commercial fiction — given that this post is at Kill Zone Blog, you can imagine the general tenor of Gilstrap’s comments on that topic. Then basically one paragraph about courage, at the end:

Every week, my DVR records episodes of “12 O’Clock High”, starring Robert Lansing as General Frank Savage. I remember watching it as a kid, but all I remember are the scenes of aerial battle. The stories are really very complex and often quite moving. When you consider that the series aired when World War 2 wasn’t yet 20 years in the past, and that more pilots died in the 8th Air Force out of England than did all of the Marines in the Pacific theater, the story lines are particularly courageous. Battle fatigue (PTSD), cowardice, reckless bravery, loss of friends and the futility of war are all addressed in those episodes. They entertain because they resonate, and they resonate because we care about these young men who are forced to take exceptional risks for the benefit of others. We see courage in action. And it’s inspiring.

Those last few sentences are where I sort of thought the whole post would linger, but not really. I find the post a bit disappointing because I don’t think it does enough with the suggested topic. Let me just poke around a little …

Here is a post at Stylist: Fifteen books that taught us to have courage and be kind.

That is probably a more satisfactory post. I imagine that you can hardly throw a dart at fiction without hitting excellent examples of courage. Well, maybe literary fiction. But basically you’re going to find courage absolutely everywhere. Kindness is probably only a little less common. Hard to imagine picking out fifteen books that particularly exemplify these qualities. I would say that to teach the reader to have courage and be kind, the protagonists who demonstrate those qualities should be ordinary people, not too overwhelmingly outside normal experience. That is, Frodo, not Aragorn. Almost anybody rather than the Count of Monte Cristo. Let’s see what books this post picks out of the infinite possibilities …

Ah! The Lord of the Rings, right at the top. For exactly the reason I suggested:

They are distinctly ordinary – and so, when the world cries out for a hero to rise up and fight against evil, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin initially worry that maybe they are not good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough, to make a difference. That an ordinary person, living an ordinary life, can never hope to do something truly extraordinary.

But over the course of the trilogy, they are proven wrong. Time and time again, they are forced to stare darkness in the face – and, time and time again, they prove that anyone can do anything, so long as their courage holds, their spirit does not fail and there’s a warm dinner to look forward to at the end of it all.

Yes, yes! I’m now feeling good about this post. What are the other fourteen books this post picks out? Okay, a bunch of stories I have read, some not very recently, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and some much more recent, like The Hunger Games. I see almost nothing here I would disagree with.

My favorite book on this list: Little Women. I wouldn’t have thought of that one! But it’s a very good choice for both courage and kindness. Oh, and Charlotte’s Web! Another surprising and excellent choice. By all means click through and see what other books on this list surprise and please you.

It’s practically impossible, as I said, to pick out anything myself given near-infinite choices. Let me see. Courage AND kindness. Hmm.

Okay. I’m thinking of specific characters; for me, that’s the easiest way to manage this.

Terry Pratchett’s Captain Carrot is a good choice for a character who exemplifies both qualities. I detest those stupid names Pratchett gave so many characters, so it’s all I can do to type the above sentence, but Carrot IS a great character for this kind of list.

Maia in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

Paksenarrion in the titular series by Elizabeth Moon.

Cordelia in the Vorkosigan series.

And what the heck, I will end with one of mine:

Aras in Tuyo.

Aras Samaura may be the kindest important character in any of my books. Or I might say, the kindest protagonist. Although, I have to add, he is also one of the most ruthless.

If you were picking out one character in SFF who shows both courage and kindness, who would it be? Do some name dropping in the comments. Gold star if it’s a book I haven’t read, because this sort of character is exactly the kind who’s likely to lead to expansion of my TBR pile.

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7 thoughts on “Courage in Fiction”

  1. For courage and kindness, I think I’d go w the protagonists in Code Name Verity (which I know you’ve read, but you don’t get much braver than those girls, and they never abandon their humanity).

    In general, if we’re talking courage and kindness, I think less of “heroic in battle” and more about the courage to be kind in places/situations that make that difficult or dangerous, like in the setting of An Ember in the Ashes, where the ruling class equates kindness with weakness and betrayal of their ideals.

  2. I was thinking of Aras!

    I looked at the list of 15 and haven’t read most of them, although LITTLE WOMEN, yeah, I see it.

    Add Janny Wurts’ Arithon, in her WARS of LIGHT & SHADOW who has a magical bloodline gift of ‘compassion’ which doesn’t mean he’s always nice. It manifests a lot of the time as telling the hard truths to someone. I don’t like everything about that series, but I do appreciate that. His enemy has a similar gift of ‘justice’. And the author is almost done with it!

  3. As it happens, I just picked up a new standalone from Janny Wurts last night: To Ride Hell’s Chasm. The description hits some character types that really appeal to me:

    Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king’s beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown’s right-hand man command the kingdom’s deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose ‘interesting’ background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society.

    As the princess’s trail vanishes outside the citadel’s gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael’s investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin’s famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain’s dramatic theory:

    FINE, I said. TAKE MY MONEY.

    I already know I like Wurts, though I haven’t read the Light and Shadow series. I thought the Daughter of the Empire series went a little off the rails toward the end, but I liked it a lot. You’re now making the Light and Shadow series sound promising. I love the idea of those bloodline gifts, that’s for sure. A bit like the influence of the Immanents in WINTER OF ICE AND IRON.

  4. I have fond memories of TRHC, I hope you enjoy it. I never read her collaboration with Feist, although I did try it. I guess Feist’s influence didn’t work for me. (Didn’t like his solo stuff either.)

    I was poking around on Wurts’ website yesterday looking for anything about status of the last book in the series, and didn’t find anything, but did see her describe the WoL&S series (somewhere deep in the FAQ) as multi-dimensional and non-linear. … hops back over to find it: “I have said, many times, that I am writing a book that is DIMENSIONAL – the concepts, characters, and factions at play will both deepen and lift in layers of understanding and epiphany – and then Resolve in a way you cannot imagine.
    Other stories are linear – you start here, and end there, without that spiral that expands from one core set of concepts and keeps on developing without sprawling 0r destination. Until the finale. Which composite picture – is living, and motion – and clicks into place and the whole spinning hoop in all its layers is apparent, and unveiled.

    This is not a “journey” it is a map to a destiny.

    This series will not sprawl. Neither IS it a ‘linear’ story.”

    It’s not finished, but she’s covered more than one century of action without losing track of elements, and situations and characters do change. I look forward to the resolution whenever it’s done.

  5. Elaine, that certainly sounds like an ambitious project, and the fact that the first “arc” is complete in one volume is lowers the normal bar to entry I would feel looking at an 11-book series. Does it make a good introduction?

    The fact that the final volume is unpublished (and extrapolation would predict a release in 2023 or 2025) is a bit of a disincentive, though.

  6. Craig, … I guess so? I haven’t reread the first one in years. And now I know much more… but I think so. It’s representative, anyway.

    Her prose style is somewhat odd and more so in this set than her others. It works, but it needs a bit of getting accustomed. And, now, looking at some of what I thought were rather hokey elements for a frame in the opening, I’m wondering if they are actually huge clues to things still to happen. So, don’t be put off, if you react to early stuff as I did.

  7. Elaine, looking at the reviews, I see reactions range from “Why does she have to use all these OBSCURE ADJECTIVES?” to “Wow, what lush writing.”

    Since I’m pretty sure I can handle whatever vocabulary Wurts throws into her descriptions, these kinds of reactions all point equally to —> read this soon for me.

    I’m just going to read it like a linear narrative until proven otherwise, though, and we’ll see how it goes.

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