Courage and Fear in Fiction

For Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a heart-shaped Madagascar carnelian. I was pleased when I read that carnelian is associated with courage, motivation, love, and creativity. Having a stone from Madagascar also made me happy because my daughter and her family live there. Because I had already chosen courage and fear in fiction as my topic for this month’s blog, I have enjoyed having the stone sit next to my computer as I write.

Even though courage is often contrasted with cowardice, the basis of cowardice is fear, thus, in this blog, I place courage and fear in opposition.

What Is Courage?

In French, the word for heart is coeur from the Latin, cor, which is also the base of the word courage in French and in English. Courage comes from having a brave heart in the face of danger. A synonym derived from the English word heart is lionheartedness, which is used rarely today, but well-known in the appellation “Richard the Lionheart.”

How does having a brave heart manifest in more contemporary terms, particularly in fiction? Is a purely courageous protagonist attractive to readers? Is the story more interesting if the protagonist starts off timid and gains courage throughout the novel? Or is it more riveting to create a courageous character who loses heart at some point and has to recalibrate?

How Do Novelists Depict Courage?

Some readers prefer a courageous protagonist who achieves against all odds, be it a hero or anti-hero. But what exactly is courage and how can a writer portray a courageous character? As I have pondered this question, I have observed that fiction writers tend to focus on three kinds of courage.

A courageous character might be described as brave and able to survive in the face of incomprehensible danger. In Margaret Atwood’s, The Testaments, Aunt Lydia could be termed courageous. She survives for years when many others do not and succeeds in taking down an evil regime. Atwood describes Aunt Lydia’s courage as “The plotline of my resolve,” which leads me to think that one aspect of courage is choice.

Courage in stories is sometimes portrayed as heroic or valiant. A heroic or valiant character is more typical of historical novels, war novels, or romantic dramas. In Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, Victor Dalmau (a doctor) is heroic in battles and in the prisoners’ camp where he treats the ill and injured. He is valiant when he marries the unwed mother of his dead brother’s son to create a family unit which allows them to escape from Europe on a ship sailing to Chile.

In the same novel, courage surfaces as determination, guts, and grit when Victor’s heretofore unknown daughter shows up on his doorstep at night and announces that she has spent her life looking for him. He and his adopted son (her cousin) embrace her.

What is Fear?

Fear on the other hand is not a choice, it is a reaction to harm, possible danger, or a sudden attack. In my personal analysis of fear in novels, I have observed that it emerges based on a character’s experiences in the past, present, or future. Phobias, that is, irrational fears that result from social anxieties (such as public speaking or flying) or fears of things (such as snakes or spiders), are grounded in personal experiences in one’s past or adopted from vicarious experiences one has. Apprehension, dread, and anxiety are often due to an over-active imagination that visualizes possible frightening outcomes in the future. Alarm, panic, being frightened, or being scared tend to be the result of sudden physical and emotional reactions to an unexpected incident in the moment. The startling occurrence triggers shock or surprise which may result in a freeze or flight reaction.

How Do Novelists Depict Fear?

Toni Morrison eloquently encouraged writers to, “Make up a story…Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” Three recent novels do exactly what Morrison suggested.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, the author depicts a historically based social anxiety. The main character was dramatically harmed as a child. The episode has been so deeply suppressed in her emotional memory that it governs her life without her having a clue as to what is really going on. The “stitch” that saves her is a loving relationship with a young man who believes in her.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, an entire country is controlled by the fear of what might happen if anyone attempts to subvert a cruel regime. In the end, two young heroines, with the aid of an older planful mentor, have the courage to envision freedom and the ability to take down the regime.

In Kunzru’s Red Pill the unnamed narrator experiences a psychological descent based on shock and panic that lead him from a fairly sane existence into one overcome with fear’s dark caul. A loving family relationship saves him in the end.

Fear in My Novels

How do I handle courage in my novels? In one, the protagonist must overcome a deep-seated childhood fear to accomplish a difficult task. In another, the protagonist must find the courage to live after her worst fear is realized. Finally, in the third, a shocking development leads the protagonist to reconsider what really happened.

My Writing Goals for 2021

Revise and complete a final edit of my first novel, sending it out for review by December 7, 2021:

During the month of February, I worked on research. The more I write, the more I have to learn.

Complete a revised draft of my second novel by December 7, 2021:

This past month, I worked on research.

Add to the draft of my third novel by participating in the RMFW NovelRama in the spring, summer, and fall:

The first 2021 RMFW NovelRama session has not yet been announced.

Send Moon Chimes: Poems to a poetry contest and publish the Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences:

I sent Moon Chimes off to a poetry contest this month. I also, for the first time, attended the Crestone Poetry Festival which was on Zoom this year. Art Goodtimes, the 2010 Western Slope Poet Laureate, facilitated a Gourd Circle. Art explained that the gourd is a symbol of male and female collaboration. Most of the attendees read a personal poem or one by another poet. I was truly swept away by the participants’ passion and mutual support.

I did not work on my Moon Chimes Workbook: Arts & Sciences this month.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

My personal writing contacts continue to expand despite the COVID-19 lockdown—for Zoom, I am grateful.

BWA: I attended two Zoom workshops that Rick Killian led—one on writing a book proposal and the other on being a solopreneur. I also did some work for the organization.

Writers Who Read: In Gary Alan McBride’s Zoom group, we analyzed Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Structurally, it is an original novel. As to voice and point of view, it is exceptional. Because the group plans to discuss The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, I also attended a Boulder Bookstore Zoom talk with Ferrante’s English translator, Ann Goldstein, and Michael Reynolds, her publisher, who is the chief editor at Europa Editions.

Denver Women’s Press Club: I attended a Zoom workshop with Anne Randolph on “Kitchen Table Writing” and a talk on Colorado Women in World War II. Additionally, our membership committee held a Zoom meeting for new members. It was delightful to learn about each writer’s path.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers: I have been in conversation with the RMFW Newsletter editor about starting a BWA Newsletter.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2021:

Today is March 7, 2021, I am posting my third blog of 2021. As a fun aside, one of my calming pastimes is to study the Irish language. Today, I was pleased to read that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has a new Bernese Mountain Dog puppy that he named, Mishneach (pronounced “meeshnaak”) which means “courage.” With cruel variants of the virus beginning to circulate worldwide, it is good to consider courage in the face of fear. Mask up and stay well!

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