On Writing: Is Courage a requirement?

I mean obviously it is for the writer!

Giclee Print: Wizard of Oz, 1939 : 24x18in

But I’m actually talking about Protagonists here. On an interesting Twitter poll in the last couple of days, someone asked about most important traits for an MC. Courage was the clear winner over intelligence, strength and beauty (I think those were the other options can’t find the darn link.)

The poll prompted some thoughts from myself. Not only could I not think of any Protagonists that were not courageous, at least in some way – whether it be socially, physically, emotionally or even internally, the only MCs that lacked courage were of course within stories about them gaining said courage. If This link is anything to go by, cowardice is generally speaking, a much hated character trait, and probably death on a main character.

Why is this trait so important? I mean when it comes to other aspects of people we tend to enjoy a broader range right? We like both heroes and anti-heroes, relate to klutzes, laugh along with doofuses (doofus’s? doofui?).

Yet we don’t tremble along with cowards…

I suspect there are a few elements to this trend:

First from a fictional point of view it ties in with our need for action. Whatever the faults of an MC, its commonly agreed that pro-active characters are a must, people do not like plots that consist only of things happening to a character. Granted this isn’t synonymous with courage or cowardice, however a certain degree of courage is needed for a character to take action, and cowardice stands as a potential barrier to said action.

Secondly, for a more controversial stance, I believe cowardice is in fact too relatable. I know we’re told many times to make characters sympathetic to readers, however I think cowardice, if not presented as a trait to overcome that is promised as part of the book’s progression, is just a little too cosy with our own traits. Let’s be honest, we all suffer fears, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say most of us have probably either done (or not done) something out of said fear. Now, this sort of commonality, could in theory be gold for fictional relatability, however its an uncomfortable reminder, the very definition of “commiserate.” We might like flawed heroes, but we still need them to be heroes and preferably not remind us of our flaws.

This idea does perhaps add another reason that Horror is a tough genre to write. We want scary content, but brave protagonists – so solve that one writers!

I think its a great tip that Protagonists, whatever they are doing, do so with courage, or on a journey to. Bear in mind as mentioned above courage doesn’t necessarily mean action star physical danger, it could be political, social, even just getting out of bed in the morning.

Ultimately it kind of remind me of a bit of psychological advice, its much healthier to focus on what you want, and try to obtain that, rather than what you don’t want and try to avoid. And it seems that is what we want in our characters too!


What are your thoughts on “courage”? Do you know of any MCs that are not courageous in some way, or do not fit the thesis above?



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