In a characteristically poignant article, meditation teacher Sally Kempton talks about the difference between courage and bravery. Her area of expertise is meditative reflection and introspection, but what she says has relevance for screenwriting. Here’s a quote:
“… courage and fearlessness are not the same – in fact if we didn’t have fears we wouldn’t need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.”
She continues to describe the difference between what she calls “raw” and “cooked” courage. The former is the kind of blind, impulsive bravery in the face of danger that is perhaps spectacular, but can leave a trail of reckless destruction in its wake. The latter is the kind of calm, deliberate encounter with a fear, which comes from strength, conviction, faith, or trust in something larger than oneself.
Now here’s the point for screenwriting: Too often, a screenplay’s main character seems to be courageous because they take spectacular risks and defeat the bad guy in the process. But the real hero is the character who goes beyond that, who acknowledges and confronts a fear with conviction and inner strength. Regardless of whether that results in victory or defeat at the hands of the bad guy.
It’s this choice for integrity which makes our insides churn as we identify with the difficult decision the character has to make. Sometimes you can’t do the right thing and survive to tell the tale. (Often you can though, especially in Hollywood …)
Of course, the ultimate film hero is one who realizes his spectacular fearlessness means nothing and who finds real ("cooked") courage in the process!
So where does your main character stand? Do they face their biggest fear and become calmly courageous, or do they see red and blast everyone to kingdom come in the process?