Courage in Fiction

By John Gilstrap

I’ve knocked around in my corner of the entertainment business for a quarter of a century now. Over the years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of snide talk and snobbery among authors and critics that belittles books, films and TV shows for their lack of . . . shall we say importance?

Snottery knows no bounds, it seems. Self-published authors take in on the chin quite a lot, but so do romance authors and those who write cozy mysteries and horror. When speaking a few years ago to a group of students in an MFA program, the professor who introduced me warned the assembled body to have an open mind even though I was “content to write nothing more important than commercial fiction.” If you’ve attended any of my seminars since then, you might remember that I now introduce myself as a writer of commercial fiction, whose work will likely never be taught in the classroom. I consider that to be something of a badge of honor.

I write and I consume the creative works of others for one primary purpose: to entertain or be entertained. Hard stop. If the material I’m consuming also educates, informs or instructs me at the same time, that’s terrific, but it’s not a requirement.

That said, I’m not an easy audience. The classics that I’m supposed to say I love because I make my living as an author–Hemingway, Marquez, Joyce, Fitzgerald, et. al.–for the most part put me to sleep. And Michener. Good God, James Michener. I stipulate that these authors are all brilliant, and that they have changed people’s lives, but I am unable to plow through their stories from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader.

Or perhaps I prefer to read great stories well told in voices that resonate in my head. Give me a Stephen King or Stephen Hunter or Tess Gerritsen or James Scott Bell, put me in a quiet room with a wee dram of smoky scotch, and I will be transported to wherever they take me.

What they write–what we write–may not be important (remember, that’s the word we agreed on), but the works inspire. Powerfully drawn good guys bring justice to powerfully drawn bad guys. Some leave more blood on the ceiling and walls than others, some present more moral ambiguity than others, but after the last page turns, right and wrong are sharply defined.

Last week, my fellow bloggers here at TKZ wrote of old television shows and old comedians. As I read those posts and the responses, it occurred to me that the common trait shared by writers, actors and comedians is a commitment to telling stories that move their respective audiences in some way. That’s what entertainment is, isn’t it?

And it works best when it surprises us. M*A*S*H was primarily a comedy, but who among us didn’t choke up the first time we learned of Henry Blake’s final plane trip? To this day, even though I’ve seen the episode a dozen times or more, the room still gets dusty every time I watch Andy Taylor open the window and tell Opie to listen to those birds that will never see their mama again.

Which brings us to the topic of courage (or lack thereof). 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.

Fictional courage–whether on the page or on any size screen–starts with the writer, not with the characters. I tell myself that there are places I won’t go in my work, but that’s really a lie. I’ve harmed children and animals in my books, but never gratuitously. Still, I get hate mail whenever I do, and that’s fine. I figure that I moved that reader, and therefore I did my job. Sure, I moved them in a direction I didn’t intend, but at least they cared enough to write a note.

Plain vanilla stories are always safe, and they’re certainly not important. But if they’re not even inspiring, doesn’t that just make them irrelevant?

So what about you, TKZ family? What risks are you willing to take in your reading and your writing?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

31 thoughts on “Courage in Fiction

  1. Excellent!
    1) I suspect the professor was a pompous pretender. Definitely without class. Petty and insecure. Did I mention irritating?
    2) “The classics that I’m supposed to say I love …”. Made me laugh.
    3) I watched “12 o’clock high” as a kid and memories vivid and similar to yours . I’m going to track down to see with older eyes the stories that made such an impact.

    Risks taken in my writing…
    Perhaps not courageous but characters whose actions would be deemed “wrong” by society or the legal system yet are Intrinsically legitimate and “just”. The criminal justice and legal system’s determination of justice and protection often provides neither.
    When the vulnerable are victimized or loved ones are threatened and the law provides no remedy action must be taken. When dealing with darkness violent and savage response can be necessary and legitimate. Being ‘civilized‘ is fine until it’s your loved one who is victimized or endangered.
    Great post, Thanks.

    • Tom, you’ve got an excellent theme going there in your first three novels, which are all relevant, moving, and entertaining. I was honored to have served as editor for them. It takes some courage to write conflicted, flawed protagonists. Keep it up! Can’t wait to read book four!

  2. I spend a bit of time on a few FB writing groups. I follow a few successful self-published authors on their YouTube channels. I used to visit various “Book-Tubers” to hear reviews on books I thought I might like.
    A theme has emerged in the last few years in all of these outlets that I have trouble wrapping my head around. “Social” editing is a thing that many of these people insist is absolutely essential. I don’t want to go into details regarding their requirements, but suffice it to say, it all feels quite artificial to me. Awards are won these days, at least in the genres I pay attention to, more for an author’s “courage” and “risk-taking” than for ripping good yarns. These awards ceremonies feel like a stage show to me.
    I’m sticking with my basics – compelling characters, immediate and desperate problems, “insurmountable” odds. Maybe I’ll add the window dressing some day, to be more “important”, but not today.

  3. I did like Michener but had to wade through a lot of backstory to get to the main part of the book. I was younger then and there was no internet. I felt I had more time. I now enjoy human interest and mysteries. I enjoy happy endings perhaps because I’m getting nearer my ending. I enjoyed this post, John. 🙂 — Suzanne

  4. Well said. The literary community’s bias against commercial fiction is driven by a psychological need to feel superior. Commercial fiction has exceptional characters and tackles important issues too, but it delivers them inside exciting plots to keep readers engaged.

  5. Well and truly said, Brother Gilstrap (and thanks for the kind mention). Thirty years ago, Dean Koontz put it this way:

    “I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

  6. I’ve been in a cowardly frame of mind lately. As I wrote the current WIP, a stand alone, I found I just couldn’t throw my usual “bad stuff” at these characters, even though good always prevails in my novels. Even simple conflicts demanded fast and happy solutions.
    My editor returned her comments yesterday, and she said she enjoyed the book, so maybe there are those who need a lighter touch.
    Maybe my brain needed a break, as I’m back to my mystery series for the next book.
    I’ve always read to escape with characters I admired. I find what I’m reading now leans toward lighter fare.

  7. Just got my book back from the editor and one of his comments was I need higher highs and lower lows. I’m going to meditate on your post a bit and I think your words will help me get there.

    “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.”

  8. Good post, Mr. Gilstrap. I remember that baby bird scene… 🙁

    “Write scared” is always in the back of my mind these days, and for me, that translates to really, really (yeah, two adverbs in a row…) hard subjects. The kind that my parents would say to each other, “Not for little ears.”

    The most dangerous law enforcement calls, for the most part, (if you rule out current events) are domestics. Bank robberies, muggings, drug deals, and the like are not frosted with the same level of emotion as disputes and arguments amongst family members. Estranged family members, generational secrets, hidden hatreds, and wild jealousies make for good fodder.

    And here’s the thing: my family is rife with it. Now, that’s a hard thing to write about. But, I name these characters something else, write them in another setting, tweak the details, and I’m free to explore. Explore why in tarnation do families do these things to each other. Being of a peacemaker personality, maybe I can, at least on the page, right the wrong, straighten the twisted, and get these discordant relationships to at least admit the same blood flows through their veins. Oy!

    And, right or wrong, my gut tells me more than a few readers will identify with these stories.

  9. John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” I use this quote in my current WIP, and I put my characters through danger so my readers can experience the emotion without leaving home. For me, I’m not taking a risk as a writer — I’m in the process of honing the craft.

    Btw, thank you for your mention of Hemingway. I’ve tried to understand his greatness — really, I have — but I just don’t get it. There. I’ve said it. Now I’ll go back to writing my cozy mysteries.

  10. One of the books I’m currently reading is Armageddon, Max Hastings’ history of the final nine months of the Second World War in Europe, an accounting of endurance, blunders, suffering, and perseverance, but above all else, an attempt to depict what it was like to experience the armageddon at the end of WW2. I’ve always been fascinated by history, have a degree in it, but I’m also reading it to provide me with some courage right now, during these strange days of pandemic.

    I agree with you about the courage of the pilots and crew of the Eighth Air Force during it’s daylight bombing campaign against the Reich. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the 2019 documentary, The Cold Blue, which features color footage shot on missions by the director of the Memphis Belle documentary and other camera men, with narrative provided by veterans of the Eighth Air Force.

    Courage in my own writing is something I’m always working on. I don’t want to be hard on my characters, even after seven published novels, but, I remind myself, I have to let the story drive things, and that means troubles for my characters. I also think courage in writing means revealing how you see the world, and what you see as important.

    Terrific post! Thank you!

  11. I remember in my teens or early twenties trying to read Michener’s “Hawaii”. The first chapter was about the rise and fall of an island in the Pacific with a closing line to the effect “but that didn’t happen to Hawaii.” I was irritated reading an opening chapter only to learn it had nothing to do with the novel. Put it down and have never read another book by Michener. One thing which has helped is listening to the classics in unabridged audio books. Might be worth considering.

  12. Excellent post, John! While completing a master’s degree in French Literature several decades ago, I was forced to deal with too many arrogant, pompous-ass professors (including one I was married to!). Now I don’t even belong to a book club because I don’t like someone else telling me what to read. I edit thrillers and other popular fiction because that’s what I enjoy reading, what gets my pulse pounding and takes me out of my ordinary (boring, these days!) life. Give me escapism and entertainment any day. And every novel I read (or edit) introduces me to new people, places, ideas, and experiences, which widens my world and increases my empathy for and tolerance of others – icing on the cake.

  13. I admit to enjoying Michener.

    But I also like Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane, authors who write gripping “commercial” fiction while digging into substantive societal issues. Doesn’t have to be either-or. There’s room for the whole spectrum, and apparently, there’s room for snobs, too. We won’t be around in a hundred years to be disappointed that our work didn’t end up in a university seminar, so why worry?

    • My mom was an avid reader, and she devoured Michener. She was a huge fan of James Clavell, too. She loved long reads. (Actually, I liked Shogun, but couldn’t hang in for the sequels.)

      I’ve always been sad that she didn’t live long enough to see me become an author. Not from this plane, anyway.

  14. I am a reader. HOW DARE YOU want to be paid and more importantly paid enough to pay your bills by writing? Shame on you sir. 🙂

    A friend just finished his BS in Literature. I have read some of his thought poems. Don’t expect to see his name on a bookshelf anytime soon. He assures me it is meaningful. I am sure very few people share his opinion. Matt, if you happen to read this, I will happily retract it when you show me your Pulitzer.

    I will read just about everything. Right now I am working through “The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell” with a submission from Elaine Viets.

    Right now, I need to read something to take the edge off. I need the good guy to win and wear a white hat. I need some happily ever after. The stress of real life is plenty scary. Anyone want to help crunch the numbers of should I send my daughter to high school? Easily as scary as anything S. King has put on paper.

    • Scary times. I’m with ya on needing some good old fashioned good guy beats loser guy stories. The lines in the real world are so blurred.

  15. I must know–what channel is running 12 O’Clock High?? I remember sneaking out of bed as a child and watching it with my dad, who let me. I’d love to watch it again. Didn’t like it quite so much after Lansing left, but still….

  16. Well said, John! If we don’t take chances in our writing, our work risks becoming stagnant. Or worse, boring and forgettable.

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