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Musings on Adventure from an Anxious Protagonist

By Tineke Bryson, staff writer

When this article goes live, I will be in Scotland. It’s just a matter of chronology, but with this thought, my lungs expand with nervous excitement.

Every part of life is an adventure, rightly considered, but this bit feels like one. I write this from a mattress on the floor in a house of echoes. My husband and I are moving to Edinburgh for twelve months. Most of our belongings are now in storage, and we have just a few more days here, living like squatters in our own house. I’m going I’m going I’m going beats my heart. I feel frighteningly happy.

What I don’t feel is brave. My mind can’t help but run ahead to scope out possible predicaments this decision could get us in. And yet, if I could look down from an author point of view on my story, I would say I were brave, undertaking this big change!

I find myself reexamining my opinions about courage in stories, and about the relationship between a story hero and her writer. Both the choice of a reluctant hero and a willing hero can tell us something about the author, but I have, perhaps, been too cynical about that.

I’m not hero material. I’m hyper-vigilant, often anxious. I’m also wary of causes. By which I mean that people inflamed with zeal about a cause stress me out. I raise my eyebrows at Dumbledores and Gandalfs with their passionate speeches about fighting evil.

I’m not sure I would have responded when Jyn and Cassian decide to go after the plans to the Death Star. I don’t think I would have been in the Rebellion in the first place. If I am a hero at all, I’m a timid variation on the reluctant hero archetype.

Fiction boasts many timid heroes. Sometimes they are not so much unwilling as weak. Bilbo is timid to the point of being ridiculous. J. K. Rowling’s Neville Longbottom is anxious, too, and treated as a bit of a joke even by his friends.

I like the Frodos, Jill Poles, Aangs, and Bodhi Rooks of literature and film, but I remain skeptical. I often just don’t believe the hero could do it. Not if the author didn’t contrive them into it. In real life, would someone like Bilbo really do what Tolkien made him do?

Are all of us writers cowards who keep writing about people like us who somehow come over brave? Or maybe the rest of you writers are just much more adventurous than I am.

Successful reluctant heroes seem like a pipe dream. And the raring-to-go, powerful heroes come across hollow. I think, “Well, this is sure some wish-fulfillment!” I suspect some authors of trying to live braver lives through their characters than they are able to live themselves. In such moments, I wonder if I should trust the storyteller. I ask myself, “How does this inciting incident motivate the character if it would not be enough to propel the author into action? Is it because the character has qualities the writer lacks? Or is the incident perhaps too contrived?”

I don’t quite buy the hero’s actions. Most of us are cowed by pressure, not inspired to action.

As you can tell, I don’t give characters—or their authors—much credit. That’s probably because I don’t give myself much credit. I don’t consider myself capable of bravery. No matter how significant Something to Want or Something to Dread could be, I don’t think it would be enough to propel me into action.

I was sorted into Gryffindor House precisely because I’m not brave but I want to be so dreadfully.

Yet, here I am, taking a big risk and moving to Scotland. Something I never believed I would actually do.

In real life, do people like Tineke move to Scotland?

Apparently, they do!

Discovering myself capable of courageous decisions means I have to reevaluate. Daniel Schwabauer’s 5 Elements of Story have always made sense to me, intellectually, but I confess that I did not take Something to Want—or Something to Dread—as seriously as I should have. The power of desire is astonishing. It’s sending me to Scotland!

I just could not face the ‘What If?’ question anymore. I had to find out. Was I right that I would thrive in the UK? Something to Dread also played its part. The thought of staying in Kansas filled me with nausea and defeat.

A pastoral counselor I once knew said, in so many words, that people do not change until staying as they are becomes more painful than undergoing the change. That is what happened for my husband and me. We could no longer bear the pain of living a second-choice (really, perhaps fifth-choice!) life. We chose to take scary risks, not knowing if they would work out. At the end of our year in Scotland, will we feel it was worth the expense, effort, and heartbreak of leaving Scotland behind? I think we will.

I definitely underestimated the power of Something to Want and Something to Dread. But, you could argue, perhaps the creators of these heroes just didn’t do a good enough job conveying the hero’s desire.

There’s something to that. You may have had the experience of reading a story with trivial goals, yet been completely wrapped up in the plot. That’s an author with some skill at translating character desire to the reader! I’ve rooted for many Hunks and Barbs to get together, if only because of the secondhand stress of reading their romance!

But I would still maintain that I underestimated the power of motivation. I am not prepared to say that Rowling did a poor job translating Neville’s desire to me, the reader. Neville Longbottom’s arc is credible to me now.

I love Harry, and I agonize along with him as he fights forward through terrifying odds. Every time I read or listen to the culmination of book 7, tears come to my eyes, I am so moved. But as much as I identify with Harry, I can’t say I have any inkling of what it’s like to be hunted down, to have a destiny pursuing you. But I do know something of what it’s like to wonder if I will ever make my loved ones proud. Neville, bumbling Neville, is haunted by fear that he will never live a meaningful life like his parents did—that he will always be a disappointment to his gran. He longs to do something he can be proud of, but he doesn’t believe he can.

Harry would give almost anything for a normal life. Neville can only dream of being extraordinary—or even adequate!—until the pain of remaining as he is becomes too much to bear, and he begins to change.

Longing is a tiny stream that can quickly turn into a current strong enough to move boulders.

To my further encouragement, now that I’ve been big enough to admit that timid heroes are of some use, I also have to admit that Bilbos and Nevilles are first-class heroes. They are very brave. Bilbo has more courage—needs more courage—than Thorin. Neville is more courageous than Harry, awful and strange as it may sound to say this aloud.

Which means we timid people may be worth more than we think, in this Story.

Instead of sneering at authors at safe remove, attributing them with mere wish-fulfillment, I could ask, “How could this story represent the author’s own search for courage?”

We writers need to find our Something to Want, too. And not just for the sake of our books.

Have you ever surprised yourself with your own courage?

About Tineke

Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.

She and her husband presently live in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is The One Year Adventure Novel‘s resident creative nonfiction enthusiast. An especially avid reader of landscape writing, Tineke also loves British and African history, reading middle-grade fiction, and collecting moths.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. This is a great article. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

    … But I have a teeny, tiny note. Jyn and Cassian join the Rebellion, not the Resistance. (Sorry, I’m just really nit-picky!)

    1. I don’t think an editor can complain about being corrected, no matter how “nit-picky” the correction is! Thanks! 🙂 I’ll fix that. I did not grow up on Star Wars in the way that most writing nerds have, so I am glad for the hint!

  2. This is beautiful!
    I believe that each character we bring into our story, shows a side of us or a side that we want to have in us. We all want to be brave and smart and everything! We want to be a hero! But even if we doubt that we are a hero, we really are. We each are special and do things that make us a hero to one person or hundreds.

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed reading these reflections. You make a good point about heroism being on different scales.

  3. I know how you feel with characters in books. In my mind, I would’ve been the one who killed the White Witch, started the Rebellion, and would’ve been on the front lines in the battle against Smaug. But I’m not entirely sure that’s what would’ve happened, had I actually been there. Just some thoughts.

    Note: The name I gave you is the name of one of my characters in a book I’m working on.

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