John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story details how to write a story about a hero with a moral flaw. He teaches storytelling with moral argument, moral needs and moral vision.
In one of my favorite films, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney’s character Rocky is a tough gangster admired by all the street kids in his neighborhood.
When Rocky is sentenced to death the priest, Father Connolly, Rocky’s childhood friend, wants him to feign fear as he goes to the electric chair.
Connolly believes this will act as a deterrent to the street kids who admire him and want to be like him. They will see that gangsters aren’t cool, but cowards.
Rocky immediately refuses, but is faced with a moral dilemma: does he maintain his tough guy image and die a hero to the kids who idolize him? Or sacrifice his hero status to save them from a life of crime and perhaps the same fate?
Watch this powerful scene to see what happens:
In a stroke of genius by the filmmakers we the audience are not let into the secret if Rocky’s screams of fear are feigned or not. Perhaps they are real.
I choose to believe Rocky had a moral revelation and acted upon it, feigning fear and appearing ‘yellow’ as he went to the chair.
What moral dilemma is your hero facing?