Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Make Me Care: Adding the Third Dimension to Protagonists

I'm going to buy Donald Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel. I'll probably buy The Fire in Fiction, too. Oddly enough, it's not because he's a well-known (read: ridiculously famous) agent/author. It's not even because I attended his entirely dipped in Awesomesauce workshop this weekend. Nope. It's because Dave owns it and has read it -- and has just bought The Fire in Fiction, himself. According to Maass, it's the second most popular reason people buy books: personal recommendations / word of mouth. (The first being, of course, buying the book of an author you already know and love.)

One of the first exercises of the workshop was to choose a hero/heroine and jot down the qualities that drew us to him/her.

I chose Tarzan.

  • self-educated & super-educated; knows a variety of languages
  • logical and rational
  • active --> chooses actions carefully but unafraid to act upon them
  • stoic: didn't cry out when hurt; fell silently from the ocean liner into the ocean
  • loyal -- even in the face of death or pain
  • chooses right over might, regardless of his own physical strength
  • understands the law of the jungle: some must die; sometimes you must kill or be killed
  • a Renaissance man of sorts: educated & rationale, self-sufficient & independent; an active participant in his own life

Okay. So all of these apply to my father as well.

I think I was supposed to choose traits like compassion, honestly, courage, standing up for what's right even when it's hard...

But enough about me. Back to writing, we find that the problem with many novels is that you can't identify with the protagonist. You don't care if they live or die or achieve their goals. The following are steps Maass outlined in the workshop. I'm counting on Dave or Patrick to flesh out anything I don't make clear.

1. Add Heroic Qualities: Show a strength within the first five pages. Without this, we just don't have a reason to care. Even the darkest, most ennui-filled, and bottom-feeding scoundrel needs these redeeming characteristics. Explore your own hero & inject those attributes.

2. Add Extra Character Dimensions: Jot down the opposite traits, then weave them into the character. Reveal weaknesses, variety, opposites, anything conflicting and contrasting. Surprise us, keep us off balance and intrigued.

3. Create Inner Conflict: You must take risks, going where it's uncomfortable. Make the conflict strong, dramatic, uncomfortable -- show your protagonist torn between his/her greatest desire and its opposite.

4. Raise the Personal Stakes: The story doesn't matter until it matters to the character. When it matters to the character, it matters to the reader. How can you make the conflict matter even more? make it even more deeply personal?

5. Raise the Public Stakes: How can the problem get worse? How can the antagonist gain strength? Get help? How can more people within the novel be impacted? How can you lessen the time factor in order to create a greater sense of urgency? Under what circumstances would your protag actually fail to solve the conflict? Take him/her there. See what happens.

How do you flesh out a character? How do you make your audience care? What are your experiences with your characters?


  1. I'd love to tell you how I pulled the portray your hero in all their weakness trick, but that would kinda ruin it for whoever has not read it and will. But, I can say that I loved thinking about Tarzan again. I've never read the book, but I watched many tv episodes as a kid.

    I think that Tarzan was almost always portrayed in all his splendor and strength, but I seem to recall a time that he was injured and could not walk on his own. If he was sick and dependent on care that would take him even farther into his opposite self. It's hard to believe or picture, but if he wanted to leave the animal kingdom that would really pull off the opposite self trick.

    One last thing:

    I read the Maass book as I was working on the first draft of my novel. It was very helpful. I'd suggest buying it. But, wait to read it until you are ready to set forth on a new novel. It will be like having a mentor there with you. It would be all too easy to read it for information. There's nothing like the first read and no better way to do the first read than when you are trying to apply the principles. That's been my experience at any rate.

  2. i read all 24 tarzan books. You're missing out. seriously. what an incredible character -- he's nothing like the tv series or the movies or the comics. And Burroughs constantly put him in situations that were completely out of his element and "opposite" from himself.

    i'm mulling all of this -- meaning maass & mcdonald -- over and over in my mind. something great will emerge, at least that's what i keep telling myself...

    i'm curious which character you chose to put thru "hell" ... ???

  3. Hey Alex, nicely put together. Really good. I'm not sure when it was, but Maass mentioned something about oblique details, which was just a cloudy way of saying to insert details no one else thinks of if you're in a familiar place. I know it's not connected to character, but it definitely helps with setting, when all I want to do is get inside a character's head. Adding a few specific, unique details might help clarify what I'm seeing.

    Again, nice job putting it all together.

  4. Tarzan books are so fill of win. Burroughs is the master of personal conflict. Tthe books were so much better than the other offerings, when I saw a movie for the first time I was like "WTF?"

  5. @Patrick: Good point. That must have been in the morning session (that I wish I had attended), but so spot on. Those tiny details instantly place me, engaging my senses and my "memory" of the setting... Definitely something I want to focus on.

    @Anthony: Burroughs totally rocks. And, like you, when I saw the movie, I was like, "Excuse me? This passes for Tarzan?" I really wish they'd make a real Tarzan movie.... Hmmm... Blake Snyder? Got anything going on right now? Want a project?


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