Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Characters that Resonate Part II

Doug reminds me of the Donald Maass workshop I attended regarding The Breakout Novel back in May. Maass advocates for killer, kick-butt protagonists that capture every human ion within our bodies. Why? Well, there's a (literal) ton of competition out there. How to do this? Well, you're in luck. I took notes!

1. Show a strength right away. As in: within the first five pages. Regardless of how dark and stormy and anti- your protagonist is, we still need to have a reason to care. Adding a heroic quality accomplishes that. (Blake Snyder would call it the "save the cat" moment in screen-writing.)

2. Show a third dimension. Reveal weaknesses, variety, the opposites of your chosen strengths. Adding this extra character dimension surprises us, keeps us off balance, and intrigues us. What happens when your protag, who vehemently detests dishonesty, finds herself lying to a trusted friend? How does she resolve her character flaw? Your exploration makes your character more human, more real, more believable. Added benefit? We keep reading.

3. Create inner conflict. Duh. But seriously: make it strong, dramatic, uncomfortable. Force your protagonist into a situation where s/he is torn between a greatest desire and its opposite. Write a scene where this individual desires or feels pulled into the direction of what s/he has always despised or hated. This could result in a lesson (yes, your character really does need to learn XYZ) or this could result in a greater sense of self-loathing or self-understanding or whatever.

4. Raise the personal stakes. Once you've created the conflict, raise the stakes even higher. Without a personal investment in the conflict -- without the story mattering to the protagonist -- the story will never matter to the reader. Ask yourself: why is this now urgent & necessary? How can the problem get worse? And, ultimately, under what circumstances would my protagonist actually fail to resolve this conflict?

5. Take your protagonist past the brink. Break her. Crush her. Then bring her back from the dead. It's all part of the hero's journey, after all. Without Campbell and Vogel, we might forget that death in some form must be encountered by our intrepid protags.

So, to parrot Doug, what do you do to ensure that your protagonists are well-rounded, dynamic, three-dimensional? How do you flesh them out believably, without (unintentionally) creating ADHD, bi-polar, and frenetic characters? What makes your audience care?


  1. Alex, as a matter of fact, Donald's comment on my latest novel was what sparked me to write that post.

    He told me that one of my characters doesn't become suspenseful soon enough. Too much buildup.

    He's right, and I'm working hard on it right now.

  2. Quite frankly, I try to incorporate all five of these steps. Beyond that I have trouble articulating what makes my characters liked by readers.

  3. Thank you! I love Don Maass and have enjoyed his workshop in the past. O'm going to read and re-read you blog post.

  4. Great post! I especially like #5. ;)

    Lynnette Labelle

  5. I think rarely #5 is done right. But...when it is is done right, the novel is memorable and powerful. Wally Lamb does this well.
    ~ Wendy

  6. Some great advice here. I love that you bring in Campbell and Vogel. Death does need to be encountered for the journey.

    To keep my characters three dimensional without making them like they belong in the asylum (although some of them do) I simply get to know them (easier said than done) and then shove them into a harrowing situation for THEM. It works beautifully. :D

  7. Oh, and to get to know them, I use all the steps you have in this post. What a great list you've put together! Thanks again. :D

  8. Authors have to be careful not to take the characters flaws too far. I remember reading a book where the MC actually raped a woman.
    I put the book down. Done. Finished. Never. Reading. That. Author. Again.

  9. @Doug: and so awesome that you got to spend time w/ Maass! wow :) good luck w/ the rewrite

    @Anthony: you're right. i can't say right off, but i think it's the combination of wit and edgy sarcasm and humanity in your writing. as for your non-fiction pieces, oh. my. goodness. you are hilarious. i actually used your piece from April (kindly do not speak to me of writing pain) in class a couple of weeks ago. You should have received a spike in readership as I introduced a whole gaggle of eager readers to your awesomeness :P (they're just learning to blog, so they may be lurkers)

    @T.Anne: much appreciated. i review the list myself -- and recently i've been contemplating this idea of presenting the protag w/ the opposite of what she thinks she desires and then allowing her to (slowly) discover she truly needs this opposite. shoot. i guess romance authors do this all the time :D

    @Lynette Labelle: #5 has always been the most difficult for me; it hurts so much to put our much loved characters through hell.

    @Lady Glamis: great insight -- the harrowing situation must be suited perfectly for *that* individual...else it's ineffective.

    @Amber: purpose and audience. audience and purpsose. you're right: unless the author knows and understands both of those, she'll lose readers. And I've read books that I've tossed because I felt that the author violated the trust initially established.

    On the other hand, one of the most empowering, impactful, and rock-my=world books i've ever read (The Fountainhead) had a scene that contains an appearance of rape. As a reader, I had to research for myself if that's what the MC did, because in my mind I understood Rand would never write a scene that didn't speak to her philosophy. I found that the author wrote (in a fan letter) that it was not an actual rape --> which changed how I perceived the scene. A closer reading of the text allowed me to see more clearly.

  10. Alex, you summed it up nicely. I appreciate that. It's so good to revisite those things and to take time to contemplate how well those kinds of steps have been done. Also, having that list is a good way to provide feedback to people. You could identify strengths and weaknesses based on how well each of those things are done.


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