Donald Maass’ gave a killer presentation at the Writer’s Digest Conference. As useful as the Empire State Building in navigating New York. 🙂 Definitely improved my craft toolbox.
He talked about how as a reader, we give up on writers who stop writing great fiction. But he believes everyone can write and keep writing books where readers fall in love with the main character from page one and stay around for the next 300 or so pages.
But how do writers make readers care about their main character?
You start with three kinds of protagonists:
- Everyman–ordinary guy/girl but extraordinary stuff happens to him
- He suggested taking a person you consider to be a hero and figuring out what they said or did to become a hero to you
- Focus on the details of that moment (location, time of year, your state of mind, your reaction, etc.)
- Think about what makes that moment come alive for you
- Now find a way to give that quality to your protagonist
- Think of a way for the reader to experience this quality in the first five pages of your manuscript
- Hero/Heroine–may have high-risk job or something special that sets that apart from the rest (the everymen)
- Think about one way that you as a person are human/fallible
- Give that human quality to your protagonist
- Figure out how to have him experience it within first five pages
- Dark protagonist–wounded, down and out, self-hating, the anti-hero
- Think of one thing this character wants to be able to do. It can be something common/ordinary that they cannot do
- Consider how your character would like to be more human
- How can the reader experience the dark protagonist longing for change?
- What represents who they want to be?
- Have it come though in the first five pages
Readers need to see something that shows strength of character in everyman, humanity/fallibility of hero, and possibility of redemption in dark protagonist. This will make the reader connect with the main character.
Key Point: In the first five pages, the reader needs a reason to care about the character for them to continue reading onward
What about the antagonist?
The antagonist is the secret enemy of the protagonist.
- Find five ways for the protagonist and antagonist to be together face-to-face
- Think about the antagonist’s opinion of protagonist–how does he see the protagonist?
- What does he despise and admire about the protagonist?
- How does the antagonist believe the protagonist can help him?
- Figure out 2-3 ways that your antagonist is likeable. This will create nuances of character
- Now show this in the manuscript
- Consider why your antagonist is justified or right in his actions
Key Point: Create a sympathetic antagonist. Have him live by some set of principle/have something altruistic or selfless about him to make him more real to the reader
This will infuse your story with passion and fire.
How to tackle a flat scene in your book
- Figure out what the POV character wants in the scene. What does he feel most strongly in that moment?
- Once you identify the emotion, think about a time in your life you felt that way
- Delve into the details of the period in your life, time of year, people around you, etc.
- What provoked that feeling in you?
- What made the feeling more acute to you?
- What would you change about that moment?
- Now give all that emotion to your POV character in that flat scene
Key Point: Draw on your life experiences to enrich your character and give them depth
If you have a story where most of the conflict is internal to the POV character, create a person who represents part of the POV character’s inner conflict. Now you can dramatize outwardly.
A huge thank you to Mr. Maass for sharing his insight and conducting his session as more of a writing workshop where we actually worked on our manuscripts.