26 Jan

Every Book Can Get Better: Getting to Know Your Protagonist

Posted in Conferences, Craft, Process, Writing

Putting Fire in Your Fiction, a craft session taught by Donald Maass, helped me reevaluate how I think about my characters.  This session focused on what makes fiction great and how we can apply that to our own novels.  Not surprisingly, it all comes down to building great characters, most especially your protagonist.
According to Maass, there are 3 basic types of protagonists: the Everyman, the Hero/Heroine and the Dark Protagonist.  I had heard similar categories mentioned in writing workshops so this concept was not entirely new to me.  What was new, however, was Maass’ approach for getting to know your protagonist, depending on the category.
The obvious thing would be to figure out who the character is, right?  Actually, what Maass had us do in this session was the exact opposite.  For each category of protagonist, he had us look at who the character could be, not necessarily who the character is.

1) Everyman: Instead of focusing on how “normal” or ordinary this character is, try to figure out what makes this character inspiring.
2) Hero/Heroine: Sure, this character is extraordinary… maybe even superhuman, but what makes him or her human? 
3) Dark Protagonist: This character is wounded/lost/condemned to suffer but how can he or she find hope?

We’ve all heard writing teachers tell us that our protagonist needs to change, but rarely do they ever tell us how.  Maass’ lecture taught me that character development comes down to one simple principle: whatever category your protagonist falls into, the challenge is to make the reader realize that the character could be something that’s the flip-side of who the character actually is.  In other words, the ordinary character needs to have the potential to do something extraordinary, the superhuman character must become at least a little bit human and the condemned character must discover a glimmer of hope.

But wait, it gets better.  Instead of making us think only about our characters, Maass showed us how to get to know our characters by drawing from our own experiences.  He had a whole series of questions he asked us to answer about ourselves and our experiences depending on what category our protagonist fell into.  Essentially, the question lists came down to this:

  • For the Everyman think of someone who inspires you.  Try to tease apart what it is that makes that person inspiring and they give that trait to your protagonist (even if it’s just a small slice of that trait).
  • For the Hero/Heroine make note of ways in which you are fallible and human.  Try to give some of that to your protagonist.
  • For the Dark Protagonist consider ways you can feel compassion for that character.  How can he or she find redemption?

Sometimes it’s scary when our characters turn around and do the opposite of what we want them to do.  I know when that happens to me, it seriously makes me question my sanity.  But the truth is, when our characters misbehave or surprise us, that’s when we know that they’re becoming real.

Update: for more on Donald Maass’ session Putting Fire in Your Fiction, check out this post at All About Them Words.  In her post, Ghenet shares some tips from Maass on how you can draw on your experiences to make flat scenes come to life.


Comments on this post

  1. Damyanti says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I tweeted it, and am now going to copy and keep it!

    1. Hannah Kincade says:

      I love reading this stuff but rarely do I actively apply it. For some reason, my process works better when I don't think about my characters and let it al behave naturally. Only then can I come back, after the first draft, and look to improve on my characters. I work backwards.

      1. salarsenッ says:

        You seem to write a post at the exact time I need it. Thank you!

        1. Ghenet says:

          Donald Maass's session was one of my favorites for the weekend. He gave me a new perspective on character development, which was SO helpful!

          1. Connie says:

            You're so right! When my characters misbehave, it tells me I'm on the right track. Plus, it makes me think even more deeply about them–to figure out why this "misbehavior" is part of who they are.

            1. Jenn says:

              Thanks for sharing!

              And I totally agree, when characters start surprising us, that's when we know we've really created a real being. One with free will. 😉

              1. Gabriela Pereira says:

                Hannah – I think it can work both ways. Some writers might apply this stuff when first crafting the story, while others may just let it percolate and come back to it in revision. Either method can work.

                SA Larsen – We aims to please. 🙂

                Connie and Jenn – Yeah, about that "free will" thing… 'tis true that character misbehavior is a sign I'm on the right track. Still, I always know I'm in for some trouble when my characters start developing minds of their own.

                Not gonna point fingers… *cough, cough* iggi *cough*

                1. Marie Rearden says:

                  Love this post. My characters will take off in completely different directions, and I've learned to just shut up and follow.


                  Marie at http://marierearden.blogspot.com

                  1. L.A. Colvin says:

                    Perfect timing. My protag will benefit from this one. Great Post

                    1. Kari Marie says:

                      Thanks for this! I will have to re-examine my protag.

                      1. JoLynne Lyon says:

                        Thanks for sharing–I didn't get to go to the writer's conference I wanted, so this is a great advice fix.

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