Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Donald Maass on Developing the Hero/Heroine in our novels

Like you, I’m paying attention to the ongoing publishing crisis. What is the wave of the future for our beloved books? I don’t know. Wish I did, but I don’t. And I care, but will it change my love for literature? No. Will it change my desire to write a great story? No. So the only thing I know to do is learn to do it better. Though I’d love to have a book on the NYT Bestseller list, being a better storyteller is my immediate personal goal. (And do those bestseller lists look stale, same-old, these days, or is that just me? I lean toward the editors’ picks. How ‘bout you?)

In any case, I’m rereading the tips Donald Maass presented to the Sisters in Crime “Sinc into Great Writing” workshop on October 14, the day before Bouchercon. His workshop was about how to tell a more compelling story and write a better novel. Maass has a new book, The Fire in Fiction, where you can find some of this information.

Maass began by telling us that great novels need a compelling hero or heroine, a person who takes risks for the benefit of others, and to do so, flies in the face of social convention. He asked members of the audience to think of their own personal hero/heroine. Then he asked when we first heard of this person. What was the day, month, or year? Were we alone or with others? What was particularly inspiring about this person? And having witnessed or heard about this individual, how was our behavior affected? Did we say or do anything differently? Maass wanted us to nail down the emotion we felt, what was inspirational and why.

Maass then asked us another question. What were these characteristics and how could we demonstrate them in our protagonist them in the first five pages of our novel? Make a list of the qualities. This character has to make the journey through the novel worthwhile. And Maass repeated, do all this in the first five pages.

If the protagonist is a professional with principles (as opposed to the troubled past kind of character), then he or she may already be a hero in the eyes of society. A perfect person isn’t interesting—or realistic. The author’s challenge is to make the person human, quirky, with frustrations and perhaps the ability to laugh at himself. The reader needs to identify with the character, and this, too, must happen in the first five pages.

What is your protagonist’s defining quality? Is she a brilliant strategist, or a persistent plodder? Is he a strong, decisive athlete, or a shy, insecure listener? Whatever you’ve picked, write a scene where your character behaves in the exact opposite of what you’d expect. Showing variety, more sides of the character’s personality will draw readers in.

Maass told us to consider the entire span of our story for a week or two. Figure out what the protagonist most desires in the course of the book. Then—have him run away from it. Put her in a situation where she reacts in a way that is antithetical to her goal. And do it three times in the course of the book! Each time, make the triggering event stronger, make the situation more challenging and frustrating.

This is a point where the character needs to consider walking away, forgetting his/her entire mission. She needs to burn her bridges. Have him decide that the mission isn’t worth it anymore and quit in a way that he can’t go back. Destroy the dream, sabotage what your character most wants. Twist the knife!

There should be four of these strong, punctuating moments in the novel. You need to push your character to act outrageously. Push her out of her box, off her pedestal. Three can be moments of resistance, but in one she needs to flat-out quit.

Even reading over my notes, I feel that familiar little voice in my head, how the hell am I going to do this? Maybe it won’t work for this character. I don’t like those crawl-in-the-bottle types, anyway; I’m tired of angst-ridden, selfish protagonists.

But wait. I remember Maass saying, “If you feel yourself resisting, then that’s the section you need to address.”

Being a better story-teller isn’t going to be easy.

8 comments:

Sandra Gulland said...

Wonderful post, and timely for me. I love D. Maass.

Sandra Gulland


*****

Website: http://www.sandragulland.com/
Blog: http://sandragulland.blogspot.com/

Rick Blechta said...

Very thought-provoking. Thanks!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Another tweetable post! So I'll tweet it...

Thanks,

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Clara Gillow Clark said...

Just the writing advice I needed right now! Okay, going to go and twist that knife now! It's so hard to hurt the characters we love.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Hi gang, I'm glad it helped. I'm still struggling with how to twist that knife. Say, how does one tweet? I'm obviously a technodolt...
So, back to the knife.

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