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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Standout Characters (SIWC 2012 Notes)

"Charlie Wants to be Bucky Katt" © 2008 Laura Sheana Taylor. Charlie loves standing on his hind legs and staring out the window. He's, umm, special. Let's just leave it at that.

I still have some ConCarolinas 2012 notes, but I thought I'd mix it up a bit. Enjoy another slice of SIWC 2012 by one of my favourite teachers, Donald Maass!

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Standout Characters
Donald Maass

How to create memorable characters, how to make them real, flawed, witty, stuck in our mind

What is it that makes characters pop off the page, characters that we immediately care about and want to stay with for the long stretch of the novel? What is it that makes characters we can’t forget?

Three Types of Main Character

There is something amiss with almost every protagonist in almost every manuscript they sample: the main character is one of three types of characters.

1st type: An Everyman/woman, someone like you or me even if it’s set in another place – someone whose life is ordinary (even if it’s another world).

- Write down your favourite thing about this person. What do you like the most about this character? When are they at their most awesome? What is their most awesomeness? What moves you the most?

- (So many are victims, standing still, and in the first paragraph are whiners.)

- This quality – take the next few minutes to experience this quality.

2nd type : the hero who is strong, whose job takes them in the way of danger (rcmp/cop, detective, firefighter, knight) – characters who have responsibility, who have a gun

-  Find one way in which your hero is regular, human, in some way.

- How can we see that quality on page one, to see that they’re in need right away?

3rd type: Dark protagonist – antiheroes, monsters, self-loathing, unhappy

- Write one way in which this character wants to change – be less tormented, more human. What does that look like? What would be symbolic for this character? How can we feel and see that yearning, hope, longing for something right away on the first page?

If this doesn’t work for your opening, then possibly it’s that your opening doesn’t work.

Making the Reader Care

Everyman/woman protagonists seem to be the right thing for women’s fiction and literary fiction. Characters whose lives and preoccupations we recognize, and that’s fine. They may be vividly or realistically drawn. But just because they feel real doesn’t mean we care. Recognizing a character and caring about them are different.

What causes us to care about them immediately?

- Friends, family, people known for a long time, been through a lot with them, know their lives and struggles, know why you’re proud of them, you love them. You’ve opened your heart to that person.
- Readers don’t have the luxury of years to come to love a character. We have mere seconds.

Think about last time you were in a bookstore. Something catches your eye. You pick it up and read the first page and put it back. Seconds. This is why first lines are so important, engaging your reader right away matters. Just because people are in the same situation as you doesn’t mean you care.

What makes people care is what makes them different – brave, funny, the things they are at their best. That’s what we need to experience (what is strong or good or principled) right away on page 1.

Same thing with heroes and heroines – Give us something we can cheer for. Yes, they do amazing things, but they leave the reader ice cold, not caring. No human connection – they’re not real. Too perfect. Need a way to say to self, “Hey, this guy may be doing incredible things, but is a real person. They have a heart. It’s okay.”

Dark protagonists are flavor of the century these days. Sexy, haunted, tormented, alluring, look great in leather …. but what’s wrong with that?  Because they’re tormented. Depressed. Miserable. They hate themselves. They’re suffering. Who wants to be around that?

We back away from suffering – and that’s true in fiction too.

BUT we don’t back away from hope. We are drawn to hope, the longing for change, the need to be human, happy, end suffering. This is the things we need to feel about these characters.

What engages your heart, draws you to that main character? It’s something that we *feel* about that character.

Maintaining Reader Interest

How to maintain interest? The character has to *remain* fascinating.

Write a foundational attribute of your main character. What kind of person are they? Analytical? Faithful? Curious? Determined?

What habit or tic do they have that suggests they’re the opposite. Decisive? What makes them indecisive?

Find 3 places in the manuscript where you can show that oddity or tic.

Alternate: What’s one thing your character can do that no one else can? (For #1 types, it can be something they’re expert in)

Write one time in which this special ability will be a benefit.

Write one time in which this will hurt your protagonist.

Anybody ordinary can have an extraordinary ability. Or maybe something just a little eerie, an intuition.

Or, try giving your protagonist a handicap. So many exotic conditions and diseases these days that make them special in some way. Even just dying of something. What’s the best thing about it? Write down 1 way in which it’s working for protagonist (but also 3 times in which it gets in the way). Particularly one time in which it’s failed or nearly so.

Or, try this: What’s something hard to explain about your protagonist? Something he or she can’t explain about himself? What’s a mystery about your protagonist? Find one way to deepen that mystery. Find one way to bury that mystery deeper. Find one way in which someone is affected by this mystery, then make it hard to find out. THEN take the explanation of what it is in chapter 2 and plant the explanation somewhere in the last quarter of the story.

What does your main character know about themselves that is absolutely true, something they can say with confidence?

What is something even more true about them that he or she doesn’t know yet?

When in the story and through whom are you going to clobber your protagonist with an inside realization/recognition about him or herself? When would be a good time to do that, and when would be a good time to deliver a truth your protagonist can’t see?

What is one thing your protagonist knows about people, an insight that your protagonist has into people that no one else does, because of who he or she is? Find three times, places, or people, where your protagonist can have that observation about human nature in that is unique – then add a character on whom your protagonist can’t get a read.

Who does your main character or protagonist love the best? Write down one flaw, something that other character does wrong, something your protagonist can see through. Create something about this character that is negative that your character can see through, can say, “I know why he or she did that, know them enough to see past that.”

Or, take the same character your protagonist loves and where that character is going to be in ten years. Now give it to your protagonist to understand, see, foretell.

Pick some small thing that happens in the novel. Trivial. Something that occurs, is done, is said – a little piece of hurt. This small thing that happens is an illustration of something much bigger in the world, something about the way people treat people in something small. Then give your protagonist a little space for exposition in which s/he can feel some anger, indignation, sense of injustice, however small. Small injustices are all over the place. Little insults. Ways to get indignant.

Or: something happens in your story that is mean, tragic, happens to your protagonist that is adverse in some way. Now find a way to show us that your protagonist rises above, shows some dignity, some grace, strength, tolerance, wisdom, at a moment of testing, of insult or pain or injury or tragedy.

Or: In the course of the story, what’s the most selfless thing your protagonist does? Greatest self-sacrifice – confession, forgiveness, sacrifices himself or herself. A mission? A confession? An assist? Insight, realization, change?

Now: pick another character in the story and find in which way they’ve been affected by, changed by, what your protagonist has done.

What is it that keeps us engaged with characters through the long haul of the novel? What makes them continuously fascinating?

Quirks are intriguing. Characters who are special – gifted, handicapped, whose experience in life is unlike ours in one way, who must deal with, grapple with, suffer/reap the benefits of being different in some way?

- People with powers or paranormal abilities

- Characters who are self-aware, who see more and understand more than us are intriguing

- Things that make readers more fully engaged than we are

Days when we are alive, awake, alert, engaged and our brains are on fire and we’re seing, feeling, getting, understanding, in command of our world – those are the days we want to be alive, the days we want to be with our characters – that’s why we’re working on insights and opinions – things that make them engaging, interesting, real (even without being paranormal or superpowered) – your protagonist can always be having a great day in a way, a day when things are vivid and real and important.

(That can be you at the keyboard every writing day, by the way)

This makes your characters interesting and attractive all the way through the story, and for you, every writing day.

Goal: Make your main character surprise you in one way every day. Dazzle you, sparkle, in some way every day. See something, feel something, say something – strong, different, alive, amazing. Every writing day. What would happen to your main character? Well, people will remember your character’s name.

Strengthen Your Antagonist

Secondary characters, particularly antagonists, are often weak.

Who is the antagonist in your story?

The villain needs page time to develop him/herself.

Romance fiction: the hero and heroine want to be together, but something is keeping them apart. Drawn together but blasted apart. The antagonist is the other main character – the hero is in the heroine’s way and vice-verse. Romance is a push-pull.

The antagonist is whoever gets in the way the most.

Write one thing the antagonist most believes. Their core truth. What they know that is true, that is right, that other people should know? In what way are they actually right? What have they got right? What do they believe that is actually true? What do they think that is wrong in the world that is truly wrong? Unjust that is truly unjust? And what moment does the main character realize, understand, and accept that the antagonist is right? Get it, see the point? Humble themself enough to say the antagonist is right? What is the moment that the protagonist knows that the antagonist is right about them? Has the truth about them?

Those who love us the most know us the best, but the people who know us even better than that are the people who hate us.

What does your antagonist most want to bring about? What’s their goal, ideal outcome, perfect world? How is one way this something everybody wants? Search and find in the manuscript where your antagonist states that and replace it with the words you just used.

What’s the worst thing your antagonist does in the manuscript? Write it down, then when you’ve written it down, write down next how it is that this is something your antagonist has sworn never to do, hates it, thinks it’s wrong. Then write why it is when they do this thing they abhor that they must do it, reluctantly, against their wills and principles – it must be done. Why? For what good purpose must it be done? Why does your protagonist realize he or she is glad that it was done?

One more thing you can do: Make a note of three times, three more things your antagonist can do in your story to get what he or she wants, to achieve his or her goal/dream, to bring about a better world.

Secondary characters

- Pick a secondary character (doesn’t matter who) – write down their name

- This character is alive, on your protagonist’s side, except for one significant way: write down one way to use what you’ve just written down somewhere in the course of the story.

- What is the moment when your character best understands, most understands them, finds your character important?

- Can you swing them from love to hate, manipulate them so that they are outraged by something your protagonist does?

- What have they been through together, done together? What is it about this other character that your protagonist can count on? What’s the article of trust between them? “I know you will never___.” “I know you will always be there.”

- Find the moment when the trust is betrayed and breaks down – when that character betrays or the protagonist, or vice verse

- What does this other character see about your protagonist that your protagonist denies, doesn’t accept, doesn’t want to hear? Is there a moment when the secondary character can call them out on their shit and see the truth?

- What is the greatest sacrifice this character can make for your protagonist? (do, see, say)

- When is this character there for your protagonist with something that he or she doesn’t even know he or she desperately needs?

- There can be cardboard, undeveloped, secondary characters. Whose shared history, dynamic, give and take just isn’t deep enough.

- Now, pick another character, and start working on them. There’s a lot of characters who can do more. Underutilized characters are an issue in a lot of manuscripts.

More info on how to make your characters stand out can be found in Donald Maass' new book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Check it out!


  1. Great post! I need to define my antagonist more, though it might not be a separate character. There is no "gotta beat the bad guy" sort of thing in my current WIP. Maybe there should be... Hmmmmmm

    1. Thanks! It's definitely got me thinking, too.

  2. These are your NOTES? Holy cow. I'd hire you to attend all my classes for me. Great job and thank you so much for sharing. I think Donald Maass' insights are spot on.

    1. Thanks! I just tend to record what I hear, and he has a great way of speaking slowly and clearly. Some of my other notes aren't quite as detailed. But I try!