Agent Don Maass Explains Your Tools for Character Building

Finding a Protagonist’s Strength

      Step 1: Is your protagonist an ordinary person?  Find in him any kind of strength.

   Step 2: Work out a way for that strength to be demonstrated within your protagonist’s first five pages.

Step 3: Revise your character’s introduction to your readers.

Without a quality of strength on display, your readers will not bond with your protagonist.  Why should they?  No one wants to spend four minutes, let alone four hundred pages, with a miserable excuse for a human being or even a plain old average Joe.  So, what is strength?  It can be as simple as caring about someone, self-awareness, a longing for change, or hope.  Any small positive quality will signal to your readers that your ordinary protagonist is worth their time.

Literary Agent Don Maass

Finding a Hero’s Flaws

      Step 1: Is your protagonist a hero – that is, someone who is already strong? Finding in him something conflicted, fallible, humbling or human.

Step 2: Work out a way for that flaw to be demonstrated within your protagonist’s first five pages.

Step 3: Revise your character’s introduction to your readers.  Be sure to soften the flaw with self-awareness or self-depreicating humor.

Heroes who are nothing but good, noble, unswerving, honest, courageous, and kind to their mothers will make your readers want to gag.  To make heroes real enough to be likable, it’s necessary to make them a little bit flawed. What is a flaw that will not also prove fatal?  A personal problem, a bad habit, a hot button, a blind spot, or anything that makes your hero a real human being will work.  However, this flaw cannot be overwhelming.  That is the reason for adding wise self-awareness or a rueful sense of humor.

The Impact of Greatness

Step 1: Does your story have a character who is supposed to be great? Choose a character (your protagonist or another) who is, has been, or will be affected by that great character.

Step 2: Note the impact on your point-of-view character.  In what ways is she changed by the great character?  How specifically is her self-regard for actual life different?  Is destiny involved?  Detail the effect.

Step 3: Write out that impact in a paragraph.  It can be backward looking (a flashback frame) or a present moment of exposition.

 Step 4: Add that paragraph to your manuscript.

Greatness is not always about esteem.  Those affected by great people may be ambivalent.  Whatever the case in your story, see if you can shade the effect of your great character to make it specific and captured nuances. The effect of one character upon another is as particular as the characters themselves.


Excerpted from The Fire in Fiction
(2009, Writer’s Digest Books).  You can
find the book in the F+W Bookstore here
Donald Maass runs his own agency
in New York City.

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4 thoughts on “Agent Don Maass Explains Your Tools for Character Building

  1. Pat

    Thank you for the kick in the head as I start the first revision on my novel. Of course! Of course! Of course!

    Sometimes it’s very difficult to see the trees when I’m looking so intently at the forest.


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