Skip to main content

Agent Donald Maass On: Your Tools for Character Building

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. Donald Maass is the founder of Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 14: Today's guest agent is Donald Maass of Donald Maass Literary Agency.

------------------

Find Your 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.

Image placeholder title

Donald Maass is the founder of
Donald Maass Literary Agency.

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.


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.

Image placeholder title

Excerpted from The Fire in Fiction
(2009, Writer's Digest Books).
Buy the book here.


Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 610

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a "different way of seeing the world" poem.

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

From in-person interviews to scouring the web for credible sources, journalist Alison Hill shares tips on how to research topics like a journalist.

Can I Have Your Attention?

Can I Have Your Attention?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, an announcement is about to change the course of history.

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Emmy nominated comedy writer Glenn Boozan discusses how a funny piece of perspective turned into her new humor book, There Are Moms Way Worse Than You.

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Girl from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.