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?
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.