In a previous post I recommended the book Writing the Breakout Novel by agent Donald Maass. Late last week I was putting together an outline for a new novella and referred back to that book and the notes I made in its margins for a refresher course on some of Maass’s very solid advice. Look for a post soon on how I used the book to “edit” my outline, but this week let’s take a closer look at one of his assertions, and one that I worked to apply to that outline.

In the chapter on Characters, Maass discusses what he refers to as “The Highest Character Qualities”:

“I would like to suggest that there are two character qualities that leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

Though I don’t think he intends this to mean that your protagonist always has to exhibit one or both of these qualities, what he’s hit upon is a simple idea that far too many of us overlook: What is it about this character that we can admire?

Though there have been a wealth of effective “anti-heroes” in fiction for centuries, even they have some redeeming quality that makes us stick with them, even as they’re roughing up the bad guys, treating the people around them a bit shabbily, etc.

I’ll refer you back to Writing the Breakout Novel for more on forgiveness (Kirk making peace with the Klingons in Star Trek VI—okay, maybe not the best example, but . . .) and self-sacrifice (even if that doesn’t mean heroic suicide, like Ripley going back for the cat in Alien) but this got me thinking . . . is that it? Are these really the only two, or even the primary two emotional qualities that will support an enduring and endearing protagonist?

Success coach Tony Robbins, in his book Awaken the Giant Within, provided a list of what he called “power emotions”:

Love and Warmth

Appreciation and Gratitude

Excitement and Passion







Looking at that list again this morning it struck me that any one of these ten, plus Don Maass’s two, would be a solid lynchpin on which to turn a hero. Let’s take a quick run through these…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Sean Durity says:

    I am working on characters (and more) for my first novel. I noticed early on that my initial antagonist was actually more interesting than my protagonist. I have some new ideas for him now, though. I plan to have him progress in a couple of the qualities above, but he needed something more from the beginning to make it worth sticking around for that. We shall see if I can pull it off. Thanks for thinking through this and posting!

    P.S. I do think there is a good theological reason for the appeal of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, but I will leave it at that.

  2. Pingback: DO CHARACTER ARCS ACTUALLY MATTER? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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