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:
Love and Warmth
These two emotions could easily be combined with forgiveness or self-sacrifice and I daresay every romance novel ever published turns on exactly these qualities. Love is among the strongest of human emotions, and everyone seeks emotional warmth. Still, Maass’s assertion holds up here in that “I love you” is a strong motivator but we want to see our hero rise above some kind of conflict in order to get to that final “victory” state of experiencing true love and warmth. Maybe that can only be achieved by forgiving some failing in your loved one, or throwing yourself into the volcano so that he/she might live.
Appreciation and Gratitude
Is it that the hero is seeking appreciation or gratitude or learning to extend those things to someone else? I think the latter is a positive goal, while the former is a little needy. But is this enough to drive a novel? Actually, it may well be. An all-too-popular trope in “family” movies is that fish-out-of-water tale in which some gruff but loveable curmudgeon is suddenly forced to care for a child or group of children and learns in the end to appreciate these spunky rug rats, and bask in a wash of gratitude for what they’ve brought to his or her previously lonely and unfulfilled existence. Surely there’s a science fiction or fantasy version of Kindergarten Cop somewhere. Anyway, that’s the character T’Pol’s arc in the series Star Trek: Enterprise, isn’t it? She starts out every bit the haughty Vulcan looking down on her human crewmates but comes to develop a deep appreciation of their illogical ways as the series progresses.
Excitement and Passion
These two you should think about applying to everyone, regardless of what you feel really drives that character. Who wants to follow the story of someone who doesn’t really care and would rather not be there? Maybe this is the one universal trait that every hero absolutely must have. What if you added the word “passionately” to any of the rest of these? Passionately in love? Passionately determined? Passionately confident? Or maybe Excitedly cheerful, or cheerfully excited?
How would you like it if the hero gives up and goes home in chapter ten of a fifteen-chapter book and the rest of it is about how the villain finishes up the whole world domination thing? Without determination, people wander off, and good luck getting anyone to follow you. Ask yourself: What makes my hero determined to win out in the end? How does he or she exhibit this determination?
Conflict is at the heart of plot and if your hero always wins every “battle” along the way that can get a little dull and predictable. We also like to see characters change and adapt over time, realize that Plan A isn’t working and bring all their collected resources to bear to form Plan B, and so on. Rigidly unchangeable people can be annoying, and it’s rarely a quality most people would say they particularly admire.
Gaining confidence can be a tremendously effective inner journey for any character. I’d submit that this is at the heart of Frank Herbert’s Paul Atreides, who we meet at the beginning of Dune as a slightly pampered young innocent who is quickly thrust into an alien world, separated from his family, support system, and culture, and over the course of the story struggles with crises of confidence: Is he really the person his mother and others think he is? Can he find it in himself to lead a global rebellion?
Here’s another one that might be a bit iffy. I’m not sure that a “Quest for Cheerfulness” is enough to drive a character through a novel, but it is a quality that can help make your protagonist lots more appealing to readers. Spider-Man has this quality, for instance. One of the great draws of the original comic book stories was Spider-Man’s mid-epic battle banter. He was a wise-guy, a smartass, and cheerfully so. And he’s still around and vital some fifty years after his premiere in Amazing Fantasy #15.
I believe Tony Robbins meant this to indicate some degree of physical fitness, but that word implies something deeper than simply “rock-hard abs.” Does your character really live? And mean live life to the fullest. Is he or she out there, working, fighting, struggling, contributing, exploring? This could well be a driving force for a character throughout a story. We could begin with a character who is ill, housebound, sluggish, and through conflict and interaction with other characters begins to come alive and in the end has been transformed, ala The Biggest Loser, into someone who’s not just physically but mentally ready to meet any challenge.
How is your protagonist making the world better, and not as a lone wolf, necessarily, singlehandedly saving the world from whatever’s threatening it? John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic Mars series starts out as a real loner, looking only for a way home, but it’s when he becomes a part of the society of Helium, becomes connected to the community, does the character really come into his own—and a character we’ve been reading and making movies and comic books about a lot longer than Spider-Man. John Carter contributes to the safety of Helium, to the grudging peace between its citizens and the green Martians. He’s helping to make everything around him better, not simply his personal situation.
That’s a lot to process in one post, so we’ll come back to some of this in the weeks ahead, but it’s a fair question to ask of your work in progress: Are any or all of my characters, not just the protagonist, exhibiting in their actions one or more of these qualities? Are these characters worth following? Worthy of admiration?
If they are, don’t tell me, show me!