I’ve said before what a fan I am of legendary literary agent and author Donald Maas. I first encountered him when reading Writing The Breakout Novel. What a book! Maas outlines the essential elements of a commercially successful novel, including beginning with a defined theme. I’d never thought of doing that before. I’d just hoped a coherent theme would somehow emerge amorphously from the growing manuscript. Now I consciously plan a theme before starting the story.
But what I find most interesting, particularly when I’m at the stage of plotting a new book, is his concept of the novelist’s paradox – your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all. It matters more than anything because fiction injected with high purpose and high stakes carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain. If it provokes thought and moves our hearts, it will remain in our memory. But an author who lets their story matter too much, may rush past much of its potential greatness. It’s important to relax and take the time to dig deep – deep into your characters’ motivations, conviction and nature. Not taking the story too seriously gives you the freedom to explore these inner journeys. A difficult balancing act!
Donald Maas tips for writing characters that matter to readers:
– Your character matters to someone else. Whom? Why? Find a moment for them to weigh that responsibility and rise to it.
– The conflict means something personal to your character. What? What piece of them would be lost if they fail? How will they become whole if they succeed?
– What’s going on in the scene you’re writing? If it illustrates a larger principle, have your character recognize that.
– Your character is on a personal journey. Seeking what? Finding what instead? What’s already accomplished? What’s left to learn? Put it down on the page.