Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 19)

This entry is part 19 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The Highest Character Qualities

Forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Let’s remember here that we live in a society, despite some current outward appearances, that is based on these two fundamental qualities. Whether we subscribe to the dogma surrounding these ideals, each of us in our own way feels sympathetic toward those who truly embody these principles.

That might be laying it on a bit thick. I’m a cynical person and so I tend to think that the forgivers and self-sacrificers of the world are suckers. But then, if I think real hard about it, I think that way because I tend to do both and people walk all over me because of it.

Building a Cast

You might be tempted to fill your whole story with characters that just jump of the page, and some writing books will tell you this is a bad thing. I’m not going to do that because I’ve read plenty of books that have a huge cast and are just spectacular. Think I’m kidding? Ok, count the major characters in Lord of the Rings. You can just count the characters in one book if you want. Doesn’t matter. The cast is huge.

As Maass points out, the most common mistake tends to be poor focus rather than the size of the cast. Here we begin to get into the idea of combining characters while thinking through the planning stages of a novel. This was an interesting concept to me when I first began to try it five or six years ago. It’s a practice that I highly recommend, even if you’re just doing it for fun.

I could quote at length here, but I’m not going to. Read this section closely.

Advanced Character Relationships

How do your characters know one another? Are they friends, strangers, brothers? Which one of these three is likely to produce the most friction? Complex relationships, like those between family members are usually far stronger than friends and certainly more than with strangers. Blood is thicker than water, you know.

Here again Maass breaks in with the idea of combining characters so that you can strengthen traits and develop a stronger focus.

A breakout novelist will also make moments when characters measure how their opinions of others have changed. Such moments reinforce the sense of passing time and the effect of a novel’s events on their lives. Such moments contribute to the layering of characters and story line that is so central to making a breakout novel.

Change. Isn’t that a word that comes up when thinking of the best novel’s we’ve read? “It changed my life.” But why? Could it be that the characters in the novel changed too, and that in their recognition of their own change and of those around them we carry forward some sense of that identification into our own daily lives? Yes. I think this is an important lesson.

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