The Fire in Fiction – Protagonists

The Fire in Fiction - Cover

As part of my MFA, I’m required to read a certain amount of books each semester. It’s one of my favorite parts of the program since there’s a lot of freedom in book choice, and I’ve been able to pursue mentor texts that I believe will inform my own work in a positive way.

I’m in my last semester of the program, which means it’s time for editing my manuscript. To support my edits, I chose two books this semester by Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction. I just finished the latter (which I’ll save for another post), and I’m diving in now to The Fire in Fiction. I thought I’d use this blog space to reflect on what I consider significant points Maass brings up in hopes that anyone who reads this might take away something on their own. To be clear, I don’t take any credit for Maass’s ideas. Think of this as meditations on Maass’s sage advice.

Chapter one of The Fire in Fiction discusses ways to make your protagonist as strong as they can be. Maass’s advice is deceptively simple:

  1. Make your main character likable but not perfect.
  2. Make them heroic but flawed.
  3. Reveal their greatness through their impact on others.

Simple, right? Wrong.

Every story I can think of that I found compelling had a main character, no matter how despicable, that I found myself cheering on. I wanted them to succeed because goodness could be found in the core of their character. The opposite is true for stories that left me shrugging my shoulders or shaking my head in disgust. I suspect that’s why so many horror movies fail to impress audiences. The characters in bad horror movies are meat for the grinder. We want to see them killed off because they’re obnoxious, stupid, or worse–flat. Readers want to like the characters they’re following, and it’s an author’s job to provide the characteristics that offer that experience.

Maass explains his point succinctly when he says authors should write characters readers would want to spend long stretches of time with. We don’t want to be stuck in a room with people that are bland or annoying. We want to spend time with people that inspire us.

I think this is why it’s so common for authors’ antagonists to feel like the most interesting character in a story. They’re motivated and flawed. They’re imperfect but driven. Doesn’t that describe us all? As my former mentor Mario Acevedo would say, “Every villain sees themself as the hero of the story.”

It’s difficult to maintain this balancing act with protagonists. It forces you to walk a very narrow tightrope. Too perfect and we lose interest or belief. Too flawed and there’s no desire to see them succeed.

I found Maass’s description of the third point a little more ambiguous, but here’s what I took from it: make your character’s actions reverberate outward so they affect the world around them. Heroes don’t operate in a vacuum. What ripples do their actions create? How do those ripples inspire others or strike fear in them?

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