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?

Dreaming Characters to Life

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I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but the other night I found myself caught in this disturbing loop where I’d drift off, plummet instantly into a nightmare, and wake up with a racing heart and a film of sweat on my face.

I’ve read a fair amount about lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming occurs when you become aware that you’re dreaming, and you suddenly have a loose grip on their contents. Want to fly? Open a window and soar into the atmosphere. It gives you a level of control people assume isn’t possible.

I used lucid dreaming as a kid to wake myself up from bad dreams, but more recently I’ve been trying to develop my ability to recognize my dreaming state and see what else I might do.

The few times I’ve attained lucidity as an adult, I tested my state by making myself float. Inevitably, the moment my feet lifted off the floor, I got too excited and woke up. Rather than continue launching myself into nightmares the other night, I thought I might be in a good place to do some experimenting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the novel I’m working on, so I considered how lucid dreaming might influence my understanding of the world I’m building.

I envisioned my characters as I fell back to sleep, and the coolest thing happened. For a split second, I stood in a sun-dappled forest with two of my characters. I wanted so badly to ask them questions. What are their desires, hopes, fears? It was a chance to have a face-to-face conversation with my subconscious. Like floating, though, I woke up the moment I realized I was dreaming.

Meeting my characters, brief as the encounter was, felt like meeting myself from the future. I knew my characters, but there were experiences they’d had that I couldn’t possibly know. Things I haven’t yet dreamed onto the page. That element of mystery was both thrilling and terrifying. I’m not sure how to interpret that moment, but I’m going to continue experimenting. I hope to meet them again soon and see what they say.

Start and start and start and…

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I can’t get more than a few pages through Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art before I want to come here and write about it. Too much of it just resonates. Here’s today’s takeaway: finish what you start.

Consider how many times you’ve started a project only to set it aside thinking very cleverly, I’ll get to that someday, and it’ll be awesome. There isn’t much that stacks up to the pure, unbridled joy of starting something new. It’s nothing but ecstasy in those first few manic hours when you unleash your creativity and pour out your idea thinking of nothing but the potential of your idea’s nascent existence.

Eventually, your steam runs out, and you put the work aside to catch some sleep or finish the show you’ve been dying to watch. You come back to it and look at it, turning it over in your palms to look at the speckles and glitter in its lumpy form. Goddamn, I’ve got something great here, you think.

Then you wait. You need to be in the right head space. You need to wait for creativity to surge back up from the depths.

Then you need to get your oil changed. You’ve had a long week at work, and you deserve a break.

The irony of the situation escapes you. The worship you do at the base of your creation’s potential turns you into Gollum. You get so lost in the beauty of its potential that you forget you’re in a musty cave growing pale in the dark.

You can’t judge a work’s ability to succeed until you have it in a form you can take out of the cave and show others, and that means getting shit done.

I’ll leave you with another gem from Mr. Pressfield:

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.

Don’t be afraid to slam back.

Resistance

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You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

– Steve Pressfield in The War of Art

Resistance, according to Steve Pressfield, is the force inhibiting us from pursuing what our genius begs us to reach for. It’s a feeling we’re all familiar with: the sinking fear of failure, the nagging worry that others will judge us, or the greasy panic of not knowing if we’re good enough.

It’s easy to assume that the great minds of the present and past somehow avoided these feelings. That’s bullshit. For me, that’s one of the beauties of social media. I can see the writers and creators I most admire occasionally ooze with the same worries I have. The thing that sets them apart from the rest of us is their ability to overcome those feelings.

I’m in awe every night my wife gets home from an 8, 9, 10, 11-hour shift. She grabs a bite to eat, cracks open her laptop, and continues working. I asked her the other day how she continues to work after a full shift. Her eyes glazed over and her head tilted as she pondered my question. “It’s my routine. I can keep working as long as I don’t stop. It’s when I stop that it’s hard to get going again.” Her dedication to education and her career are so ingrained in her daily routines that she doesn’t even consider the alternative. That’s where genius lives.

As part of my MFA, I’m required to submit monthly writing packets of around 7,500 words. I was a wreck my first month. I’d somehow faked my way into an MFA full of real writers, and it was time to pony up. I wrung my hands, bounced my leg, and pulled at my beard worrying over how I could fake my way through 7,500 words that would end up in the hands of my mentor, a seasoned, published YA author. After a certain point, the pressure of the deadline overwhelmed the pressure of my own Resistance, and I started writing.

I told myself to stay after work each day and just get 50 words on the page, and that’s where I learned my secret. Fifty words is a piece of cake. EASY. That’s 32 words right there. I could do that. Here’s the trick: I never stopped at 50. Never. In fact, more days than not, I’d crank out between 600 and 1,000 words, which brings me to the quote at the top of this post.

Pressfield’s allegory about Hitler might feel hyperbolic, but the subtle truth of it is unavoidable. It’s so easy for us to fill our time with things other than our passions that we eventually obscure our goals with the monotony of our own routines. To break out of our habits, we need to introduce a new one, preferably with a low barrier of entry. Every painting starts with a stroke that, on its own, looks ugly.

The War of Art

 

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There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. — Steven Pressfield in The War of Art

For years I dreamed of writing the types of books I love reading – gritty stories of characters fighting impossible odds. My only problem was that I never put my ass in a chair and got started. It wasn’t until January 2017 when my mother passed away that I experienced the cliche epiphany everyone experiences at some point: life is too short to wait for our dreams to come true.

On the 10-hour drive home from my Mom’s funeral, my wife and I discussed the possibilities the future held. I could continue working jobs that didn’t offer me creative fulfillment or take action to start moving toward something bigger. We googled writing programs, and I found out Regis University offered a low-residency MFA program in Denver, CO. It sounded perfect. I could start moving toward my goal of becoming a writer, surround myself with lovely, creative people, and visit my sister in Denver every 6 months.

I’ll enter my third semester of the program in July, and I’m 175 pages into my first novel-length manuscript. Here’s to sitting down and getting started.