Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Turning Your MC into a Hero

In Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, step one in deepening character development is to turn your protagonist into a hero. I didn't know where to start with Mop, the main character in my wip, FIND ME. I don't really even like the word hero. It sounds so grandiose, so comic book cliched that I have trouble seeing my main character as a hero. I often start writing my books about regular people, people like me, that I can identify with. I know, without having to think about it what a capital-H-Hero is - and it's not me. Hero is for soldiers, for mothers who throw themselves in front of speeding cars to save their kids, for fireman.

So how do I make my protagonist into a hero (especially when she's 17, living in the Bronx with an agoraphobic mother and isolated by a strange, unwelcome talent?) The first thing Maass says to do is to think of someone who is a hero to you. It might be your mother, or your best friend or a public person you admire. Don't be like me and get mired in thinking about it too much (yeah, he's okay, but he's like not perfect) You're not looking for perfection, you're looking for someone who you think did something heroic. I finally got mine (no, not telling you - too personal.) Then Maass says to come up with the one quality that makes that person a hero. That was a little easier: Courage.

But how do I find courage in a 17 year old girl who has not saved babies from burning buildings, or over come a crack addiction or survived a horrific incident? I won't lie, it was hard. I started with what I think is a Chekhov quote: "Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out."

How much courage would it take for a girl to lose her father, lose her ability to read and gain an disturbing talent - all at the age of twelve? Then, for the next five years, she would become a sort of surrogate for her mother, having to do everything for her mother, who could not leave the apartment. To me, that's heroic-sized courage.

Then I went back to the first few chapters and picked out areas where I could increase the examples of Mop's courage (again, small-c-courage, not save-babies-from-fire-courage.) I was surprised how easy it was. The opportunities were there, it was like I just had to turn up the volume. And by heightening those elements I could actually see how Mop became even more rounded, real. Damn this book is good.

How do you turn your protagonist into a hero?


  1. My MCs do some pretty heroic deeds, but they're not heroic by nature. Courage and tenacity are the keys that drive their actions.

  2. I LOVE Donald Maass! His WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK changed the way I viewed my writing and books in general.

    Great advice! I look for ways to find heroic opportunities all the time now. Even unlikeable characters need it -it's what makes us keep reading.

  3. I have the same feelings about the word 'hero'. It's hard not to get some Avengers-like picture in your mind when you say or hear the word. You give some great information on how not to get stuck in that mindset. Thanks! I have the Donald Maass book, but I haven't gotten very far in it. Should probably get on that! :)

  4. It takes a lot of imagination (and daydreaming). I like to put myself in my protagnist's shoes and wonder what if...the answers usually come soon after.

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