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Once again, the exercises in this chapter have you fooled. They read easy, but once you get writing you realize you don’t know your characters as well as you thought.

I struggled to find my MC’s inner conflict. It’s not as cut and dried as in real life when we battle with our insecurities, conflicts of interest, self-doubt, and compromises.

I went to my trusty community of writers on Facebook to brainstorm this a little, and it wasn’t until late last Tuesday night that Jo Eberhardt, a friend, asked the most important question: Why? As she flung one why after another, it became this domino effect of whys. Ultimately, it’s all about digging deep down to your character’s core. If you don’t understand why your character has a deep desire to reach his goal, you won’t be able to discover his inner conflict.

Here’s what the Great Maass says about inner conflict:

A step beyond the technique of adding character dimensions is investing your protagonist with two goals, needs, wants, longings, yearnings, or desires that are in direct opposition to each other. Wanting two things that are mutually exclusive means to have inner conflict, being torn in two different directions, and that is what makes a character truly memorable.


Another writer friend, Rick Bylina, pointed out that in the World of Donald Maass, motivation is key. So in the end, we have this deep-rooted yearning that motivates our protagonist to achieve his goal. In this chapter’s exercises, Maass asks us to think about the protagonist in the entire novel as a whole, what is it that she wants the most?

After getting hammered with the whys of why publishing Julius is so important to Corinne, it turns out that it all has to do with redemption. She allowed her beliefs to lapse and now from guilt, she desperately wants to redeem herself and honor her grandparents and their fellow travelers. Julius is that symbolic gesture. Nothing will get in the way of fulfilling her dream: not a partner who has a personal agenda to revive his career; not a paranoid Congressman, who suspects that she in cahoots with a former radical activist. She will give up everything for the magazine to succeed and for redemption.

The next step is to write the opposite: Pursuing her dream will put her in the same position as her blacklisted grandparents—a life under scrutiny and suspicion. There’s also the added caveat that she’ll attract unwanted attention onto others who were connected to her family and became quiet activists. Does she redeem herself to honor her grandparents with the risk of harassment? Or would she be better off investing her time and energy in other projects, revolving around her radical interests and lead a quiet, and non-confrontational life–one she knows won’t shine the spotlight on others.

So now that I have this settled in my mind, what’s next? Maass asks how the protagonist can want both simultaneously. What would cause your protagonist to want them both? What steps would she actively take to pursue those conflicting desires?

I have it set up where she faces several external conflict or obstacles that force her rethink her primary desire. There will be times that she’s ready to quit, but my protagonist is not a quitter and believes, to an extent, she can do both, regardless of the hurdles she needs to jump. As the story progresses, she will have outside help. Readers will see (as will the protagonist) that she is better suited and will be happier pursuing the opposite and, in fact, she can honor the legacy of her grandparents ideals.

Next item on the agenda: rework several scenes.

Lessons learned:

  • Before you even think of an opposing conflict as yourself why your protagonist has a deep desire. Dig deep. For every answer you get, ask why again and again.
  • We all have inner conflicts in the real world. Inject that into your protagonist.
  • Life is not perfect and neither should the world your protagonist inhabits. Give them something to think about and struggle with the notion of pursuing something entirely different.
  • Don’t think of that internal conflict as a second option for your protagonist. It can serve as a lesson and show how he has grown in the story.


As much as I love Corinne Sand, my protagonist, I noticed during the numerous revisions that she wasn’t quite as well-rounded as I thought. So what to do?

The Great Donald Maass, that literary wizard in dissecting what makes a breakout novel, writes the following about creating multidimensional characters:

One-dimensional characters hold limited interest because they are limited as human beings. The lack the complexity that makes real-life people so fascinating. In well-constructed fiction, a multidimensional character will keep us guessing: What is this person going to do, say, or think next? Furthermore, we are more likely to identify with them—that is, to see ourselves in them. Why? Because there is more of them to see.

Okay. I get it. Corinne needs more depth and, dare I say it, some character flaws.

In the set of exercises that accompanied this chapter, the challenge was to find Corinne’s defining quality—a trait that is prominent, but also come up with an opposing quality. I compiled a list of her predominant traits:

  • Cerebral
  • Pragmatic
  • Oblivious
  • Radical
  • Imaginative
  • Trusting
  • Gullible
  • Persistent
  • Aloof

It took me a while to narrow it down Corinne’s defining quality, but I finally settled that she’s too cerebral and distant. Then I wrote the following description in fairly general terms: When the reader first meets Corinne Sand, she is studying the image of a miner in Spanish Civil War poster. That first impression she gives is she’s cerebral with the tendency to live in her head and also the past.

The next task was to find the opposing quality, and once again I wrote the opposing traits.

  • Emotional
  • Romantic
  • Approachable
  • Warm
  • Paranoid
  • Conformist
  • Perceptive
  • Suspicious
  • Unresourceful
  • Stubborn

In this case, I felt emotional was the direct opposite of cerebral. What followed was another description: As a third generation red diaper baby, Corinne is idealistic, passionate about her political beliefs that reflect how she was raised by her Marxist grandparents. Their personal stories and those of their comrades during the Depression and the Blacklist stir feeling of sadness and anger for the unjust persecutions of their politics and idealism. Corinne’s fervor and depth of emotion for her fellow travelers are seen as extreme by her partner and colleagues.   

The exercise was repeated with each trait, followed by a paragraph that actively demonstrates these opposing qualities. The discovery: the opposite trait is more interesting to explore and write. The result of the exercise: two new scenes that added more depth to Corinne’s character.

Lessons learned:

  • Opposing traits can add more dimension to the character, but also to the story.
  • By adding more dimension to your character, you’re making them more human.
  • Surprise readers. Don’t make characters predictable, but volatile like real people.



In addition to working through the exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, I’m re-reading the sections in the book that relate to the assignments.

The current objective is to create characters that are larger-than-life. Chapter 1 of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook starts off in a seemingly easy manner. Name a personal hero. Well, that’s simple. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know how much I admire Alvah Bessie. If you’re new and are following this latest folly and don’t know who he is, you can read about him here.

I mentioned three of Alvah’s heroic qualities:

“What speaks to me about Alvah was his persistence to keep true to his radical idealism, his loyalty to the Marxist cause, and to his comrades. He fought Franco’s Nationalists in Spain as a volunteer of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Later, he stood up to HUAC, refusing to name names that ultimately led to dire consequences: Contempt of Congress and incarceration at the Texarkana Federal Penitentiary.  In spite of the hardships of the blacklist, and his struggles to find work, he continued to write non-stop. Alvah believed in fighting with the pen for what was just and telling the hard truth about our political leaders and government. ”

So—my protagonist, Corinne Sand, is loyal to her cause and fellow travelers, and persistent in getting her message out. That’s all very nice, but none of these qualities shows when she makes her first appearance.

I’m waffling a bit because it’s all shown indirectly—told by other characters in the story. The challenge is to show some of these qualities when she first appears. Serendipitously, this happens to be a chapter that needs an overhaul (again).

After thinking some ideas through, and with my notes in hand, I have a better notion of how I can work in these qualities and change the pace of the story.

Lastly, Maass asks, prior to the climactic scene, to find six points, in a small way, in which the protagonist can demonstrate heroic qualities. Thankfully, most of the action occurs in the latter middle part of Part 2 and in Part 3 where I can pinpoint them.

Lessons learned:

  • Think larger-than-life character.
  • Introduce traits early on in the story.
  • Show readers why they should like and admire this character.