The Madness of King George, King Lear scene.


This year I decided I would participate in NANOWRIMO, but instead of working on a new story, I am in the throes of revising and adding new material gleaned via the exercises of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

I’ve added more layers to the story and I’m happy to note that I think I have what could be the very last revision. Well, we’ve heard that before, but it’s time that I put this baby to bed and move on to Kiraly, which I had put aside after my malady (I’m fine, by the way).

In the previous lesson I had to dial up Corinne’s qualities, making her larger-than-life, the next step is…making them even sharper. Great and how do I do that?

Maass says to take the small opportunities and take advantage of those. He writes:

Larger-than-life opportunities can crop us anywhere; it only takes being alert to the possibility of sending your protagonist or point-of-view character beyond what is possible.

In this chapter’s exercises, Maass asks to randomly choose in the middle of your manuscript a scene and heighten what your protagonist thinks, says, or does. You can make it funnier, bigger, shocking, vulgar, out of bounds, over the top, more insightful, and so on.

In Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the story centers on four young men who met in college and ultimately move to New York for their careers. The story follows them until they reach their mid-fifties. Jude is the protagonist and what he experiences in his life from a foundling raised by Monks to his intellect to his physical ailments, Yanagihara heightens, sharpens to the point that it’s over-the-top, but it works. You’re never left thinking it’s cartoonish. Instead, you’re hoping that poor Jude will get a moment’s peace.

The next step is to do the opposite. Tone the scene down; understate it, make it quieter, more internal, more ironic, more offhand, maybe even barely noticeable.

Most people who know the story the ancient story of the Golem know they are violent and create havoc. In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker provides a quiet time for Chana, the Golem, and uses to describe the meticulous and understated manner of how Chana sews and reconstructs a dress to pass the night.

What’s next? Go back and see where out-of-bounds fit, but also find sections where quiet reflective moments parlay something bigger in the story.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t be afraid to make your characters act in an over-the-top manner.
  • Subtle and quiet actions also tell much about the character. Remember the expression of Still waters.
  • Ultimately it’s about finding the right balance. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep with too understated characters, but you also want to avoid characters that are just too cartoonish.


 Lisbeth Salander, Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson

Zingers, revenge, overstepping boundaries…this chapter’s focus is injecting larger-than-life qualities into your character. Maass provides numerous examples of bon mots from novels flung from various protagonists’ lips and actions that reveal sassiness, humor, emotion, bravery, and conflict.

But it’s not just words that matter, but actions. What makes your character larger-than-life? Is she like Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander of the Millennium Trilogy—hacker, martial arts expert, mathematical genius but also very possibly on the spectrum? Or is he like Holden Caulfield, a depressed and sarcastic teen?

Despite Corinne’s ability to see the ghost of Alvah Bessie and to observe over time the subtle change of the miner in a Spanish Civil War poster, she doesn’t show any other larger-than-life qualities. She tends to back off too easily to avoid any confrontation. Her lack of action makes her passive but also limits her growth.

In this chapter, Maass writes:

“Harshest of limits are those we impose upon ourselves in our heads. Our inner censors are probably are more powerful than any censorship board any dictatorship could devise. Breaking through new ways of thinking, however, is the foundation of growth. To change, we must first change our minds.”

Maass asks: what’s the one thing the protagonist would never, ever say, think, or do?

What would Corinne do that’s out of character and makes her more memorable? Getting out of her head and actually doing and saying what she thinks. Oh, boy, I see a bumpier ride for her.

Lessons learned:

  • Make your character think differently. Let them go against the grain of their natural tendency. Have your character do a George Constanza. You never know what it will bring.
  • Your character may not be an action hero, but give him some sharp dialogue that makes him memorable.
  • Put your protagonist in situations that shift his perception of himself.

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Image: ileifa.og

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.