The Paradox

photo by by h.koppdelaney

To be a great novelist requires living with a paradox: Your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all.

It’s one of many conflicts and dilemmas that novelists face, but it’s one to master.  Lean too much in either direction and your fiction will suffer.  Embrace the paradox and your fiction will grow in power.

Why does your story matter more than anything?  Because fiction infused with high purpose carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain.  (Not that anyone minds being entertained.)  When our hearts are moved, memories are formed.  Stories fulfill their purpose when they provoke thought.

Why does your story matter not at all?  Because when it matters too much you are likely to rush.  You could miss an awful lot of your story’s greatness.  It might seem self-defeating to dismiss your current novel’s worth.  However, by accepting that, hey, no one truly needs it right now you remove pressure from yourself.  You gain the time and freedom to go deeper.

Like so much of what we can say about ourselves, the same can be said of our characters.  Characters, in fact, are strong when they embody our own conflicts, convictions, principles and nature.  When they’re our idea of what they should be—or, worse, someone else’s idea—they’re weak.  When they’re both unique and credible they linger in mind.  Even when they’re improbable they can, counter-intuitively, become intensely real.

In character building terms embracing the paradox means granting your characters high self-worth, and their stories high personal significance.  At the same time characters who live in the moment, who aren’t in a hurry to resolve their inner conflicts, become deeply absorbing.  Wallowing in misery is off-putting, don’t get me wrong, but we’re drawn to people who take their own lives seriously and whose inner journeys matter to themselves.

Almost all characters I meet in manuscripts could have greater self-regard.  Here are some ways to spring off the paradox to build characters whose existence will matter to your readers too:

  • Your protagonist matters to someone else.  Whom?  Why?  Find a moment for your protagonist to weight that responsibility and rise to it.
  • The conflict or problem underway means something personal to your protagonist.  What?  What piece of himself or herself would be lost if he or she fails?  When he or she succeeds, what’s one new way in which he or she  becomes whole?
  • What’s going on in the scene you’re working on?  It’s a microcosm, an illustration of what larger principle?  Let your protagonist recognize that significance.
  • Your protagonist is on a personal journey.  Seeking what?  Finding what instead?  How does he or she see their progress right now?  What’s already accomplished?  What’s left to learn?  Put it down on the page.

Living with the paradox will cause you, paradoxically, not to freeze but to warm to your protagonist and get more out of him or her.  They’ve got the time.  Do you?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. says

    Great point about letting the protagonist grow. I too often rush through without digging far enough into who my character is and what they want. Thanks for the reminder=)

  2. says

    Yes, going deep into the emotions of a protagonist is essential to success in developing real, multi-dimensional characters. As I writer I start with the assumption I don’t have anything more important to say than anyone else. Therefore, I must challenge myself to develop a story with impact, which depends on the creation of deep, complex characters. That means tapping into my own emotions and infusing these in my main character. You discuss this concept at length in your latest book, which I highly recommend to WU readers. Writers who believe everything they have to say is important can develop a deadly sense of self-importance. I would rather let others judge whether what I have to say is important. Thanks for a great post to start off the new year.

  3. says

    I’m not sure I agree that when stories matter too much we’re likely to rush through the writing of them. But in the horse world we have a saying called “barn blindness”, meaning it’s tough to be objective about horses in your own barn. I wonder if that’s part of the same problem, ie. when you allow that a story doesn’t “matter”, you can allow yourself to be more objective about it.

    I do like this idea: “Almost all characters I meet in manuscripts could have greater self-regard.” (as opposed to wallowing in self-pity). I’ve certainly come across that when reading. The trick is to figure it out from the other side of the fence, as a writer ;)

    • says

      Barn blindness…love that. As to developing a character’s self-regard, it’s only a matter of setting the intention to do it. Find in each scene something for the character to learn/see/question about himself or herself. Changing relationships to other people, things and even places can be fodder.

  4. says

    Good advice that can be carried to all types of writing. On one hand, caring about story, plot, characters and even the actual quality of writing is the obvious focus. On the other, agonizing too deeply over any aspect can create a wall– it will never be good enough. You’re right, stepping back, vomiting the words out (that’s how it sometimes feels) does indeed give us the time and freedom to go deeper.

    • says


      Well, I do agree. The opposite of rushing is agonizing and revising infinitely. Most of the time though, I find, authors rush. My agency’s slush pile attests to that.

  5. says

    Thought-provoking post, Don. One of the greatest virtues I need to work on as a writer is patience. If I can slow down long enough to understand fully the significance of my character’s actions, I’ll be able to build characters who matter more to the reader. Happy New Year!

    • Carmel says

      Totally agree, Mary. I myself need to take the time to think out the effect the story is having on my characters.

    • says

      It is so true for the tendency to rush when I am excited about the story. I want to write it and get through it to enjoy the whole…….however I am a rewrtiter, constantly rereading the last paragraph written and re writing before continuing. It is important to remmber the craft of writing as much as getting the story in place.

      I find a lot of that however is done on the second (plus the third, and forth and…….) draft, rather than the first.
      Great post!

  6. says

    This list will definitely be one of the tools to stay on track this year as I’m just beginning to delve into a new novel. Figuring out the tones and the timbres of my particular protagonist’s journey has been the hard part so far, but slowly the pieces are coming together. Right now, I am throwing words on the page in a sort of careless way because it is the only thing I can do while the story is still primordial, shapeless goo… AND it is better to write disjointed, unpolished, easily-trashed sentences than to write nothing at all. Thanks for you insight!

  7. Betsy Thompson says

    Great post! Can you recommend some books/authors whose characters achieve this balance?

    • says

      Oh, of course. In fact there’s a ready made reading list in the acknowledgement pages of Writing 21st Century Fiction. Start with The Help, Little Bee, The Stormchasers, The Forgotten Garden, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand…or, heck, browse your shelves!

  8. says

    I met with one of my authors on New Year’s Eve for coffee and we discussed her book sales and I told her even though it seems like they are at odds, writers must have both patience and persistence. It’s tough to hold them both, but we must push on with great writing and be patient that the story unfolds and that sales will follow. So. Much. Work.

  9. says

    I think it’s even harder to have patience in this new world where we can publish anything and everything at the click of mouse, where the pressure to get your name out there and keep it out there can be overwhelming.

    As a reader, I’d rather wait an extra year or two for my favorite authors’ next book and have it be amazing. As a writer, I want to be that author, the one who takes the time to tell the story the way it needs to be told.

    • says

      Gotta tell ya, blogging and tweeting have caused me to tighten up the ‘ole prose a lot. Now to honor a New Year’s resolution and tighten up otherwise in the gym…

  10. says

    Thanks, Don. As an organic writer, my stories develop from what the characters do. But, because it’s organic, it’s difficult to consciously include the kinds of things you write about. But I’m workin’ on it!

  11. says

    Thank you, Don, for these four specific questions to apply to our character and manuscript today. I constantly need the reminder to be patient and let the writing sprout and grow without pushing and prodding it out of shape. I keep this little wisdom tacked up where I can see it.

    “A writer is frustrated, not because things come together slowly, but because she imagines that they will move quickly.”

    I just finished reading WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, and am greatly inspired as well as much better informed as I tackle my fiction in the new year. Thank you. I look forward to your new book mentioned above.

  12. says

    Excellent post! I am taking all your great advice to heart, especially the part about making story matter so that there’s no rushing. No need for a manuscript littered with Chekov’s guns, right? ;-)

    Happy New Year and thanks for sharing your wisdom with the rest of us.

  13. says

    This was an excellent post, Donald. Pacing! A good solid piece of advice for all of us out here. We found out that this works in all of our writing endeavors. Funny enough, when you start out in this business, you’re so excited for everyone to see your work that you start sending off query’s. After a year, you look back on them and cringe at the thought of how inexperienced you sounded within the body of words you wrote about something that should mean everything to you. Though we’re not pro’s, we are learning every day. But don’t you think that all of these rules and regulations could hinder the pure art form of storytelling? A story should tell itself or it just sounds like authors pandering to an industry that is merely worried about letting a story sell itself. We would think that a reader is savvy enough to know when an author is just trying to make a buck an hit a fad, rather than writing a good story.

  14. says

    This post, as well as your excellent book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, are such great reminders to dig deeper and make the writing personal. This especially strikes me, “You gain the time and freedom to go deeper”, because as we write, it’s so easy to rush rather than giving the story and characters time and space needed to grow. Thank you, Don, for helping me to take a step back and dig in to write a better story. Happy 2013 to you and your family!

  15. says

    Donald, a very timely article for me right now as I am in deep revisions on my middle grade novel and this advice will help me deepen each scene, encounter, and my protagonist’s character. Am printing out and using alongside using your Breakout Novel workbook too and notes from your fantastic seminar at the 2011 Write Stuff Conf.

    I love to write fast, but I am painfully learning we cannot rush the revision process. Any tips on learning to love this slow-down process would be welcome. :)


  16. Rachel Thompson says

    This reminds me of a writer I know that has spent 20 years writing about the same characters (character profiles and life situation remain unchanged) over and over. The series keeps changing plots. Its never really done; scraped and rewritten many times. It’s a case of a writer so in love with the characters he can’t bring himself to finish it and walk away. He is blind to character growth, better POV, style and plotting methods, and is thus unable to serve the story first. All for the love of these characters.
    People fear change thinking it makes them into someone not themselves. In fiction character change is a must. These players are too real to this writer. He won’t change them.
    Loving a group of made up people too much surely kills the tale. I see your paradox.

  17. says

    Like Donna, I’m in the middle of a MG revision and looking for ways to make the plot more cohesive to the character development. I’m also concerned with secondary characters and their role in the plot, so your first point is perfect for my current pondering. To whom does the protagonist matter most? Why? What will happen if my hero can’t fulfill the needs/desires of that other person?

    Life-saving. Thanks!

  18. says

    I read “Living with the paradox will cause you, paradoxically, not to freeze but to warm to your protagonist and get more out of him or her. They’ve got the time. Do you?” and IMMEDIATELY thought, ‘but she’s dying in an underground prison!!
    Cuz she is, sort of. In a Word doc. prison, but still!
    Great post, I bookmarked this.