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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.