photo by Alex Dram

It’s tax time. I’m not talking about the IRS. There are other taxes we pay. There’s a price for everything we want. All that we value costs us.

Have you found, like me, that if you’re going after something big the Universe will test your commitment to make sure you really, really want it? Buying a house is never smooth and trouble-free. Marriage takes work. Meeting your career goals takes years.

If you’re writing fiction you know what I mean.

Perhaps life taxes are the Universe’s way of balancing our desires with our efforts. If we got absolutely everything we want without paying…well, what kind of shape would our world be in? (Somebody remind Congress of that.) Life taxes temper us. Follow your dreams, it’s said, but to fulfill them we must make mistakes, suffer loses, gain patience, grow in wisdom…in other words, pay a price.

We’re taxed.

I mention this not only because I recently had my humbling annual visit with our CPA’s, nor because my choice to follow my dreams in New York City means paying an effective marginal tax rate of 50%. No, no, I’m not complaining.

I mention it because in many manuscripts protagonists get what they desire without it costing them much. Even in stories with high conflict, the resolution can arrive without a truly high cost. Happy endings do not always feel earned.

It’s April, time to tax your protagonist. Here are some ways to do that:

  • What’s the biggest price your protagonist must pay in order for things to come out right? Make the loss external: a family member’s love, a friend’s loyalty, a house burned down, a reputation destroyed.
  • Work backwards. Build up the value of what will later be lost.
  • What’s the biggest mistake your protagonist can make? Make it hurt someone else, badly. Can someone die because of it?
  • Make your protagonist wait for something. Set that waiting against a ticking clock. Let time run out.
  • What must your protagonist learn in order to win? Work backwards. Make that lesson a hard one for your protagonist to grasp.

We pay too much in taxes but our protagonists don’t pay enough. For the emotional journey of a novel to deeply affect readers it must cost your protagonist dearly. So go ahead. Impose a tax. Make it a high one. Our government doesn’t have any problem with that so why should 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.