It’s Taxing

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.


  1. says

    Wow! I love this post. I’m in the middle of writing my book and have been struggling with making the protagonist’s problems big enough. These are great ideas.

  2. says

    Hilarious Donald, “our government doesn’t have that problem.”

    Good point.

    I think this could also be used to develop characters for blogs and short stories.

    Life is taxing and sharing what challenges you overcome always draws in readers. When you blog YOU are the protagonist.

  3. `Peggy Foster says

    I like this post. The book I’m writing on I don’t have a problem with making my protagonist pay taxes because she has made some messes of her life. But this is a good reminder to not let your protagonist get off of the hook. I love your point about the government taxing us so why should we not feel bad about taxing our protagonist.

  4. says

    This was such a helpful post. I truly believe I have great characters, even some great scenes but I find I struggle with the purpose, what is driving them to do what they do. I like the “price they’ll pay” challenge. I realize I need to up the ante for my protag.

  5. says

    I can hear my protagonist running for the back door as I read this… she knows her life’s about to get even harder. But you’re so right–a protagonist’s journey grips us when it comes with costs. Thanks for the reminder! (So sorry to hear about 50%… ick!)

  6. Denise Willson says

    Great advice, my dear Yoda, as always. Much appreciated.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  7. says

    As always, excellent and wise advice. Love the analogy, especially right now where everything seems to be taxing the energy as we plod forward. You’re right: it takes work if we want the rewards.

    • says

      Work? Oh, but taxing your protagonist is so easy. Just imagine you are a computer at IRS headquarters, spewing out paper notices to random tax payers, demanding random sums which–if unpaid–you’ll seize. See? Easy.

  8. says

    Your post made me think of Harry Potter. In each book, he must give up something or someone. His final victory is dripping with sorrow. A number of books start out with an orphan and things go downhill from there.

    • says

      In the end Harry must pay the ultimate tax…which he escapes, thankfully, though only with the help of a great tax attorney (the author) who finds a lengthy and arcane exemption in the tax code.

  9. Carmel says

    It’s kind of fun. The WU blog post comes full-length in my email, but the author isn’t revealed. I try to guess who has written that day’s post. Today, for some reason, I thought it was supposed to be Therese, but as I’m reading I’m thinking “this has Donald Maass written all over it.” Turns out I was wrong about Therese and right about Don.

    Great post! You always get me thinking.

  10. says

    Taxing the Protagonist-

    My father told me something similar. For every action, there’s a price and a payoff. I use this concept in life quite often. I never thought to use it for fiction plausibility.

    Wow, this feels like an epiphany.

    Taxing the protagonist is definitely going into the writing process.

  11. says

    “Happy endings do not always feel earned.” YES, exactly.

    I always love your tips, Don, because they’re all about creating the right characters with the right problems for the right story.

  12. says

    Indeed. I have been disappointed in books that were otherwise well written – interesting, likable characters, nice twisty plot – if it seemed in the end the heroine or hero was able to resolve the dilemma too easily.

    • says

      It’s always struck me as paradoxical when happy endings feel like a letdown. Huh? We’re supposed to feel happy so why don’t I? Well, this may be the reason.

  13. Eileen Dandashi says

    If the fight isn’t hard enough, it doesn’t allow the reader to really get inside the head of the hero/heroine. It helps build the character of the individual. Frankly, I find character too flat if the struggle isn’t super important. Thanks for writing the blog.

  14. says

    Ha! I gobbled this up right in my e-mail program without clicking through—I shouldn’t have been surprised, when I did, to find it was written by you, Don. I’d already printed it out—brilliant. Looking forward to your workshop in Pittsburgh next month!

    • says

      Um, did you think they were free? No, no. You must now fill out form 1040-A-Z, being sure to calculate your adjusted gross benefit, multiplying by .0125 and entering the amount on line 189.

  15. says

    More fantastic insights. I love the way you often teach us to work backwards, building the importance early on to get the impact we want later. Thanks so much for sharing, as always!

  16. says

    Great post. I think it’s imperative to consider the human nature of our protagonist. Could someone die? Maybe, but if the protagonist is the “every day person,” like you or I, would someone die due to our mistakes? Maybe, but it’s less likely than in the stories we write. So my point is this: yes we should review our protagonist’s journey, but we should also remain realistic.

  17. Robin Lehman says

    It should be no surprise to me by now, but the creative ways you come up with to help us dig deeper and get better at novel writing still DO amuse and amaze me. Loved the idea (and tips) in this post.

    Recently went back and completed the exercises in the last chapter of Writing 21st Century Fiction, on “The Elements of Awe,” and boy, Don, those are unbelievably powerful tools. I can’t thank you enough.