Monday, March 25, 2013

Getting Snarky at Donald Maass

Dear Mr. Donald Maass, sir,
We're discussing your book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, at Novel Matters today. If you've stopped by to see how much we loved the chapter on standout character, please go away now. My writing career is on shaky enough ground as it is. Being black-balled by a top New York city literary agent would shoot my career between the eyes. So, you just mosey along. Go to the corner and get something highly caffeinated or one of those famous hot dogs they sell on the street. Forget you ever heard my name, please.
Patti Hill

Reader Alert: I’m a little cranky about this chapter.  In fact, I may sound snarky when I don’t  mean to. Yes, Maass says true things about characterization, but he also quotes his other books on writing. 

Hello? could we have something fresh here?

And he speaks in broad generalities, which sound suspiciously like he really is talking to genre writers. Like this:
A standout protagonist is one who quickly stirs in your reader high admiration. p. 79
Yes. No. Duh! This isn’t wrong. It’s just prescriptive. Are we all writing books about Boy Scouts? This is the kind of stuff I taught my fourth-grade students. Ack! 

(Oh my, this is snarky. So sorry.)

My pulse quickened a bit when Maass started a section on characters who lack conflict. This is a huge problem for beginning writers. They want their characters to be nice and not make the writer look bad for being able to think up very human things for their characters to do. The result is a boring story. As we talked about last time, the inner journey—conflict and all—is crucial to creating characters and stories reader can relate to. I was genuinely eager to hear what Maass had to say.  

Any character, whether wholly negative or naively positive or somewhere in between (My question: Has he left anyone out?), can be alive, alert, and engaged in life. But how is that conveyed to the reader? There are three key techniques: the use of observation, opinions, and self-awareness. P. 100
Maass uses Aibileen Clark from The Help as an example of a character who is a keen observer, especially of the white family she works for and full of opinions she can’t express. And who was more self-aware than a black woman of the south in 1962? Aibileen knew her place.

But Aibileen is not wholly negative or naively positive or anything in between.  She is human! I can hear her voice in my head. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”  Her keen observations, opinions, and self-awareness are NOT add-ons. They’re who she is. 

(I didn’t like this chapter very much.)

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The qualities Maass attributes to a well-rounded and interesting character are valid. They just wouldn’t, in my humble opinion, resurrect a poorly conceived character. I love a character who can see things I can’t and describe them in such a manner that makes me groan with pleasure. And I happen to like opinionated characters, too. They make me squirm and laugh, all as that character turns a mirror on me. As for healthy self-awareness, I’m reading a novel now about a man who makes note of his bowel habits in his journal. Too much?

Here are five nuggets you can take from this chapter:
  1. Heroic protagonists need to show us that they’re human.
  2. Stronger than surprise is selfless focus. Think Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain
  3. Put as much planning and work into your antagonist as you do your protagonist.
  4. Don’t skimp on your secondary characters, either. Give them a history and know them well.
  5. Work on your characters until they fascinate you, then they will fascinate millions of readers.

I was going to continue this discussion on Wednesday, but that’s about it. Instead, I’ll share something I've learned from a master storyteller that has changed the way I populate my stories. I promise more of a take-away. Also, I will put my snarky self on the shelf--with that obnoxious elf.

And I’ll be reading ahead to see if Maass has anything more to offer us.

Was I too hard on Maass? Help me out here, what's the most important thing you do to develop human characters? From whom have you learned the most about characterization? Name a character who took your breath away. Can I hide at your house?


Ike Harris said...

No. Mr. Mass has written some quality books on writing in the past (I have two on my shelves)but this one doesn't sound like another. Too many books on writing look as though they were written with the idea to make money rather than to provide help and instruction to other writers. Time reading about writing is time I'm not writing. I can't waste it.

Patti Hill said...

Just what I'm starting to believe, Ike.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, I kind of like snarky Patti!

Jonathan Safran Foer writes the kind of characters that are so incredibly real that I get overwhelmed (in a good way). They are complex. Just like real people.

Honestly, I don't think that reading about characterization is the best way to learn how to write characters. In my humble opinion, spending time with real, flesh and bone people is the best. I've learned how to write characters by observing alive, made in the image of God people. THAT is how you write an authentic character.

Bonnie Grove said...

I believe the day we look at the conventional thinking about the craft we labour in and think to ourselves: This is not enough--and not just think it, but say it aloud--is the day we begin to pick the lock on the chains that hold our true artist self in bondage.

And that, my friend, is a very good day indeed.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Snarky Patti doesn't get out often. So glad you like her.

I agree that observation is the best way to "learn" characterization. We must be students of the human experience and our behavior, especially how we act out our inner landscape. It is possible to have a teacher turn our shoulders, tell us where to look, challenge us to sharpen our eye. That's what disappointed me about this chapter.

Bonnie: Yes! Feeling lighter already. Mwah!

Jennifer Major said...

(Note-I was up at 4:35am , but went to bed at 12:45am. I'm kinda tired, looped, really...)

Patti-come on over. I have some cinnamon buns left over. Mmmm.
My boys are hockey players, they'll cross check Maass if he gets annoying. If he's going to mail in the effort, he earns the criticism.
I think, for moi, the most important thing I can do to develop characters is write them as perfect as I can, then back track and add all the faults they need to become human. My hero is strong, confident, deeply spiritual and, okay, hawt. But what is the flipside of that kind of person? Aloof, arrogant, un-teachable and ...there's no flipside to hawt. Oh wait, vain!
Character who took my breath away? I've typed several different ones, I can't just pick one!!

I had a lovely crit partner get somewhat grumpy (RED FONT in the notes)with me because I wrote the hero doing something she really didn't like. "That doesn't sound like X at all!!"

"Umm, HE is fake but who were you mad at? Me or HIM?"

Nailed it.

Patti Hill said...

Jennifer, hiding out with cinnamon buns sounds PERFECT!!! And what an interesting way to grow your characters.

Getting our characters to that place where they will contradict themselves under the right kind of motivation is a very tough trick. You sound like a brave, pirate-like writer. And that's a good thing.

Marian said...

I'm appreciating this conversation. My characters tend toward flatness.

Bonnie Grove said...

Not for sensitive eyes (I'm going to use naughty words)

Here's how to write great characters: Look inside. Then write the whole damn truth.

We will struggle until we can do that much.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Sometimes that truth is scary. But we are brave, aren't we?

Megan Sayer said...

I think that truth is the only way to write, really. I've been reading some online forum teaching thingy over the last few days on the same topic, and some people just don't seem to be understanding basic human traits and characteristics. We're all a crazy, mixed up bunch, but we tend to all be crazy and mixed up in the same ways - we just express it differently. The only way we can give ourselves freedom and permission to tap into those places is first to recognise that quite a lot of people who read our work will be drawn to it because they understand.

Megan Sayer said...

Thinking a bit more about it, our bookshelves at home are littered with books by Terry Pratchett (fantasy/satire) and Agatha Christie (murder mysteries). The reason such two disparate authors are our family favourites is because they're both such acute observers of human nature, and therefore so interesting! Pratchett in particular has an uncanny ability to hold a mirror up to our society in the most absurd way, and although he's writing very silly stories with very fantastic characters it's hard not to nod your head in appreciation of the depths of his understanding.

D. Gudger said...

Thank you for your post. I got an email from one of my crit partners that shook me up a bit. SE wanted to put down my ms b/c my teen character made two errors that caused her trouble at a band co petition. The partner said she lost respect for my protagonist and would be done with the book at that point. I am writing to teens who feel they are sometimes flawed beyond redemption. I want my characters to be messy and real. Your post affirmed this. Now I can shake off and keep pressing on. Thanks.

Josey Bozzo said...

I like snarky Patti too. And as much as I like your posts on this book and author, I gotta tell you, I don't understand any of it. LOL
Any character, whether wholly negative or naively positive or somewhere in between (My question: Has he left anyone out?), can be alive, alert, and engaged in life. But how is that conveyed to the reader? There are three key techniques: the use of observation, opinions, and self-awareness. P. 100
I'm not that educated.And it scares me to think that I would need to follow what he is saying to write a good book.
I think good writing is a combination of knowledge of the so called "correct way" and just plain ole digging deep down and writing truthfully and with feeling. Write about events and people that stir something in you or whoever you hope will read it someday. If I close a book and cannot stop thinking about the characters or story, or specific lines....then it was a good book whether or not the protagonist did this or the antagonist does that.

But, alas maybe I am just showing my inexperience and lack of education.

Snark on Patti!

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie: Amen!

Susie: We're pirates!!!

Megan: It's clear who is honest and understands the human condition when you pick up a manuscript and who doesn't. Ironically, Christians seem especially bad at this. Have we forgotten that our "righteousness is as filthy rags"? That being nice isn't the same as walking upright with the Lord? That Christians--gasp!--still struggle with sin?

When I teach beginning writing classes, I encourage people to become students of humans beings. People watch. Take notes. Read nonficiton books on issues we all deal with. Get out there and observe!

D: There's no fooling teens about the truth. They live a very hard truth daily. Try walking down the halls of a middle school or high school. It's a battle zone. And you've learned an important lesson about crit partners. You gotta know when to listen and when to say thank you, and to file their comments in the round file. We've all done it. Don't feel guilty. Be truthful.

Bonnie Grove said...

The truth is always frightening. It's the moment when we are hit with the fact that this is ME. And I'm me because I did this on purpose--with or without conscious intention. That the life I've let accumulate at my feet indelibly stains my soul.

And that is shows on the outside, no matter how many mirrors I've ignored as I passed by.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Wonderful discussion everyone! I am charaterising, er.... people watching in Phoenix this week. My oh my, the people! It is all very strange to me and I am not sure how to interpret their actions. But if anyone wants characters for novels they are here by the cactus load.

Richard Mabry said...

Oh, I was SO tempted to leave an anonymous comment and sign it Donald M. But as in most cases (wish it were all), good sense prevailed.

The thing with which I struggle the most is getting my characters fully fleshed out. I find that by the time I've finished my first draft, I know them much better, at which point I can go through and do the needed repair work.

And, as for creating flawed characters, I just received a less than stellar review of my latest novel in which the reviewer dinged my hero for neglecting to see something that she picked up. "After all, he's a doctor." News bulletin--doctors are human, we make mistakes. Matter of fact, everyone does. And when my characters stop making mistakes, there's nothing to write about.

Snark on.

Unknown said...

I found Don's book The First In Fiction to be one of the best how-to craft books I've ever read. I wore my highlighter out on it, and keep it on my little shelf of advice books to leaf through on occasion.

Unfortunately, Don's 21st Century book is a bust, IMO. And your comment about how often he references his other books parallels my thoughts. I came away with the impression that Don wrote this latest book for sales, and sales alone.

To me, the best point he makes in it is to write from the gut, to go deep, because that is what today's readers respond to.

I gave my copy of 21st Century to the library, free of highlights.