How to build 3D Characters with the Maass Breakout Novel Exercise

Writing the Breakout Novel

I've been making final revisions to my next novel, and my editor recommended a few ideas from Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent extraordinaire Donald Maass. One day, Maass set out to see if best selling novels had any significant common elements. His research consisted of reading 100 novels that had enabled their authors to "break out" into the mainstream. Maass claims that he did in fact discover certain recurring qualities that strongly correlate with greater success.

I'd read the book years ago, and liked it, but time had taken its toll on my memory. Having been reacquainted with Maass' useful tips, I thought I'd share a couple of them--specifically, a set of exercises designed to make flat characters three dimensional.

Maass Exercise A
  • Take a character.
  • Write down that character's main quality.
  • Write down a contrasting quality.
  • Write a short scene in which the character demonstrates the contrasting quality.
Exercise A is easiest to do with supporting characters. It's intended to get you thinking about them as real people; not puppets or furniture.

Maass Exercise B
  • Take a character (could be the same one you ran through Exercise A).
  • Write down that character's main goal.
  • Write down another of the character's goals that opposes the main goal.
  • Write a short scene in which both goals pull the character in two directions.
Exercise B is easiest to do with main protagonists/antagonists. It's designed to add character depth by adding conflict.

Let's run through exercises A and B using a character who is well known to everyone on the planet:

Han Solo

Not only is Han Solo enthroned in the pantheon of Western pop culture, he has a bunch of new movies coming up, making this post both informative and topical!

Since Han is such complex, fully realized badass, I bet we can find a single scene that will pull double duty and satisfy both exercises at once. As usual, The Empire Strikes Back shows us the way.

Maass Joint Exercise A and B: Han Solo
  • Main quality: Ruggedly independent
  • Secondary quality: Heart of gold
  • Main goal: Pay off Jabba the Hutt.
  • Opposing goal: Win Princess Leia's affections.
When Empire begins, Han has already resolved a prior conflict between his main goal of appeasing Jabba and his loyalty to his friends. The stakes--and the conflict--are immediately made more personal, as his camaraderie with his rebel friends has deepened into a budding romance with Leia in particular.

Near the start of the film, Han has a series of conversations with Leia and his commanding officer, during which we are informed that he's spent far more time with the Rebel Alliance than he'd intended. Jabba is now so furious that he's put out a contract on Han. If Han wants to survive, he needs to pay off his debt right away.

Han's dilemma is bad enough, but as we learn during his heated exchange with Leia, his conflicting desires for independence and love prevent him from reaching a complete resolution.

Han Solo: Well Princess, it looks like you managed to keep me here a while longer. 
Princess Leia: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it's dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they've activated the energy shield. 
Han Solo: That's a good story. I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight. 
Princess Leia: I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain. 
[Chewbacca laughs] 
Han Solo: Laugh it up, fuzzball. 
The key to this scene is the utterly transparent way in which Han projects his yearning to stay with Leia onto her. His fierce independent streak won't let him admit his need for anyone else. These opposing feelings and goals create plenty of conflict--which sucks for the characters but is lots of fun for us.

If you're frustrated that your characters don't seem to be "working", or readers complain that your protagonist is a cardboard cutout, give Donald Maass' exercises a try. I also recommend that authors who are serious about writing for a living check out his book. It's certainly helping me refine the sequel to mine.

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