Characters: A Checklist

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons & karindalziel.

Last spring when I was taking my workshop in novel writing, one of our required books was “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass. As you’d expect, there’s a chapter about characters. They need to be out of the ordinary; characters are what makes your plot interesting

At the end of the chapter (at the end of every chapter, actually), Maass has a checklist. Because Raising the stakes in your writing is such an important part of the writing process, I wanted to post it here. Not everyone has read the book (I do recommend picking it up), and the checklist is an important one.

BREAKOUT Checklist: Characters

  • All stories are character driven.
  • Engrossing characters are out of the ordinary.
  • Readers’ sympathy for characters comes from characters’ strengths.
  • Larger-than-life characters say what we cannot say, do what we cannot do, change in ways that we cannot change.
  • Larger-than-life characters have conflicting sides and are conscious of self.
  • Dark protagonists appeal only when they have sympathetic sides; e.g., they struggle to change or have hidden sensitivity.
  • The highest character qualities are self-sacrifice and forgiveness.
  • Build a cast for contrast.
  • Build complex character relationships by combining roles.
  • Choose a narrator based on who is changed most by the story’s events.
  • Build depth of character with tools like character biographies, author-character dialogues, etc.
  • Differentiate characters with character charts.
  • Breakout characters are deep and many-sided.

[Was this post helpful? Would you like to see more of these checklists in the future? How do you raise the stakes in your own writing? Let’s discuss it in the comments!]

  • c.g.reyes

    Hey Kerri - I found this post very helpful. I am doing a couple of courses and am slowly beginning to work on character development. Some points that I really enjoyed that I think will be helpful are Build a cast for contrast. Differentiate characters with character charts. Build complex character relationships by combining roles. Build depth of character with tools like character biographies, author-character dialogues, etc. I've never thought about the idea of choosing a narrator based on who is changed most by the story’s events. That one is interesting

    • Kerri

      Yes, the choice of narrator point was interesting to me as well. I'll be keeping that one in mind next month when NaNoWriMo starts up!

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