Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 14, 2010

Donald Maass Character Checklist

Donald Maas is president of the Donald Maas Literary Agency in New York, which he founded in 1980. He represents more than one hundred fiction writers and sells more than one hundred novels per year. He runs writing skills workshops and he has written two novels on writing.

The following is from his Writing the Breakout Novel in the section about characters.  He points out, it is characters that are most remembered.  Great characters equals great fiction.

The wonderful thing about both of Donald’s books on writing are all the examples he includes to drive his point right into our brains.  You can also purchase the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which is loaded with writing exercises. He talks at length about each of the following points.

  • All stories are character driven.
  • Engrossing character are out of the ordinary.
  • Readers’ sympathy for characters come from the characters’ strengths.
  • Larger-than-life characters say what we cannot say, do what we cannot do, change in way 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 the tools like character biographies, author-character dialogues, etc.
  • Differentiate characters with character charts.
  • Breakout characters are deep and many-sided.

If you are writing a novel, you really should take a look the next time you are in the bookstore or library to see if you agree with me about the value of the content in this book.



  1. This is a good list, very helpful. I agree that the characters are of paramount importance. If they are not believable, then the writing is not successful.


    • June,

      I have one novel that I need to go back and work more on the characters. Those pesky little characters. Good luck with yours.



  2. I just bought a copy of this book and love it!

    I agree that great characters make it a great story to read, enjoy, and live the fictive dream.

    Thanks for the reminder.


    • Marisa,

      I have both his books. I’ve been going back and forth reading both of them at the same time -probasbly not the best way to do things.



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