Characterization: Controlled Hallucination or Craft?

David Corbett 

Inspired by Alexandra’s postings on craft, I’ve decided to chime in with a bit of scribbler wonkery of my own.

Rather than address story, however–which Alexandra, to my mind, discusses as insightfully as anyone I’ve read–I’d like to talk about character.

What follows is the introduction to a book I’m writing on the subject, and I’ll follow up in following weeks with portions from successive chapters. (This being a mere introduction, it’s general and thematic, not practical; the wonkery will follow.)

The book began as lectures for an online course I taught through UCLA’s Writers’ Program, one of the best resources for classes geared to both aspiring and working writers I’ve ever been around:

I’m very much interested in what the Murderati crowd thinks on this subject, and what insights and suggestions each of you might have. 

During a 2010 interview in San Francisco, the British novelist Kate Atkinson confided that her characters—who are some of the most unique and engaging in current literature—appear to her imagination fully formed, like dream figures.

Queried on the subject of teaching characterization—specifically, asked what strategy or technique she might suggest to students for bringing a character so vividly before the mind’s eye—she conceded puzzlement, remarking candidly, “I really can’t imagine what that might be.”

Consider this book a humble attempt to inform her disbelief. A writer of Atkinson’s gifts arguably has no need of what appears within these pages, but there are perfectly competent writers who do, or might benefit from it, and they need malign neither their imaginations nor their talent for that.

Of course, it’s not as though Atkinson is off the mark. What every writer hopes for—one might even say requires—is a full embodiment of his characters within his imagination, as though they possess a life of their own.

I realize this makes writing sound like a quasi-functional neurosis, or at least a kind of controlled hallucination—or professional daydreaming. But writers almost universally admit that when things are going well, it’s because the characters seem to act at will, of their own accord.

And yet fluidity of conceptualization guarantees neither richness nor elegance of portrayal. A great many characters who have leapt fully formed within their creator’s imagination have done so precisely because they were facile, predictable, clichéd. Whatever else can be said of characterization, it is absolutely true that if a portrayal falls flat, it is not the character’s fault.

For all but a lucky few, writing requires more than taking dictation from imaginary beings. One must be ready not just to bear witness but to engage the imagination—to ask penetrating, even embarrassing questions of one’s characters, to mold them, remold them, defy them, even destroy and resurrect them, while still maintaining that curious capability to step back, allow them once again to escape their creator’s grasp—dust themselves off, as it were—and reassert their enigmatic independence.

This dialog between deliberate and spontaneous, intentional and unknowable, conscious and unconscious lies at the heart not just of characterization but of all creativity. It is the pulse, the inhalation and exhalation, of the artistic endeavor.

Even at its most realistic, art remains an approach to the mysterious, and working with the depiction of human life can often seem particularly tricky—like fingering smoke. But at their most unique and unforgettable, characters strangely feel no less real to us than human beings themselves—seemingly infinite in their complexity, fathomless in their depth, tangible and yet ineluctable.

That does not mean, however, that the craft of characterization can’t be analyzed, or is resistant to technique. If that were the case, Atkinson would win the match and this book would be pointless.

And yet I make no claim that what you will read on these pages alone can instill an unerring gift for creating memorable characters. Since their appearance in the mind remains a mysterious business, the craft of rendering characters well is by its nature incomplete. Magic once explained ceases to be magic. But the act of conjuring should not be mistaken for what is conjured.

What can be learned in this book are ways to help you bring forth a concrete, compelling and dynamic image in your mind, and further shape what appears. This is no small accomplishment. Without it, storytelling withers into convention, hackwork, formula—worse, propaganda. The lifeblood of any story resides in characters that are, at one and the same time, vivid, unpredictable, and convincing. And the art of creating, shaping, depicting such characters is an exhilarating, at times maddening business.

But at some point in your life you have felt that curious, ineffable stirring in your imagination—the nameless, shapeless volition that seems to both arise from within and yet come from elsewhere, that manageable madness, that quickening pulse of urgent light we somewhat crudely refer to as the creative impulse. It is why you are reading these words. You may even believe it is why you are alive. You craft stories. Whether characters are demons or angels, apparitions or simply mental stuff, they are your inescapable companions. Hopefully this book will help you engage them with greater confidence and deeper insight.  

So, fellow Murderateros–intrigued, confused, inspired, bored? Chime in, pipe up, fire away. Please.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: You have not lived until you’ve heard the gypsy wedding band Fanfare Ciocarlia play the James Bond Theme:


Get up and rhumba!!

For more on Fanfare Ciocarlia, go here: 

31 thoughts on “Characterization: Controlled Hallucination or Craft?

  1. Shizuka


    Just when I thought Murderati couldn't get better, you come on board.

    Your class was amazing. I'm still processing it and I turn to dynamic bios when lost.
    Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge and yourself!


  2. Alafair Burke

    I subscribe to the "fully formed" school of thought, but here's the thing: Real people are fully formed, but it still takes time to get to know them. I get to know characters by writing about them. I don't think they change, though. I'm just learning more about them over the course of the year we spend together.

  3. Louise Ure

    "Professional daydreaming." That's the best description of our craft I've ever read.

    I may be alone in that my characters have never "surprised me" by what they've done on the page. Sheesh. I made them up. They don't do anything without me.

    Can't wait to read the subsequent chapters.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Where's your book now, David? I WANT IT! Really, writing believable, compelling characters is the hardest part of the process for me. Trying to keep everyone from sounding like a variant of me. This is why I do so much research, or one of the reasons, at least. I'm trying to experience the world through the eyes of someone else. And I have to push myself there – it doesn't come naturally. In my second novel I tried modeling my principal characters after real people and that helped a lot. I combined a couple real people and lifted certain interesting character traits from others. This worked well. I met one homicide inspector and was so impressed with his character that I transferred that feeling – and I say feeling, because I didn't REALLY know him – directly to the page. His introduction in BEAT is the most natural, fluid character intro I've ever written.
    It's really hard for me to just "make shit up." If I don't ground things in reality I end up writing paper-thin characters. I struggle with this more than anything else.
    Get that book done, and soon. I have a feeling I'm not going to finish my next novel without it.

  5. JT Ellison

    Building characters is one of my favorite things about writing. I love that controlled hallucination – but like Alafair, I don't want to get to know them too well too quickly. The journey is more fun that way. Awesome post, David.

  6. David Corbett

    Shizuka: You were one of my best students, ever. I miss you. And your work.

    Alafair & Louise: Your remarks pose an interesting question—are characters created or discovered? Is the character changing or just your understanding of the character? (Interestingly, that’s the subject of the book’s first chapter, which I’ll post in two weeks.)

    Stephen: In one of the early chapters, I address Where Do Characters Come From? I mention four main places where inspiration for a character can typically be found: the Story, the Unconscious, Art (especially painting, photography and music), and Real People. By far, I spend most of my time on the Real People section, for precisely the reasons you point out. They provide the most emotionally specific and complex source material. But the two most important words for any writer (except for, possibly: Steal Wisely) are: What If? Taking someone you know, then asking What If she weren’t this, but that? Using the various techniques together—combing someone you know, for example, with the impression you get from a photograph by Dianne Arbus or Robert Frank. For the character Tío Faustino in DO THEY KNOW I’M RUNNING? I combined my father, a Salvadoran emigrant I know, and a piano piece by Faure. I was very gratified when a reader singled him out as his favorite character in the book.

    But yes, people leave an impression on us, but do we know them? Do we “know” our characters? We can’t touch them, but I don’t touch many of the people I meet (honestly, Alafair, I don’t)—does that make them any less real? Regardless, in characterization, it’s the impression we’re working with, like clay, like color.

    JT: I make the point in the book that knowing your characters “completely” is a canard. We can’t know anything completely, it’s part of being mortal, and a truly compelling character will always remain somewhat enigmatic—even before its creator. I once heard a writer I very much respect say one most know “everything” about his characters. To my mind, this is exactly the wrong answer.

    BTW: Laura Lipmann had an excellent piece on her blog today about the need to humanize women in particular, especially in crime fiction, where they too often become mere plot baggage—or beautiful corpses:

    P.S. I’m holding off on posting till I have several folks to respond to, due to Squarespace’s infamous habit of blocking out anyone who posts too frequently. I don’t want to dragoon Louise into being my beard again, as I did last week. Thanks for understanding.)

    P.P.S. What — no one liked the gypsy rendition of the James Bond theme?

  7. Murderati fan

    And yet fluidity of conceptualization guarantees neither richness nor elegance of portrayal.

    This is a wonderful sentence. Spoken aloud, it gives exercise to both the tongue and the brain.

    You command and control words with the expertise of a circus lion tamer–entertaining and educational.

  8. Allison Davis

    Thought provoking to say the least…the main character I love writing about now came from a photo in the NYT, and I imagined what her life might be and she flowed from that…but I don't know a real person like her. Party of my "after writing" research will be to test some of the characteristics to make sure she's believable.

    I did have a character come out of no where…I mean it was my imagination but it was during nanowrimo and I was forcing myself to write late at night to get my 1679 words in and one night I needed a cop, there he was, in 1958…and I loved that character and wanted to get to know him more, so I wrote more about him. So yes, we make them up, dress them, give them features but sometimes they begin to have some of their own thoughts….

    I made a comment on the character I'm working with now, that I feel guilty not editing and finishing the book because I want to do it for her, to tell her story…and that resonated with my writing group. I have a protagonist I really feel for and want to get her story out. I like that motiviation.

  9. Allison Davis

    The Gypsy James Bond is not unlike all the brass bands I've been listening to in New Orleans for the past ten days at Jazz Fest….

  10. David Corbett

    Murderati Fan: Why thank you. Trust me, I’m blushing. (How nice, for once, when being conceptualized in a circus milieu, not to be lumped with the clowns.)

    Allison: There are ffew experiences as weirdly rewarding as being haunted by a character. The reality of her imploring you to tell her story is difficult to convey to those who don’t write—you seem just a tad wiggy. And it does sometimes feel as they those being approach us from some nameless beyond. And yet, there is Louise’s retort: Stop with the ogga-booga. We make the little buggers up. (I am decidely agnostic on this point.)

    Thanks so much for listening to the “video.” Yes, New Orleans brass bands have a similar sound, except there’s more funk in the rhythm, less rhumba (duh). Since you so sweetly responded, I’ll give you a treat: FC’s video of their rendition of “Born to Be Wild:”

  11. David Corbett

    Geez, please excuse my shoddy proof-reading. What I meant to say in the above post was:

    And it does sometimes feel as though they approach us from some nameless beyond. And yet, there is Louise’s retort: Stop with the ooga-booga. We make the little buggers up. (I am decidely agnostic on this point.)

    I apologize for the sloppiness.

  12. David Corbett

    Allison: Backatcha with the OMG. Loved the Rebirth Brass Band joint. Man, what joy!

    Clearly, you feel as though this character appeared to you. That's creation? Or did you begin creating only after this "visitation?"

    I think the creation vs. discovery issue is a subtle and non-trivial one — and is as old as Plato vs. Aristotle. I'll say more about that in two weeks.

  13. Allison Brennan

    I agree with Alafair. I discover my characters as I write them. But I also discover the story, since I don't plot. Sometimes my characters surprise me, especially when I throw them a curveball. And sometimes they don't.

  14. JD Rhoades

    "I realize this makes writing sound like a quasi-functional neurosis, or at least a kind of controlled hallucination—or professional daydreaming. "

    For years, I've answered the question "why do you write" by saying "mental illness."

    My characters don't spring fully formed into my mind, but I do live for those moments when they suddenly come alive and I can see and hear them clearly. Sometimes I even have conversations with them. See "mental illness," above.

  15. David Corbett

    Dusty: To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir–A writer who speaks to us of his madness speaks to us of ourselves–i.e., you're no more batshit than anybody else here

    Allison B: Kate Atkinson admitted the same thing in a private conversation I had with her about this. She said she "thinks with her fingertips," i.e., her characters arise as she's writing. And yet, she still believes in a very real sense that they are there, waiting for her to discover them.

    I think what happens is a back-and-forth process, conscious then unconscious then back again. (If I use the word "dialectic," please shoot me.) If the process is purely conscious the result is almost always comparatively lifeless. I think the act of creation requires a certain surrender–to what, I'm not entirely sure. The Muse? The Unconscious? Memory? God?

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I told a college class the other day that just about every professional writer I know admits that characters "just show up."

    Characterization is the thing I most try NOT to teach, except to explain things like inner and outer desire, character arc, hope and fear, which have more to do with what happens to the character in a particular situation (ie, story). I think people know how to create character inherently – it's called "fantasy", and apparently we human beings do a lot of it.

  17. David Corbett


    The reason I teach character is because of its ineffable, indefinable aspects. It's like working without a net.

    Character lacks the structural precision of story. There are craft elements you can teach but there's always a point you have to give way. And teaching it is much more hands on, much more, well, ooga booga.

    But I don't think fantasy can explain it all, nor do I think characters who just show up are always good ones. I've heard writers say such things, and I read their work and think: Yeah, this character just showed up — in your book and about 200 just like it.

    What I try to teach is to engage this mercurial faculty that creates characters, not just to take what it gives but to shape what appears, toss it back into the darkness, and see what comes up next. This requires asking more probing and personal questions of a character than we sometimes expect, and to envision them in scenes that truly reveal their character. I do not believe in writing "character biographies." They're static and largely useless, imho.

    The process I'm suggesting is not dissimilar to what Allison and Alafair are talking about when they describe finding the character over the course of a manuscript. This is in much the same way a form of engagement then surrender, back and forth — at the end of each day, that character slips back under the veil of the unconscious, and when it re-emerges, it's different. That's the way the creative process works. I just try to teach students how to be a bit more active in the process, while still maintaining a capacity to let go.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, I didn't at all mean it CAN'T be taught! I just know that I can't teach it.

    But I grew up in theater and was too young to think about what I was doing when I stepped into a character – I think it's too late for me to figure that process out, because it started so young.

  19. David Corbett

    By the way, Alexandra, I've heard it said that the hardest things to teach are the ones you do instinctively. Sounds like character's that way for you.

  20. Barbie

    David!!! You've been here for just a little while and I already love your blogs! 🙂

    I like to say I 'play writing', because I'm not a professional author or anything, but I think the most rea lthing about my writing are my characters. I've never really planned or a character or made up a character, nothing, from name to personality, they all come to me. That doesn't mean they come ready or round, though. I'm always learning new things about them, motivations, background. They're mostly like friends, and, the more you live with them, the more you get to know them. They have a total independent life from myself, though — that's probably a bad thing. I was surprised when I saw a character and their whole family, but I didn't really know her name until she told me almost a month later, I was surprised when after three years I learned my character had a completely different motivation than I thought, I was surprised that my character's name was actually a nickname because she hated her real name. They're so real and true and themselves, that I often wonder if they're real people in some sort of other plane and for some reason I can see them and inside their minds, which is why this is one of the best sentences ever:

    "Whether characters are demons or angels, apparitions or simply mental stuff, they are your inescapable companions." <— SO TRUE, David.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    My characters often just show up like diners at a popular restaurant who haven't booked a table. Mostly I tell them to sit down, shut up, and don't annoy the staff. How they react to that tells me all I need to know.

    (Please bear in mind that I make stuff up for a living, so some or all of the above statement may or may not be true…)

    Kate Atkinson is up for the same Barry Award that I am this year. Maybe I should just send her a congratulatory email now ;-]

  22. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Wonderful piece. Sol Stein has a great line in one of his writing books about the role of a writer–instead of telling the reader it's raining, create in that reader the sense of being rained on. Creating fully formed characters involves that same level of mystery/magic and yet there are indeed things that the writer can do to evolve the process. I've always attempted to do so in my own writing, and during those times when I'm wearing my reader hat a flat character always brings a story to a screeching halt. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder has always been a character I appreciated, and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheauxk, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins (I could keep going). When I think about why these characters in particular "speak to me" I think it's the quiet, intimate moments I'm allowed to witness that bring them to life the most. Keep the good stuff coming, David.

  23. Reine

    Sorry, I'm so late, David… had to go look up a couple of words. Looking forward – HUGELY – to the book. Maybe, when it comes out I should register for the term, you know – to get the "free" OED online subscription! xoxo

  24. pari noskin taichert

    This is going to be fascinating to follow, David.

    For me, I meet my characters as I write them. They're formed, with indefinite faces and bodies but strong personalities. I learn about them from their reactions and their thoughts, letting them direct the show for at least a while. That's the creative process for me now. Then when I'm ready to edit, I use my analytical skills (or lack of them) to try to fill in the pieces so that others – who haven't lived with my characters in the intimate way I have — might know them too.

  25. David Corbett

    Sorry, I was away from my desk for a while. Had to go pick up ladybugs for the rose bushes. (They eat the aphids.)

    Zoë: You have this unerring capacity for making me feel as though I’ve just belched in the bride’s face. (Of course, I might say that at least you got nominated for the Barry—but that would be snippy.)

    Barbie: Characters should be real enough that their impression in your imagination is indelible, but not so real you can’t destroy them—or change them, turn them inside out, whatever it takes to make sure they aren’t merely story-dictated automatons.

    Phillip: I think the crime genre more than any other relies on the hero, and you named three of the best. Michael Connolly talks often of how much time he spent conceiving Harry Bosch, knowing that “character is king”—down to the fact that he knew Bosch was a smoker, because that would make him more of a loner (having to go outside for his much needed cigarette breaks).

    Reine: Let me guess which word you had to look up . . . rhumba?

    Pari: I think the most fascinating element of learning our characters as we write them is that point, whenever it occurs, when we know without a doubt that a certain action, sentiment, bit of dialog or emotional response is just not true. How and when and where such lines get drawn is the mystical side of this business. I try to teach my students how to feel them, but there’s no way to teach where they can reliably be found — for they differ with each character, and even with the same character in a different sequence of events or setting — or most importantly, in an exchange with a different character.

    I sometimes liken the work to music or painting, in that once you’re intuitively engaged with the process, you get a sense of what a “wrong note” or “wrong color” is, even if what you’re writing is like a dissonance in music or an abstract painting.

    I think characters begin like an introductory chord, then expand into a phrase, then a verse, etc. Or they progress like an impressionistic array of line and color on the canvas. You may make mistakes, you may fail to hear your intuition screaming at you because you’re so damn certain that: No, this is the way to go, I’m sure of it. Only to have to retrace your steps later. But that too is the creative process. Mistakes get made. Things get messy.

    OK. I must now attend to the ladybugs.

  26. Reine

    Well, at least I know who Stanislavski was. My old boyfriend Lou lived at the Acors Studio West, so I could hardly help it. Rhumba? Missed one.

  27. David Corbett

    Yeah, I wondered about that, Reine. Almost had to take out my dictionary for Acors. 🙂

    I could start a whole new thread about the Actors Studio ("stumblers and mumblers," as some of Stanislavsky's European adherents referred to them) But I will refrain, to the inestimable relief of all on this list.

    Thanks to all for chiming in. I really appreciate it, and it's given me great insight into how to finalize the presentation.

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