The Art of Character

By David Corbett

It’s a bit of two-for-one day here at Casa de Corbett—I’m posting not just here but with Deborah Crombie over at Jungle Red, where we’re giving away a free copy of The Art of Character.

Why am I defying laws of physics by appearing in two places at once?

Because we’re a week away from the pub date for The Art of Character, and in between popping open the Dom Perignon and soliciting celebrity piggyback rides, we’re trying to amp up the volume on the book’s release.

If you want to know the story of how the book came about—Deborah’s preoccupation—trundle on over to Jungle Red.

Here I just want to speak briefly about why I think the book is helpful, and maybe even important.

Some of the best books on writing in recent years have emphasized structure—specifically Robert McKee’s Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. And though both books deal with character, Truby’s in somewhat more depth, I found there was something lacking in both that needed addressing.

Though both books and a few others deal brilliantly with the function of character, and discuss how the character is a crucial element in the story matrix, they leave largely unaddressed the trickier, subtler, more difficult, and thus most interesting parts of characterization—giving the character recognizable feelings and desires, contradictions and secrets, letting her think and feel and behave like a real and complex human being, not a plot puppet.

As I emphasize in the book, it’s important to think of the character not as just a cog in the story, but as a real individual, with a life “outside the narrative,” to whom the events of the story happen.

And it’s not enough to “take dictation from imaginary beings.” A great many clichéd characters sprang fully formed in their creator’s imagination precisely becaue they were derivative—vaguely concealed duplicates of other characters.

There’s no short cut. To create great characters you have to spend time. You have to feel deeply and imagine wisely. You have to ask a hundred questions and answer them not with your mind but with your heart and your intuition—and characters aren’t always quick or straightforward with their answers. Patience and attention are required.

The books I did find that dealt with this aspect of characterization didn’t take it far enough, in my opinion, or didn’t deal with it sytematically and comprehensively. On top of that, they were written in a style I found leaden, contaminated by “how-to.”

A character can’t be fashioned from ideas, or stitched together from parts, no matter how clever the tropes. You end up with a Frankenstein, not a Frank Galvin, or a Frank Pierce, or even a Frank Chambers.

But few if any of the books on writing I reviewed, even the ones I admired, offered any real guidance on how to conjure that organically whole yet emotionally complex hobgoblin we think of as a fully realized character.

I took only the mininum number of English classes in college and never took a creative writing course. I learned most of what I know about writing from trial and error—plenty of the latter—and breaking down scenes in acting school, where the importance of a physical and intuitive connection to the character was hammered into my over-analytical brain.

Writers lack the physical presence of the actor, and can’t rely on it. We have only words. How is it done?

I wanted to help writers figure that out by helping them move through each of the stages of characterization, from conceiving the character—and being wary of characters derived from the story, the finishing school for plot puppets—to developing the character, to understanding that character’s role in the story, to techniques for rendering her on the page.

I emphasize the importance of scenes, not information, in not just portraying your character but conceiving and developing her.

And I stress the need to plumb one’s own experience, emotions, and memory to create the intuitive facility you need to perceive your characters like figures in a dream, not pieces on a chess board—or the product of a checklist.

Last, I wanted to write the book in such a way the reader would feel not just informed but inspired. I wanted readers to feel compelled to put down the book and return to their desks and forge ahead with whatever they were writing.

From the response the book has garnered so far, I think I’ve been largely successful. Now the book needs to find its target audience: writers, whether just starting out or perfecting their craft.

If you’d like to try for a free copy, go to today’s posting on Jungle Red.

If you’d like to read an excerpt (“Serving and Defying the Tyranny of Motive”), check out this post on Zyzzyva. (Another excerpt will appear a week from today on Narrative Magazine’s Tumblr page.)

And if you’d like to pre-order the book, you’re only two clicks away, beginning with this one here.

* * * * *

What are the easiest and most difficult aspects of characterization for you?

Who is the most interesting character you’ve come across in a book, play, film, or TV program lately?

Among the characters you yourself have created, which one’s your favorite? Which one was hardest to create or get right? Which one was easiest?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: One of the points I make in The Art of Character is that a writer who writes for himself is “scribbling to a ghost.” We write for readers, because the reader makes us honest.

But it’s often important to personify the reader we’re trying to reach, and envision that reader as someone who expects our very best.

The actor Joseph Chaikin wrote that he never went onstage without imagining Martin Luther King, Jr., in the audience. Since we celebrated Dr. King’s birthday Monday, I thought it might be appropriate to choose this tribute to him from the late great Solomon Burke. It’s a beautiful song about persevering despite the gnawing doubts that plague even great men and women, and the humility that comes with true courage:


17 thoughts on “The Art of Character

  1. Lisa Alber

    Helloo again, I'm obviously in the mood to procrastinate today.

    I find it easy to develop characters by using a character analysis prompt sheet as a start. I can come up with whole worlds for each character. My problem is that I get so into character that I lose sight of the plot. My first drafts are overlong because I love interior landscape SO MUCH. And, of course, that's boring if it doesn't forward the story.

    I need to learn to take everything I know about a character and distill it into just what's perfect for the story. The corollary would be authors who let their research show, blathering on too much. I blather on too much. And because of that, sometimes–oddly it seems because I'm so into my characters–their motivations aren't clear enough.

    Yes, that's it: Distilling all I know about my characters back down to their basics: motivations, aches, goals, etcetera, and then going from there, adding back all the yummy stuff as it pertains to the story.

    I have a bad habit of falling in love with my subplot characters. Sometimes that gets in the way of plot too. 🙂

  2. Allison Davis

    Nice Burke song…miss him at Jazz Fest.

    I really loved Owen Dunne in the Art of Fielding. He's the only character in Harbach's book that doesn't get his own point of view, because he's so strong. I just loved how he developed and interacted with all of the other characters. I wanted to know him, hang out with him and pour him a drink.

    I have a favorite character, the one I am writing about now and she's nothing like me. I think that is part of the fun and the difficulty of writing about her. I try and sit somewhere, like a bar or restaurant, and think like she would think, to get into the character. It's hard to do.

    Another character in my second manuscript kept appearing in the book and I stopped writing it because I wasn't ready to develop him yet. He sits there and taunts me. He's a 40 something year old cop in the 1950's and drinks a lot of beer. I really feel like I know that guy but not ready to write about him yet. Not sure why.

  3. Larry Gasper

    Looking forward to reading this. I plan to use if for developing my characters more before the next draft. I'm not sure if already having the characters hemmed in by the pre-existing plot/story will hinder things, but I'll give it a shot.

  4. Shizuka

    I'm so excited about this book.
    Your online class was one of my best experiences ever.

    I'm rereading Jennifer Donnelly's REVOLUTION. Andi is a great character — so angry, depressed, and sad in the beginning, but with a great character arc. And even in the beginning, you're drawn to the sympathy and acceptance she shows to her falling-very-short mother and the casual friendships she has with a homeless man and her music teacher. Her love of music also comes through very strongly.

    With my own writing, I struggle with making characters sound different from each other and with making them complex but not inconsistent.

    The easiest characters for me are the ones that just come to me. Usually these have a very strong fear driving or holding them back. Character want is important, but often character fear helps me more in figuring out a character.

  5. Dee

    Absolutely looking forward with "fanboy" enthusiasm to your new book. Talking to my imaginary friends is how I get my arthritic bones to walk every dank, grey, wet afternoon. But the charm I feel in knowing them is not coming across on the page–yet. Your book will help.

    Two characters from yesterday that are working for me are Guido Brunetti, with whom I would love to have a glass of wine in Venice, and–don't snort–Emily Owens. This TV character has captured me, and I'm not sure why. Is it the writing? The acting? Both working together? She is so unexpectedly human inside a shining carapace of beauty and success.

    Do you get more buzz if I move your book from wishlist to preorder? If so, I will.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – I predict you will be wildly successful with this book. There is a definite need for it in the market-place. I own so many of the "how-to" books out there and I agree that most of them give superficial treatment to the makings of good character. Plot is easier to examine, as it is a finite thing. Character is complex, yet it's the stuff of great stories. Character creates plot.
    You're going to kick-ass with this, I just know it.

  7. David Corbett

    Lisa: Getting lost in your characters can be a form of writers block – not that I know anything about that — and the balance between story and character is never really completed until you’re done with the story or book. With practice, though, you get an instinct for what belongs, what doesn’t – and you start not writing the things you don’t need. I’m a strong believer in knowing your character’s greatest fear, guilt, shame (big one), success, failure, joy, loss, love. I also look at five key things: what he wants, how he responds when he doesn’t get it, secrets, contradictions, and vulnerability. I create scenes that explore these issues – I don’t just accumulate “information.” This engages me intuitively with the character in key moments in his life. Once I’ve got that, it’s time to write the story.

    Allison: I thought you’d like the Burke tune. The shadow character – the one who is nothing like you – can often be not only the most fun to write but the most illuminative. And we’ve all had pest characters who won’t let us ignore them. Usually it’s because they have something to say we need to hear. But sometimes they’re just nagging.

    Larry: In a word: Yes. Hemming the characters in to a fixed plot eliminates the most interesting thing about a character – his capacity to surprise you. However, if you’re working backwards, look at the decisions and choices your character makes and reach down into their psyches and souls and backstories to determine why they could make that choice and no other.

    Shizuka: How nice of you to say that. I’m teaching it again this quarter, with updates that are in the book. Sam Shepard had an interesting insight into character differentiation – he always thought of the characters in a play as different instrumentalists in a jazz combo, each with his own tempo, timbre, and role. The key to complexity + consistency is developing an intuitive connection with the character. The excerpt, “Serving and Defying the Tyranny of Motive,” discusses this, and the book is largely a guidebook on how to do that. Fear is perhaps our most primitive emotion, and it reveals our helplessness. Any emotion that strips away total control of our behavior is a great place to start with a character.

    Dee: I haven’t a clue about buzz. And I don’t care when you buy the book, I’m just grateful you’re considering it. And I do not laugh at anyone’s connection to a character. We are complex beings, our affinities are various and wiser than we are. I do think that Donna Leon, in making not just Venice but Bruno utterly inviting, pulled off a real coup.

    Stephen: From your lips to the little penguin’s ears. (Do penguins HAVE ears?)

  8. Sarah W

    I'm looking forward to THE ART OF CHARACTER, David!

    Voice is *usually* the easiest part for me—or at least I *think* it is—how someone speaks and what they’re actually thinking regardless of what they’re saying (I often learn why they’re thinking this afterward)

    Descriptions, oddly, are not. I know what characters look like, but my POV characters don’t think about it much, so I have trouble figuring out how to get it in there.

    Faramir in Lord of the Rings is one of the most interesting characters I've read or seen lately—he’s overshadowed the entire time, book and movie (even in the extended version), and he doesn’t win any battles, but he retains his honor and his own code of conduct. In my opinion, he was the Steward Gondor should have had. The book makes this clear—he’s the only man who isn’t tempted by the Ring at all, even though claiming it might have earned his father’s respect.

    Johnny Quid and Handsome Bab from RocknRolla interest me, too. Both have more layers to them than anyone knows.

    My favorite character among mine is probably a homeless woman who gave up everything to keep her stepson safe, until she meets someone who may help her reclaim him and make a new life—she was tough to do, because she’s just on the edge of despair and the fear and guilt are killing her. My second favorite may be a beautiful blond grifter who cheats at cards and wants to be more than a honey trap, though she has a strange way of showing it—she was difficult because she's a secondary and her voice was strong enough for an MC. Oddly enough, my small circle of readers seem to prefer an enigmatic cyborg journalist in a thingI made up for fits and shiggles—he was the easiest to create and the most fun to write.

    The most difficult is a homicide detective I’ve been tinkering with off and on. He’s almost entirely closed off right now, because of reasons, and I simply couldn’t get a handle on who he is (in a word, angry). It doesn’t help that I’ve only a rudimentary idea of what he does.

  9. David Corbett


    You share your limitations with Elmore Leonard — not bad company. He almost always lets voice indirectly provide the visual impression of the character, because he never felt comfortable with his descriptive skills. Sound familiar? Work with what you're good at, don't worry about what you don't do well. Lead with your strengths. (And grab on to those characters who compelled you and trust them.)

    I'll bet when you get a better idea of what cops do day-to-day your homicide detective will start materializing before your eyes like a genii. Nothing quite conjures a character like the details of their daily life — down to the weight of the weapon.

  10. David Corbett

    Dear Murderateros:

    I'm heading out for the opening of the SF Jazz Center, the only free-standing musical venue dedicated to jazz in the US. Going to be quite a night. If I don't get to your comment tonight I'll do my best to respond tomorrow. Thanks one and all for visiting the site.


  11. Reine

    I am so tired, David… but I wanted to drop by here and tell you I am looking forward to reading your book. I enjoyed your interview with Deborah Crombie over on Jungle Red. Take care, dear and thank you for great metaphors.

  12. David Corbett

    Reine: Thanks so much for touching base both here and at Jungle Red. Let me know what you think of the book.

    Phillipa: You know, that's an excellent question, to which I have no answer. I'll try to find out and let you know. I hear it's coming out in the UK in about a month to six weeks.

Comments are closed.