Today we’re doing something special. Not only do we have a fabulous interview with author David Corbett about characterization (everyone should read this interview… you’ll learn a LOT!), but if you post a comment, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a copy of his book, The Art of Character. That’s right!
Spread the word, and don’t forget to post. I highly recommend this book to any writer. You could be the one!
The drawing will be held on Monday, September 9, so stay tuned. If the winner lives in the US or Canada, they will have their choice of a print or digital copy; if they live anywhere else in the world, a digital copy will be given. Okay, let’s get started!
I am so excited to have David here. He is a former private investigator and a New York Times Notable author.In The Art of Character, David offers a unique and indispensable toolkit for creating characters that vividly come to life on the page and linger in memory.
I’ve read his book and it now holds a place of honor on my desk with my other treasured writing references. Yes, it’s that good.
Toni: Welcome, David! Let’s get right to it, shall we? How did you learn your characterization techniques?
David: I studied acting in my 20s, and learned a lot from my teachers as well as the texts on acting by Constantin Stanislavsky: Creating a Role, Building a Character, and An Actor Prepares. Theater made me appreciate the profound, clear-cut advantages of dramatization over description in depicting and developing character.
When I began writing fiction, I first relied on the advice of Lajos Egri in his wonderful text, The Art of Dramatic Writing, and I wrote extensive character biographies analyzing the physical, psychological, and sociological aspects of my characters’ natures. But I soon realized I’d fallen into a trap, turning my back on what I’d learned before. I was writing static, descriptive passages about my characters that failed to bring them to life the way scenes could. And so I began to develop the methodology I outline in the book, which is to build a biography not from information but from scenes of emotional risk and helplessness that have defined the characters’ lives. This has proved to be far more useful and valuable to me in my own writing, and I’ve seen excellent results in the work of my students who employ this approach.
Toni: What advice would you give a writer having trouble finding the core desire for their main character?
David: Well, the first thing I’d do is ask the writer: What makes your character happy? What would happen if the source of that happiness was taken away forever? Is there something else, something deeper that the character considers gratifying? I’d continue this process of elimination until I found the thing the character simply can’t live without, the thing that makes life meaningful and worth the struggle of existence. The character will be facing considerable conflict in the story (if it’s written well), and he will have to come to some kind of reckoning: Why continue this struggle? Why not simply relent, give up, go home? The answer lies in what the character truly, deeply needs and wants from life. That’s what he’s fighting for, even if he doesn’t realize it at first, or tries to deny it.
If this process fails to get the writer in touch with his character’s core desire, then I’d have him ask these questions of himself: What makes you happy? What would happen if the source of that happiness was taken away, and so on. What gives your life meaning? What would render your life meaningless? Young writers especially tend to avoid answering such questions, but avoidance is a form of denial, even cowardice. If you can’t answer these questions for yourself, how can you hope to answer them about anyone else, especially your characters?
Toni: You often hear about flawed characters. Why is it so important that characters be flawed and vulnerable in some way?
David: Being flawed isn’t the same as being vulnerable, though the two are related.
Vulnerability is key because we instinctively empathize with someone who’s vulnerable – unless we shrink from the basic concern for others that defines decency. Few things draw us closer to a character than the knowledge that he’s wounded or hurting in some way.
A flaw, however – or a weakness, a wound – takes us back to the core desire. To identify the character’s flaw or weakness or wound, you need to know not just what his core desire is, but why he doesn’t have it in his life. The answer to that question leads you to the aspect of his nature that is holding him back, that creates the lack at the core of his existence, and that lack feeds the desire that, consciously or unconsciously, motivates his action within the story. Normally the character is in some way blind to how his flaw or weakness or wound is holding him back, but the conflict he endures through the course of the story strips away his pretenses, awakens his self-awareness, and that insight guides him to a deeper understanding of his life, and the stakes of not accomplishing the goal at the heart of the story. He at last understands what he has to lose, and what he’s been trying to avoid admitting until that critical epiphany, that moment of insight.
Great stories normally concern a character who, through the insight prompted by great conflict, correct the flaw or overcome the weakness or heal the wound that has been crippling their capacity for fulfillment and happiness, and guided by that insight they find a way to change themselves and the way they live.
Toni: How does point of view help with characterization?
David: Point of view establishes the distance you’ve decided to take between you, the writer, and your character. It will define the extent to which you can avail yourself of the more subjective tools such as inner life and even stream-of-consciousness, or whether you decide to reveal the character more through more objective methods: description, action, dialog.
Point of view also can determine how intimately the reader bonds with the character. First person generally inspires a profound and specific sense of intimacy, but it also risks spending too much time in the character’s head as he tells us the story instead of living it. Third person allows more convincing dramatization without narrative intrusion, but unless the point of view is close, this dramatization can risk creating a certain distance that feels cool and remote.
There is no “best answer,” though editors are swooning over first person these days, to the point they automatically ask: How could this story be told in first person? This kind of artificial preference makes me itch, but such is the way of things.
Toni: Thank you for your interview, David. I appreciate your time and your book.
David: Thanks for your interest and support, Toni!
David Corbett is the author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running? The Art of Character is his latest book. David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. He lives in Vallejo, CA.
Find David Corbett at the following places online: