Down to earth and highly detailed, The Art of Character breaks down what works in story-telling—and why.
David Corbett makes a convincing case that all fiction starts with developing the right character and giving that character the right traits, issues, background, history and depth.
Corbett’s standards are high and his examples are strong and diverse, from movies to the stage to novels. His references run the gamut, from Patricia Highsmith, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard and Joseph Conrad to The Godfather, Michael Clayton and Slumdog Millionaire. His breakdown of Midnight Cowboy is brilliant. You might brush up on “Macbeth” before you dig in here or sample a few episodes of “Breaking Bad” if you haven’t already seen it. Corbett occasionally points out what doesn’t work (and frankly, I wish there was more examples of why some stories or movies fall flat).
Corbett urges writers to conduct an “unflinching” analysis of their own identity to understand their characters. He wants scenes that allow characters to meaningfully engage characters in conflict with each other and recommends character biographies created from scenes over the traditional inventory-based approach. And he shows you how to develop an intuitive grasp of your character by understanding moments of profound emotional impact—shame, you, fear, pride, regret, forgiveness.
On and on. The Art of Character is a toolkit and my copy is heavily marked-up with pages and paragraphs that resonate. Corbett’s style is breezy and conversational:
“So where is the fine line between being punished by behavior and finding it unbelievable—worse, contrived? The answer lies in letting the seemingly enigmatic behavior emerge from the character, not the writer. This many seem like a step into madness, but, as noted at the very start, a great deal in characterization has an element of irrational to it.”
“We’re meaning-making animals; we couldn’t stop trying to make sense of things if we tried. Just because we’re wrong sometimes doesn’t imply the whole enterprise of trying to find coherence is inherently misbegotten.”
One of the most layered and interesting sections is “The Army of Others: Secondary Characters,” including Corbett’s detailed description of the role he calls “The Revenant,” the character in successful stories who forces the protagonist to work through her issues, particularly her biggest fears. “A hero may grow purely from the pressure of external events, but it’s doubtful she can transform, moving beyond a previous flaw or limitation, without the challenging or supportive scrutiny of another person. We don’t know ourselves by ourselves, as the saying goes, and it’s no less true of fiction than real life.”
Put The Art of Character on your shelf of books about writing. If you’re stuck, browse for a few minutes and try out one of the exercises. I doubt you’ll be stuck for long.