The Art of Character

Some notes taken from David Corbett's The Art of Character:

  • Desire is what prompts action, and action defines character.
  • Writing requires a constant pursuit, if not embrace, or the unfamiliar, the foreign, the uncomfortable—and creativity often begins only once we leave our comfort zones.
  • Characters are the human beings to whom the story happens, not cogs in the machine of your narrative.
  • Readers do not need everything explained to them. (This was a huge revelation for me.)
  • Characterization requires creating an initial impression of the character that feels coherent or whole, then shoving her through a doorway toward the unknown, into a gauntlet of trials and reversals, revelations and confusions, that will shred her familiar, coherent sense of self and transform her utterly.
  • Show your character wrestling with ideas and emotions instead of simply having them (show, don't tell).
  • Consider the outer goal, the inner conflict and how they relate to one another (ideally linked but not one in the same)
Imagine a woman in a grocery store at 10 am dressed in evening wear: a cocktail dress, bolero jacket, opera gloves, a string of pearls on top of a shelf, straining, unable to get a grip. Glancing around, she sees no one available to offer assistance, stares once more at the unnerving peaces, then suddenly hikes up her skirt, notches the toe of her pump on a lower shelf and starts climbing as though up a rock face. Tongue between her teeth, reaching as far as she can, she wiggles her fingers, finally nudges one of the cans—it totters. Then falls. Several others tumble down with it. She jumps back down, shields her head from the avalanche—she may be hurt, but before anyone can get to her she very slowly drops to her knees, picks up two of the cans, clutches them to her chest, and begins to sob quietly.

There is no description of what this woman looks like beyond what she's wearing. The most important things that make that depiction compelling are:

  • The character needs or wants something.
  • She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan for overcoming that difficulty.
  • She exhibits a seeming contradiction: She's dressed in evening wear at the grocery store at midmorning.
  • Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable.
  • Her sobbing suggests there is more to her predicament than meets the eye—a secret.