David Corbett Illuminates Character

David Corbett, Author of The Art of Character

Our speaker for the September 27 CWC-Marin meeting, David Corbett, was late, very late actually, but he then more than made up for it with his insightful and stimulating presentation on creating memorable characters.

Corbett, a former private investigator and author of six crime novels, including Mercy of the Night, wrote a highly acclaimed primer called The Art of Character two years ago, and ran down the highlights for the CWC members and guests.

He focused on five key components of character: desire, adjustments, vulnerability, secrets, and contradictions.

“You want to keep torturing your protagonist. Things are bad? Make them worse.”

1. Desire

“Stories without desire are stillborn,” he said. It is desire, Corbett says, that drives story even more than conflict. Desire leads to conflict. Someone wants something, but they can’t get it. Someone or something is in the way.

The best characters yearn deeply for something, whether it’s Ahab’s white whale or Gatsby’s Daisy. It’s what we can’t get, but we can’t stop wanting. And if the character stops pursuing their desire, then they have to live with what they didn’t do.

Usually characters start with a lack. They’re not living the life they want to live.

Why? Four possible reasons:

  • Weakness — laziness, cowardice, shyness, lack of confidence
  • Wound — some incident in the past that hold them back
  • Limitation — youth, inexperience, gender, class, poverty
  • Flaw — moral failure, greed, cruelty, dishonesty

Many characters turn themselves inside out trying to protect themselves from pain.

While Corbett said that mapping these reasons for thwarted desire are helpful, it’s best to show them in scene, whether you include that scene in your final draft or not.

Opportunity or misfortune strikes. Desire arises.

2. Adjustments — How We Cope With not Getting What We Want

Denial is the great wall between what we want and where we are. It’s pretty common to pretend that desire isn’t that important.

Of course, adjusting can be a mature response. Sublimating your desire so you can achieve long-term goals. LIke students who study instead of skiing in order to get into medical school. They don’t deny the yearning as much as put it off.

3. Vulnerability

As readers, sometimes we’re turned off by neediness, but usually when people are vulnerable, when we see the hurt from not getting what they want, we are attracted to them. If they’re never vulnerable, why would we care about them?

Vulnerability can manifest in a variety of ways — existential, physical, emotional. One common situation is when characters do something, knowing they will be judged.

In Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is vulnerable because she has no home, and, barely under the surface, she is asking her sister, is this my home?

4. Secrets — the Bigger, the Better

The minute you give your characters a secret, you create an illusion of depth. The best secrets are those that, if revealed, will change the person’s life.

5. Contradictions — Acting Out of Character

No one acts the same way all the time. They may act out of character in times of stress, or because of some wound in the past.

When someone acts out of character, it shakes up our expectations. Creates intrigue. Like the take-charge supermom, who goes out on a date and we see her tentative, deferential, uncertain. We are all many things to many people. We act differently in the boardroom than in the bedroom.

Writers often put their characters in situations that take them out of their comfort zone, where they become more unpredictable. A shy young man goes off to war. An impatient woman is confronted with a husband getting dementia.

Some other questions to consider? When did your character exhibit courage? How about fear? When does your character feel shame, feel like he or she is a bad person, a loser? Maybe losing a job. Getting divorced.

And then there’s the opposite of that. The moment of triumph. Pride.

Two other dichotomies Corbett called out were guilt and forgiveness — some people never forget — and death/loss and love/connection.

One theme he kept returning to was the idea that you want to keep making life more difficult for your characters. How they respond to these troubles shows us who they are.

“You want to keep torturing your protagonist,” he said. “Things are bad? Make them worse.”

“At some point,” he said, “characters have stopped believing in the promise of life. It’s that wound that you lick for the rest of your life that defines character. “

At their lowest point, when they have to change or die, sometimes literally — that’s where discovery comes.

“Until then,” Corbett says, “flog them like a mule.


— by John Byrne Barry, author of Bones in the Wash and Wasted, and Laura Lopez, author of Escape the Will-Power Trap: 7 Secrets to Doubling Your Energy & Getting Your Life Back.