David Corbett on How to Create Compelling Characters

At our September 24 meeting, David Corbett packed a book’s worth of insightful advice on developing characters who will drive your story. As a matter of fact, he’s written that book, The Art of Character, which Elizabeth Brundage calls “a writer’s bible.”

CWC-septemberHe covered far too much to distill into this summary, so here are just a few highlights. You can read his book for more. (He’s a frequent speaker in the Bay Area and he’ll be at Book Passage again on October 8.)

  1. Every character doesn’t need to change, but most do. Usually, protagonists are faced by a series of challenges that force them to do something they might not otherwise have done. They change. Like Rick in Casablanca, who has a wound curdling into a flaw that he corrects.(Some characters never change. Think Homer Simpson. In almost every episode, Homer has some brilliant idea, then he falls on his face, and the next episode he’s back where he started. The situation changes, but the character does not.)
  1. Corbett identifies four characteristics that we need to identify for our important characters — lack, yearning, resistance, and desire.
  1. Lack — something is missing from their life. A connection with their father. Material success. Love.
  1. Yearning is the deep-seated need the character has. What kind of person do they want to be? In every scene, the character is trying to move to satisfy that yearning. (Of course, they are usually thwarted.)Yearning is tricky because there’s this concern that if you name it too specifically, you kill it. Sometimes a symbol is better, like the green light on Daisy’s dock in the Great Gatsby. It represents his hopes and dreams for the future.Usually the yearning comes first and the lack comes from not satisfying that yearning.But the lack can come first as well. We all experience some of that growing up, especially if we have younger siblings. As a baby, we’re fed all the time, we’re at the center of our parents’ universe, then along comes another baby and we’re not so special anymore.
  1. The big question for most protagonists is, if they’re yearning for something, why aren’t you doing it?Which brings us to resistance.
  1. Resistance can come in a variety of forms — weakness (laziness, cynicism, lack of confidence), wounds (broken heart, death of a parent), limitations (too young, too poor), opposition (strict father, cultural norms), and/or flaws (lack of courage, inability to tell the truth).
  1. The strongest characters have external goals tied to their internal yearning. They have to defuse the bomb about the destroy Sausalito and prove to themselves and their loved ones that they’re courageous.Lots of characters in thrillers face daunting challenges. The challenge for the author is to answer why they persevere? Why not just clock out and leave it for the next shift?
  1. How do you make the stakes matter? It needs to be more than just defusing the bomb. Maybe the characters can’t live with themselves if they fail. That’s not who they are.
  1. How much back story does your story need and where do you put it? Ideally, backstory is behavior. Your characters acts in particular ways because of what happened in the past. If possible, show that past in a scene instead of explaining it.
  1. End your book in a way that is both inevitable and surprising. (Easier said than done, right?)
  1. All characters have to polar impulses — to pursue the promise of life, and to avoid the pain of life.If you’ve gotten your ass kicked too many times, you decide avoiding pain is the path you want to follow.
  1. Here are some questions you might ask for all your main characters? When were they most afraid? What was their moment of greatest sorrow? How about their moment of greatest forgiveness? When was their golden moment, their greatest success? Was anyone else there?

These short takeaways don’t do justice to the wealth of valuable insights Corbett shared. I have read and studied his book and I recommend it. He has helped me make my characters richer and more compelling.

Next month, I’ll be presenting When Plots Collide — Create Suspense by Weaving Multiple Storylines.

This workshop will be more focused on mapping out plot, but of course, as Corbett would say, what happens in the story has to organically grow out of the character’s yearnings and wounds and passions. If you create a plot that doesn’t honor the characters, it won’t ring true. 

Hope you can make it.