Today’s guest is David Corbett. David 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? 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 U.S. He lives in Vallejo, CA.
His text on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, was published by Penguin in January 2013.
“Without deep and meaningful characters, a story is just a shell and series of events. I want to help authors create characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory. It is helpful to beginning and advanced writers to learn to plumb the rich source materials of their own lives and the world around them to fashion credible, compelling characters.”
Avoiding Boring Biographies: Character profiles premised on description and information are a fool’s errand. Chuck them. Write scenes.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri urges writers to construct detailed character biographies focusing on three principal areas:
I’ve embraced this approach, with an important caveat: I don’t compile details such as a character’s height, complexion, marital status, religion, occupation, favorite dessert, and most cherished pet. Instead I envision things scenically, focusing on the question: How does my character’s physical, psychological, and sociological makeup affect her interactions with others?
A static laundry list of information about a character may aid a description but it offers little guidance in dramatizing how she behaves.
The screenwriter Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon, Presumed Innocent) recommended writing scenes outside the script to see how the characters act in moments of embarrassment and conflict not tied to the story. He argued that picturing when your character “puked on her shoes” was more valuable than knowing her hair color or whether she graduated from high school.
The approach I’ve ultimately taken in my own work (after considerable trial and error) expands on this, though to the greatest extent possible I try to focus on envisioning scenes that I’ll potentially use, or that reflect meaningfully on the story I intend to tell.
There’s a lot of ground to cover when exploring a character’s physical nature (appearance, sex, race, age, health, sexual appeal), psychological nature (love, hate, fear, pride, shame, guilt, success, failure), and sociological nature (class, education, work, family, friends, religion, politics). I try not to go overboard. What I’m after is a deep, vivid, living impression of the person I’m trying to depict—no more, no less. The rest lies in my story.
That said, imagining emotionally textured and revealing scenes that I ultimately discard is no waste of time; it’s an inevitable part of the writing process.
I don’t craft these scenes into final form. A mere sketch will do, enough to give me a vivid impression of the character engaged in some meaningful act.
I delve into key moments of real emotional impact—scenes of helplessness that in some way changed the character’s life, her understanding of herself, her standing among others.
- When was she most ill, or most near death? Who cared for her, if anyone, and what bond was formed or undermined through that ordeal?
- When has she felt most attractive, least attractive, with particular attention to who else was present at both times? How did she respond to the sexual desire that resulted—or didn’t? Who does she consider “in her league” and “out of her league” with respect to physical attraction?
- How carelessly does she laugh? Has anyone mocked her laughter?
- When has a lover praised—or denigrated—her body, her kiss, her lovemaking?
- When has she been physically tested, either in sports or a moment of danger? How did she do—and how did that change how others judged her?
- How carefully does she pick out her clothes, put on her makeup? Most importantly, who is she trying to please?
Looking into the character’s psychological nature—the most important area to explore:
- When was my character most ashamed? (Shame is an invaluable tool in exploring character, for it involves other people.)
- What was her proudest success, her most devastating failure—and how long has it been since each event? How did these moments define her subsequent sense of pride or insecurity?
- Who does she love most, and is that person still in her life—if not, why not?
- Who has she disappointed—or betrayed? Who has disappointed or betrayed her?
- What’s the worst crime she’s ever committed? What crime might she commit if the circumstances were favorable? What crime would she never commit?
- What is her most profound loss in love? How has that loss shaped her current relationship with openness and emotional risk?
- What were her first, most shattering, and most recent encounters with death? How did these deaths shape her view of her own mortality?
- And how do all of these facets combine to form the big question: What does she want from her life? What was the last major effort she made to pursue it—what happened?
Last, exploring the character’s sociological nature:
- What were the best and worst moments at school? Which teachers and fellow students encouraged her, inspired her, belittled her, hated her?
- How does she interact with people better educated than her, less educated? Does she have to hide how smart she is, or how dull? Who appreciates her jokes?
- Where does she work, how does she feel about the job? Picture her arguing with or mollifying a superior, a co-worker, a client, a competitor.
- How does she interact with people of different class or social standing? What’s her relationship with money?
- If she goes to church, where and how often, how willingly? Who considers her admirable—or foolish—because of her faith?
- Who does she consider “her tribe”? What would she have to do to get kicked out?
Again, I’m not looking for “answers”—I’m seeking out dramatic scenes where something is at risk.
Envisioning my characters in scenes like this opens them up in a way that descriptive biographies can’t. Why? Characters reveal themselves more convincingly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.
Introspection and feeling are hardly irrelevant but our actions define us, specifically the way we behave toward others. Thought and feeling can be revoked, superseded, or countered by other thoughts and feelings; action commits us—it has consequences.
And how we act, especially in conflict, reveals what we want, how far we will go to obtain it, how willing we are to take responsibility, and what we think of ourselves and others.
A scene presents a kind of test, and we reveal ourselves most unequivocally when we’re tested. Why put off exploring such moments with your characters? Start there. You may surprise yourself at how much more quickly—and deeply—the rest of the writing goes.
How do you craft your characters? Has a particular technique worked especially well–or poorly–for you?