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Take Five: David Corbett and The Compass of Character

Please join us in extending a warm congratulations to David Corbett, WU contributor and author extraordinaire, on the November 19th release of his latest nonfiction title The Compass of Character.

David Corbett is the award-winning author of the writing guides The Art of Character (“A writer’s bible” – Elizabeth Brundage) and The Compass of Character, coming in November 2019. He has published six novels, including The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday, nominated for the Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery, and scheduled for re-release in Spring 2020 by Suspense Press. His short fiction has been selected twice for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Narrative, Bright Ideas, and Writer’s Digest, where he is a contributing editor. He has taught at the UCLA Writer’s Program, Litreactor, and at writing conferences across North America and Mexico, and is a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed, an award-winning blog dedicated to the craft and business of fiction. www.davidcorbett.com


“David Corbett is the grandmaster of character development. He adroitly reconciles the complex interplay of forces in every character’s life so that writers can create true depth on the page. His exercises make that complexity manageable, and the examples he provides are remarkably incisive.” —Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction

“With a deft hand, David takes us past writing clichés, charting a new course forward into developing resonant characters in film and print today. His insights have the potential to revolutionize the way writers understand the characters they develop.” —Steven James, bestselling author of Story Trumps Structure

Corbett told us, “The reason these two quotes mean so much to me is that I respect both these authors immensely, and both have taught me a lot.”

David, thank you for taking the time to join us today to answer a few questions about your new book and what it can do for writers and their characters!

Q1: Can you give us an introduction to The Compass of Character, and how it’s unique in the market?

The original impetus for this approach arose from my reading of Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, in which he discusses the concept of Yearning. It seemed to me that this was one of those “simple things” my math professors told me deserved deep thought, so I began thinking of each character’s life as defined by a deep-seated need to live up to what she considered her dream of life: the kind of person she wanted to be, the way of life she hoped to live. That naturally gave rise to the question: Why does that dream remain unfulfilled? That led me to an understanding that each individual confronts two equally powerful—and equally justifiable—forces in life: the pursuit of the promise of life versus protection from the pain of life. The book is an elaboration upon the methodology that arises from that insight.

Q2: Why this book now? How have industry changes affected the way you approach teaching the craft of writing?

We’re seeing more and more long-form narratives in storytelling, whether via multi-season TV series, multi-volume fantasy novels, or crime-mystery series in which the main character(s) develop(s) over several seasons or volumes instead of simply facing a new but isolated challenge in each book or episode. Each of these forms, due to the long character arcs involved, require characters of sufficient depth and complexity to generate the dramatic sophistication and capacity for surprise that their extended format requires.

That said, compelling, complex characters are arguably the basis for any interesting story, regardless of length. So, not exactly new, though my approach is.

Q3: How does The Compass of Character complement your previous books on craft, particularly The Art of Character?

The Art of Character covers a broad array of subjects, from inner life to dialogue and point of view. Though I discuss the importance of exploring what a character wants, this book expands that exploration in specific detail. No question asked of a character is more central to her portrayal than, “What does she want?” But oversimplifying the answer risks producing formulaic results that diminish the character in the reader’s mind. This book is my attempt to provide a straightforward, comprehensive methodology for conceiving and executing the depth and complexity we want from our characters.

Q4: Can you share an excerpt with us?

Here’s a short one that gets to the heart of what the book is about:

One doesn’t create meaningful complications merely by “adding more stuff,” but rather by building from a sound foundation capable of contradiction, growth, transformation, and surprise.
Regardless of one’s genre or medium, the need remains to provide characters who speak to our deepest understanding of what it means to be human—to experience the mysterious truth that we are in fact alive, to want our lives to mean something, to search for a way to make our actions matter—all in the shadow of a death we cannot escape.
This search for meaning and worth implicitly suggests a profound longing for a deeper, clearer understanding of who we are and how we should live. And every search implies a need for some sense of guidance: a compass. This book will show you how to conceive, create, and develop that compass within each of your characters, and how to bring those characters to life on the page.

Q5: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

When you start out with a conceptual understanding of what you hope to explore—a hypothesis, as it were—there’s always a bit of trepidation when you begin to apply it. Even though I developed my ideas from my understanding of human nature, they were still ideas. How much will actual novels and film or TV scripts conform to this approach? Will the fit be loose, tight, non-existent? Will it work better for some genres, less for others, not at all for the rest? Worse, will I find that I’m wildly off the mark? By looking deep into the human heart, had I tripped over my own feet?

Gratefully, once I got into the nitty-gritty, I saw that what I’d come up with worked incredibly well regardless of story type, genre, or format. Not just that, I discovered that it conformed to centuries of philosophical and religious thought across the centuries in a broad array of cultures. Clearly, I’d stumbled onto something true, and to the extent the truth serves our storytelling, I’d found something worthwhile for writers.


Readers, check out this giveaway!

Via David Corbett:

“We’re conducting a giveaway of five (5) Kindle Fire 7s with the ebook (as first prize) and five copies of the trade paperback (as second prize) to everyone who likes the Compass of Character Facebook page before November 30, 2019. If you want to join the pool of potential prize winners, click HERE [1].”

To learn more about The Compass of Character, go HERE [2] OR Amazon [3].

About [4]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [5] and Kathleen Bolton [6] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [7] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [8] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [9] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [10], and join our thriving Facebook community [11].