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David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, and Do They Know I’m Running?

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"David Corbett has written a wise, inspiring love letter to all the imaginary creatures inside our minds . . . I predict that massively underscored copies of The Art of Character will rest close at hand on writers’ desks for many years to come."

– Cheryl Strayed

“David Corbett has written a clear, in-depth, and highly entertaining exploration of how to create remarkable characters. This an essential guide to students of the writer’s craft at all levels.”

– Mark Haskell Smith

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The Art of Character

An Interview with David Corbett

05/22/13

David Corbett’s new book on craft is a thought-provoking read that is sure to become a favored resource for writing students and established novelists alike. The Art of Character forces the reader to think introspectively and draws upon a variety of fictional works, both written and performance-based, to create as three-dimensional a character as possible. The result is a method that is intelligently organized and well-executed; a method, in fact, that was originally tested in a university setting. David Corbett’s first foray into nonfiction reflects the full weight of his many years of writing, with the authority of a thoughtful and observant novelist.

David Corbett was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of my questions, shedding light on his new release, The Art of Character.

Diana Tappert: When developing The Art of Character, what were the first few elements that you were sure you needed to touch on? How did you narrow down these essential elements?

David Corbett: I actually first formulated the content that would evolve into The Art of Character while teaching an online class through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. With an online course you have to write out your lectures, obviously, and this was the first time I had to put my ideas into some kind of systematic format.

It became clear pretty early on that there were four major areas to cover:

Conceiving the Character
Developing the Character
Adapting the Character to a Dramatic Role
Rendering the Character on the Page

Once I had that, I could see the general arc the class — and subsequently, the book — should take.

DT: When reading The Art of Character, I noticed an eclectic mix of television, film, and book references. Everything from The Borgias to Macbeth makes an appearance; how did you decide which example would be the most illustrative of your points?

DC: It’s ironic, but since finishing the book I’ve often slapped my head and thought: “Wait, I just thought of a much better example than the one I used!”

My basic methodology, to the extent I had one, was to use examples from all three media — fiction, film, and TV — to underscore the fundamental unity of purpose and execution in the rendering of character across the board.

I also wanted to follow certain examples throughout the book — Macbeth, Blanche Dubois, Jake Gittes from Chinatown, Walter White from Breaking Bad, Kathy Nicolo from House of Sand and Fog — to provide a sense of continuity in the instruction, while also branching out with other examples to show the universality of many of the principles.

That said, I often just sat at my desk, scratching my head, thinking: “That’s a great idea. Now, where have you seen it in practice?” Sometimes it took a while for the answer to bubble up from memory. A very, very long while.

DT: As an author, lecturer, and editor, what was your goal in writing The Art of Character? Did you see a distinct lack of characterization guides in the current literary market?

DC: My goal was to return character to center stage, rather than as an adjunct to story, which has gained the upper hand with so many writing guides being written by screenwriters (Syd Field, Linda Seger, William Ackerman) or former story editors in Hollywood (Christopher Vogler, John Truby, Robert McKee).

Virtually all of these writers agree that story not rooted in character is at best facile, at worst just “one damn thing after another,” and yet I’ve found the discussion of character in their work often lacking, precisely because they focus largely on dramatic roles rather than a detailed, sophisticated exploration of the psychological, emotional, and moral subtleties in the human personality.

That said, I also believe, like all these writers, that the depiction of character works best in a dramatic rather than descriptive mode, which many aspiring writers of “literary” fiction, prizing language over action, often miss. My background in acting spared me this misconception. Not that I’m inimical to the depiction of inner life, but I feel thought and feeling work best in service to decision and action, because our actions engage us with the world and commit us to the consequence of our convictions in ways thought and feeling simply do not.

DT: Do you follow the strategy designed in The Art of Character when characterizing your own novels? Conversely, is it predominantly based on your own writing method?

DC: The second question first: I’d say the book expands on my own methodology.

In my introduction to the book, I refer to it as a toolkit, and advise students to use only those “tools” found in its pages that are necessary for the job at hand. I never use all the tactics I describe in the book while crafting my own work, but in my most recent novel I found myself often dipping into my own advice for guidance.

Some things I believe are fundamental—external desire and inner yearning, adaptation, vulnerability, secrets, contradictions. Others are helpful, some almost mystifyingly so, in conjuring the character more vividly: fear, shame, pride, quirks or bad habits, familiarity with death, relationship with food. Some necessitate your seeing the character in the context of her larger world: work, neighborhood, family (especially siblings), politics, faith. I explored all of this while developing my characters, with an eye for defining, emotionally traumatic episodes in their lives. And my newfound understanding of roles helped me craft the dramatic arc of the story more effectively and creatively.

DT: Regarding the title “Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV,” would you say the characterization process differed a great deal when comparing the three mediums?

DC: The major difference is that fiction affords access to inner life. But since I believe this often becomes more a crutch than an advantage, I find the process quite similar regardless of medium. One has a great deal less time and space in film and TV to define the character — which requires a discipline all writers need — so discerning which actions are the most definitive and dramatic is crucial. I think much of the background work in characterization remains the same; deciding what to include, what to leave out, requires perhaps a greater capacity for “murdering darlings” in film and TV than fiction, but less is more for a reason: You’re trying to engage the reader or audience, not drown them in detail.

DT: Do you hold anything particularly close as an inspiration for characters in your fiction? Did you draw from these when writing The Art of Character?

DC: As I noted above, I consider five things essential in the depiction of any major character: the connection between the external ambition and the inner yearning; the way the character responds to frustration of their desires (conflict); what makes the character vulnerable; what potentially life-altering secrets does she bear; and what contradictions does she exhibit. I also think exploration of key moments of helplessness in the character’s past — moments of fear, shame, guilt, pride, joy, love — open the character up in ways nothing else can. I also seek to understand how her physical nature affects her interaction with others, and what her social demands and standing are in the home, the workplace, the community. Once I have a decent grasp of that, I’m ready to write.

DT: What did you find hardest when writing The Art of Character?

DC: Coming up with not just acceptable examples but truly instructive ones.

DT: If you could change anything in The Art of Character, what would it be?

DC: Oh what a miserable question to ask a writer. To paraphrase Mark Twain: If I’d had more time, I would have made it shorter.

DT: Where do you see your writing going in the future? Would you consider writing another book on craft?

DC: I’ve just completed a new novel, I’m working on a story that is waking me up at nights (a good thing), and I’ve been contacted on a script doctor job by a Hollywood producer. I’m also currently developing two other craft books, one on the connection between character and structure, and the other a deeper examination of rendering characters on the page, with special attention to subtext in emotionally complex scenes.

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