The Art of Character

Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV

David Corbett - Author

Paperback: Trade | $17.00 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780143121572 | 416 pages | 29 Jan 2013 | Penguin | 5.07 x 7.79in | 18 - AND UP
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The ultimate guide for creating captivating characters

Former private investigator and New York Times Notable author David Corbett offers a unique and indispensable toolkit for creating characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory. Corbett provides an inventive, inspiring, and vastly entertaining blueprint to all the elements of characterization—from initial inspiration to realization—with special insights into the power of secrets and contradictions, the embodiment of roles, managing the "tyranny of motive," and mastering crucial techniques required for memorable dialogue and unforgettable scenes. This is a how-to guide for both aspiring and accomplished writers that renders all other books of its kind obsolete.


Conceiving the Character

Chapter 1

Fingering Smoke: Are Characters Created or Discovered?

Chapter 2

Summoning Ghosts: Source Materials for Characters
The Story as the Source for One’s Characters
Characters Derived from the Unconscious
Characters Derived from Art or Nature
Characters Based on Real People
Composite Characters

Chapter 3

The Examined Life: Using Personal Experience as an Intuitive Link to the Character

Developing the Character

Chapter 4

Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization

Chapter 5

Desire as Purpose: Driving Need, Want, Ambition, or Goal
The Centrality of Desire
The Complexity of Desire
Variety in the Depiction of Desire
Identifying the Core Desire

Chapter 6

Desire Denied: Adaptations, Defense Mechanisms, and Pathological Maneuvers
How We React to Conflict Defines Our Capacity for Success
The Normality at the Heart of the Pathological Maneuver
Dramatizing Growth from One Level of Adaptation to Another—the Ghost and the Revenant
Core Versus Secondary Desires and Adaptations

Chapter 7

The Power of Wounds: Vulnerability

Chapter 8

The Gravity of the Hidden: Secrets

Chapter 9

The Paradox of This but That: Contradictions
The Nature and Dramatic Purpose of Contradiction
Contradictions Based on Physical, Ironic, or Comic Juxtaposition
Contradictions Based on Our Need to Serve Multiple Social Roles
Contradictions Based on Competing Morals or Goals
Contradictions That Result from a Secret or Deceit
Contradictions Based on Conscious vs. Unconscious Traits
Dispositional Contradictions

Chapter 10

Serving and Defying the Tyranny of Motive
The Mystery at the Heart of Character
How Much Do We Need to Know About a Character?
The Limits of Intellect

Chapter 11

Dynamic Versus Static: Creating a Biography from Scenes

Chapter 12

Flesh and Blood and Shoes: The Character’s Physical Nature
Is Physical Description Necessary?
The Senses
Sex Versus Gender
Sexual Attractiveness
Deportment and Fashion Sense
Physical Description in Screenwriting

Chapter 13

The Tempest Within: The Character’s Psychological Nature

Chapter 14

The Teeming World: The Character’s Sociological Nature
To What “Tribe” Does My Character Belong?

Chapter 15

Picking a Fight: Politics

Chapter 16

Quirks, Ticks, and Bad Habits


Chapter 17

Meaning and Its Messenger: The Protagonist and the Premise
Choosing the Protagonist
Summoning the Will
Framing the Conflict—the Protagonist and the Premise
Working Backward—Conceiving the Premise from the Abstract to the Specific
The Personal Nature of the Premise

Chapter 18

The Challenge of Change: Three Protagonist Questions
The Mysterious Necessity of Change
What of the So-Called Steadfast Character?
Distinguishing Growth from Transformation
Can I Get What I Want?
Who Am I?
What Do I Have to Change About Myself to Get What I Want?

Chapter 19

Ciphers, Stiffs, and Sleepwalkers: Protagonist Problems
When the Protagonist’s Struggle Is Fundamentally Internal
When the Protagonist Doesn’t Know or Is Confused by What She Wants, or Is Afraid to Want It
When the Protagonist Faces a Problem, an Enigma, or a Disaster Instead of an Opponent
When the Interconnection Between Our Outer Goal and Inner Need Is Insufficiently Realized
When the Protagonist Is Conceived as a Vessel of Virtue (or the Myth of the Likeable Hero)
When the Protagonist is a Thinly Veiled Stand-In for the Author
Choosing the Wrong Character as the Protagonist
Multiple Protagonists
When the Narrator and the Protagonist Differ, but Both Are Characters in the Story

Chapter 20

The Character of Conflict: The Opponent
Justifying the Opponent
When the Opponent is Genuinely Evil
When the Opponent is Offstage for Long Periods of Time—Clues and Underlings
Can the Opponent Change?

Chapter 21

The Army of Others: Secondary Characters
How Secondary Is a Secondary Character?
The Ghost
The Revenant
The Counterweight Character
The Crucial Ally
The Betrayer and the Sympathetic Heavy
The Visitor and the Stranger
The Village


Chapter 22

The Clash of Character: Scenes
The Centrality Scene
The Mechanics Scene
Balancing Action and Inner Life

Chapter 23

The Personal in Perspective: Point of View
Choosing the Point of View: Three Key Questions
Objective Versus Subjective Mode
First Person
The Special Case of the Unreliable Narrator
Other Special Cases: Second Person and First Person Plural
Third Person
Single versus Multiple Points of View
Point of View in Film and TV

Chapter 24

Language as Attitude: Voice
Establishing Authorial Voice
Voice in the Portrayal of Character

Chapter 25

Word as Deed: Dialog
Dialog as Action
Verisimilitude and Its Limits
Specific Techniques for Enhancing Realism
Speech Tags
Dialect, Obscenities, and Verbal Tics
Creating Variety Among Characters


The Examined Life Redux: Our Characters, Our Selves


Praise for The Art of Character
"David Corbett has written a wise, inspiring love letter to all the imaginary creatures inside our minds—so we might conjure them whole on the page. 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, author of Wild and Torch
“David Corbett has combined his unique talents as a gifted writer and an extraordinary teacher to create a superb resource on character development. Deftly crafted and impeccably researched, The Art of Character is a thoughtful and insightful book that is immensely readable and practical. Suitable for beginners to best-selling authors, The Art of Character should be on every serious writer's shelf next to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Stephen King's On Writing. Highly recommended.”—Sheldon Siegel, New York Times Best Selling Author of Perfect Alibi and Incriminating Evidence
“I once made the mistake of writing a story with David Corbett.  The man smoked me.  He can delineate the character and personality of an accordion on three strokes.  I didn't even know accordions had character.  Imagine what he can do with people. This act of generosity and wisdom from a very good writer will help anyone who is staring at a blank page, any day, any time. Highly recommended.”—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of Queen of America and The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“Corbett’s The Art of Character is no "how to" book or "writing by numbers" manual. It is an artful testament to the writers’ credo – that a story is only as affecting and meaningful as the characters who tell it – that writing, essentially, is character. The Art of Character is a writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul. Corbett writes with the grace and authority of a seasoned professional, but offers much more than the usual inventory of method and strategy. With clarity and compassion, he gets to the very thing that lies deep within us, that longing we share to discover that one distinct and authentic voice. The Art of Character is itself a work of art, an indispensable resource for writers of any genre, and a pedagogical tool for teachers of writing at any level.”—Elizabeth Brundage, author of A Stranger Like You and The Doctor’s Wife.
"Well-delivered character development - an issue that can so easily intimidate a writer - is crucial to the richness of the narrative, because characters are not simply at the heart of the story - they are the story.  David Corbett's The Art of Character offers a deep inquiry into the creation of character for the novice writer, with valuable nuggets of wisdom for the seasoned storyteller. If you are a writer, it should be on your desk."—Jacqueline Winspear, New York Times Bestselling Author of Elegy for Eddie and Maisie Dobbs

"Corbett shares his secrets for making characters come to life on the page, from presenting their back stories and motivations to crafting memorable dialogue and great scenes that flesh out characters and move the plot forward at a compelling, tension-fueled pace. Corbett has a clear and elegant style that’s easy for would-be writers to absorb..”—The Writer Magazine,
selected as one of the Top 13 Writing Guides of 2013
 “Both inspiring and practical, The Art of Character belongs on every writer’s shelf. David Corbett brilliantly illustrates those elusive tools writers need to breathe life into their characters with greater confidence and deeper insight.”—Cara Black, bestselling author of Murder at the Lanterne Rouge
"David Corbett's The Art of Character belongs on every writer's shelf beside Elizabeth George's Write Away and Stephen King's On Writing. An invaluable resource for both the novice and the experienced novelist, it's as much fun to read as a great novel."—Deborah Crombie, author of No Mark Upon Her
"David Corbett is a guy who knows his business. Reading this book, I learned things I didn't know and was reminded of ones I did. I recommend The Art of Character to every writer, at any level."—S. J. Rozan, award-winning author of Ghost Hero
“Indispensable. Few are the writer’s guides that are written as beautifully, cogently, and intelligently as a well-wrought novel (or a well-rendered character) itself. This is one of those books.”—Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-Winning author of The End of Everything and Dare Me
"The topic of character development begins and ends with David Corbett’s The Art of Character. This is the book on the subject, destined to stand among the writings of John Gardner, Joseph Campbell, and the others of that select few whose work is fundamental to understanding the craft of storytelling."—Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook
"It is rare to find the deep philosophical questions of literature (and life) met with such straight-forward and inspiring instruction. But David Corbett is that writer, and The Art of Character is that book."—Robert Mailer Anderson, author Boonville
 “David Corbett, himself a master crafter of riveting and remarkable narratives, delivers up in this highly readable guide, a smorgasbord of smart examples of memorable characters from literature and popular culture, to create an addictive and helpful primer on this most central of narrative ingredients.  Clear-headed and confident, Corbett takes us through the steps in a manner that resists formula while at the same time demystifying a process that has likely daunted every writer since Homer.”—Robin Hemley, author of Turning Life into Fiction
 “This fine book is about as thorough an examination of character and what it means in all sorts of imaginative writing as you're likely to find anywhere. A terrific starting place for those who wish to sharpen or enhance their skill at making sharp, believable, meaningful characters, it also has practical uses that go far beyond the ordinary creative writing text. This is an exploration of the phenomenon of character -- in as wide a variety of fiction and drama as there is. It will help any writer create and sustain human beings who make you forget you're reading, who are alive, who are worthy of our attention and sympathy.”—Robert Bausch, author of Out of Season
“Writers—pay attention! The Art of Character is a tremendously useful and important book. David Corbett delivers in-depth analysis and practical wisdom on every page.”—Sam Barry, author of Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now
 “Character is the beating heart of fiction and with The Art of Character novelist 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, author of Baked

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