As I’ve worked on my protagonist’s character arc over the last couple of months, (oh, man, has it really been that long?) I’ve returned to David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV for inspiration.

I still remember the first time I came across one of Corbett’s articles in Writer’s Digest. I had been struggling with my characters. My research had turned up a lot of questionnaires and forms, some of them many pages long, asking detailed questions about my characters: When did he have his first kiss? What is her favorite breakfast cereal? How do they feel about the color blue? This approach to character building left me frozen, staring at my screen, with my answer to every question an anxious “Uh, I don’t know…” 

David Corbett saved me.

He talks about discovering characters through the act of writing—determining what might be turning points in their lives, and writing short scenes to see how they behave. In The Art of Character he provides prompts and exercises, with the warning that you don’t need all of the tools he provides for every character. It is better to focus on the most relevant ones.

Instead of bombarding a writer with detailed questions, Corbett talks about developing intuition about a character, because character is ultimately elusive and mysterious. We have to envision our characters clearly and observe them “as we observe a dream—not controlling them like marionettes.” (p. 116)

This is not easy to do, as Corbett fully admits, but he provides guidelines and inspiration. For me he also provided the confidence to delete the popular character questionnaires and dig in to what, for me, is the real work of creating characters.

Corbett talks not only about character, but also about the way character and story intertwine:

“It’s precisely through acting in conflict with her ideals that she creates the moral revelation at the heart of the story. She finds out firsthand the values she can’t live without, because she has tried to live outside of them and created nothing but failure, disaster, and pain.”

David Corbett, The Art of Character, p. 264

Not everyone will want to work this way. I don’t believe that Corbett’s methods are right for everyone, which is how I feel about most writing advice. But if you are frustrated with other approaches to creating character, you might want to give The Art of Character a try.

Here’s another quote for the road:

“Your protagonist must sooner or later, at one level or another, care with all her heart, and commit herself with the full force of her will. Anything less is unacceptable—not just for her, but for you.”

David Corbett, The Art of Character, p. 224

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