David Corbett’s Words of Wisdom on Writing: The Art of Character

Posted by on February 14, 2013



When I first heard David Corbett was writing a book on character, I knew that if anyone out there was qualified to teach others this crucial aspect of the writing craft, it would be him. The first Corbett book I read, The Devil’s Redhead, showed me just what a master of character Corbett is. I have rarely read books where my emotions about characters have flip flopped so wildly between love and hate and disgust and sympathy. Corbett has fine-tuned the gift of how to make readers feel a wide range of emotions about his characters. And when you think about it, this is, in essence, what makes a character come to life on the page.

That’s why I am so excited to dig into David’s latest and greatest, book, The Art of Character. (That’s my copy on my nightstand below!) Until you pick up your own copy, here is David talking about making a connection between a character’s outer goal and inner need. Enjoy!

Outer Goal, Inner Need—Managing the Connection

Whatever the hero is trying to achieve in the outer world—rescue the hostage, marry the soul mate, survive the cataclysm, escape prison, return home—the goal and the effort to achieve it speak to some inner need that the character often does not even recognize until the events within the story expose it.

The outer goal represents the specific way of life the protagonist hopes to defend. The inner need represents the reason that way of life is so meaningful to him. This relationship is the machine that creates the protagonist’s growth or transformation.

In the film The Secret in Their Eyes, Benjamin Esposito returns to the attorney general’s office in Buenos Aires where he once worked as an investigator to show his former boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings, the novel he’s written about a murder case they worked on many years before.

The case was unsatisfactorily resolved—just like the romance between Benjamin and Irene. Benjamin, from a lower social class, believed himself unworthy of Irene, and was blind to her interest in him. Irene reads his novel and makes the obvious point: It lacks an ending. The comment is almost a dare, and works on both levels, that of the murder and the romance.

Benjamin’s quest to discover what actually happened so he can finish his book also serves his need to see if there remains any chance with Irene. The three story lines—how the investigation and romance proceeded in the past, how Benjamin tries to wrap up loose ends in the present, and how he hopes to see if he still has a chance with Irene—all reinforce and reflect on one another.

Joe Connelly’s Bringing Out the Dead would be a manic litany of well-crafted, expertly detailed, beautifully written emergency calls—in other words, a reasonably good book—without the crisis eating away at the protagonist’s soul, which turns it into a great one.

Each call echoes Frank’s aching need to forgive himself for the one patient he couldn’t save, a girl named Rose, who literally haunts him, visiting him when he’s alone, appearing in the corner of his eye as he makes one mad dash to the rescue after another.

The climax resolves both his obsessive need to be the hero and his guilt, as he finally codes a patient and lets him die, accepting both his fallibility and the inevitability of death, and at last making peace with Rose.

There are some writers, such as Lee Child, who arch an eyebrow at the “bullet in the heart” hero, one whose deep-seated psychological wound moves him to act. Lee considers the setup contrived, fabricated by writers overly obsessed with meaning. Whether the protagonist is a sniper, a lawyer, or a nurse, more times than not his motivation to achieve any particular end reduces to the simple fact it’s his job. To the extent there’s an inner need, it’s the professional’s desire to do the thing well.

There are indeed times when a writer creates an inner need so hackneyed it actually undermines the story. Then again, as in the two examples I cited above, the difference between an acceptable story and an unforgettable one often depends on the writer’s ability to see the thematic interconnections between the protagonist’s outer and inner journeys, and to weave them together seamlessly.

David Corbett 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 (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel—Rising Star Category 2011). David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with two stories selected for Best American Mystery Stories. In 2012, Mysterious Press/Open Road Media re-issued all four of his novels plus a story collection in ebook format, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character (“A writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul.” —Elizabeth Brundage). For more, visit www.davidcorbett.com

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2 Responses to David Corbett’s Words of Wisdom on Writing: The Art of Character

  1. Kristi

    David — meet David. You both live in the Bay Area. I know DC teaches classes around there sometimes, as well! When I next come to SF we should all meet for good food and drinks!

  2. David

    Just started reading The Art of Character last night. Only on page 10, but I can tell already I’m going to get a lot out of it!