There’s a chapter in Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Stranger Than Fiction, in which the author explains how, every year, he finds himself having to re-buy a copy of each of Amy Hempel’s works, having given them all away to friends or fellow writers. In recent years, I’ve found myself doing the same thing with one of Palahniuk’s own books (Choke) along with Mark Poirier’s Modern Ranch Living and all of Junot Díaz’s novels. I now find myself doing the same thing with David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV, because not only is this book an invaluable tool for all writers of fiction, it’s also an endlessly fascinating read, regardless of any literary aspirations you may be harbouring.
That said, The Art of Character is, primarily, a guide to the craft, and to this end, Corbett kicks things off with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: “A writer should create living people; people not characters.” Easier said than done, right? Fortunately, you’re in good hands. Very good hands indeed. With several novels already under his belt, and a New York Times Notable Author award, it’s fairly safe to say that Corbett knows his shit. Allow him, then, to lead you straight into Part One, titled Conceiving the Character, which focuses on the “examined life” and the idea that, in order to make our characters real—to create those “living people” to whom Hemingway referred—we must look at them closely and determine precisely what they want, what they fear, what they hate, what secrets they hide, and so on. In order to answer these questions, Corbett argues, we must know these things about ourselves… or at least be prepared to find out.
There are several key themes that Corbett revisits throughout The Art of Character. However, one question concerns him above all others. “Who am I?” he asks—or rather, he asks you to ask this of your work, throughout its evolution. A daunting task, certainly, but Corbett guides the reader through this process in a detailed yet clear and personal manner. “Take it in bits,” he advises at the beginning of chapter thirteen, ‘The Tempest Within: The Character’s Psychological Nature’, the longest of the book’s twenty-five chapters. “There’s a lot to consider.”
He’s not kidding. However, as I mentioned, the essence of this book’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it’s so damn readable. As wise and experienced as Corbett clearly is, at no point does he come across as aloof. Yes, his knowledge is vast, and his style forthright, but there is an unmistakeable generosity of spirit in the way he delivers his words. He also draws from a broad selection of key works in order to illustrate his points, and in many instances he goes into great detail in his breakdown of these works. From Macbeth to Breaking Bad via Death of a Salesman and Citizen Vince, these examples—aside from confirming both the central importance of character in all the great works, irrespective of medium or genre, and the universality of the principles that underpin the creation of great characters—provide hooks on which readers of all tastes can hang their hats.
There are few bases Corbett doesn’t cover, but it’s in the Epilogue—subtitled The Examined Life Redux: Our Characters, Our Selves—that he proffers the most fascinating food for thought. Drawing on the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, he revisits the idea of “lack” as a driving force for creating characters. To be an artist, Corbett argues, one must cast aside “the comforting notion of I Know Who I Am”. Be daring, he urges… but not at the expense of alienating those among whom we must live, on whom we depend, and whom we wish to impress. This, for me—and the conflict to which it gives rise—is at the heart of what Corbett refers to as “the writer’s journey”, and why I’ve already given away two copies of this excellent resource.