Today I have author David Corbett on my blog discussing his book The Art of Character which focuses on one of the most important parts of storytelling – developing captivating characters. And better yet, he shows you how to get them from development to the pages of your book.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Short version: I’m a recovering Catholic, ex-PI, one-time bar-band gypsy, and the author of four novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and too many poems. My book on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, was published by Penguin earlier this year.
Extended (tedious) version: I was raised in Columbus, Ohio and in my late teens and early twenties played guitar or bass in a number of outfits, doing the coffee house and roadhouse bar circuit all over the Midwest before settling down (somewhat) and getting my degree in math from Ohio State.
I got a fellowship to Berkeley in linguistics but promptly bailed, deciding I needed to get out of school. I was one of those middle-class white males who excelled amid the classroom chalk dust and I knew, if I wanted anything resembling a life, I needed to leave my ivory tower and go out and get my nose bloodied and my heart broken — in other words, I studied acting.
Then, by some weird combination of luck and intention, I went to work for the private investigation firm of Palladino & Sutherland in San Francisco, where I rose to senior operative and played a significant role in a number of high-profile criminal and civil litigations, including the Cotton Club Murder Case, the People’s Temple Trial, the Lincoln Savings and Loan Scandal, the first Michael Jackson molestation case, and a RICO litigation brought by the Teamsters membership against union leaders associated with organized crime.
I’m 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? My short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). My nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva and other outlets.
I’ve taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. For information on upcoming publications, events, classes, and seminars, check out my website.
How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?
I rely a great deal on my experiences, especially as a private investigator, to provide not just material but a tone to my books — and I don’t mean in the form of “tough guy” story lines or argot.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet a great many people and talk to them meaningfully and at length about some of the hardest, most troubling, even shattering moments in their lives, and the effect of those confidences has naturally influenced what I write
My personality probably comes through most in my voice, as it does for many writers. There’s a wry, passionate intensity to my writing that’s accented with humor and driven by rhythm. And I emphasize scene and dialog, which speaks to my previous incarnation as an actor.
Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?
Just finished it, actually: a novel, provisionally titled The Wrong Girl. It’s loosely based on three incidents in my hometown: an eight-year-old girl’s abduction by then escape-from-a-child predator (and her subsequent down-spiral); the city’s poisonous politics, and how that drove the city into bankruptcy; and the brutal assault of a city worker by several dozen high school students.
The protagonist is the girl who escaped (she was one of two girls kidnapped– the other was never found). She’s now seventeen, and the story follows her as she’s given one last chance to turn her life around, or descend forever into the role of “the wrong girl” (the girl everyone wishes had died, not escaped and survived)
What is the best and worst advice you ever received? (regarding writing or publishing)
My favorite bit of writing advice came from the great novelist and teacher Oakley Hall: Steal wisely.
What fuels you as an author to continue to write?
The example of my fellow writers, many of whom consistently amaze and inspire me. I believe we’re all engaged in a great conversation about what it means to be alive at this unique, never-to-be-repeated moment in history.
Please tell us about your current release.
The Art of Character is my attempt to give writers as many tools and techniques as I could fit into one book concerning the sometimes mysterious craft of depicting human life and behavior on the page.
The trick, of course, is to create meaningful, memorable characters, and though virtually every writing guide will tell you that — “Character is king!” — I found most of them sketchy or miserly on the specific details of how to go about it.
The book covers the four main stages of characterization — conceiving the character, developing the character, matching the character to her dramatic role, and rendering her on the page — and it grew out of my own early efforts in theater and my later career as a novelist. Both experiences have informed my understanding of character in different ways, and both have proved essential.
Finally, I found myself repelled by some of the gimmicky approaches of how-to manuals on the subject, and sought to write a book that didn’t just instruct, but inspired. This created the tone and language of the text that I think is relatively unique.
What inspired you to write this book?
The book grew out of my teaching and my own writing in answer to a need I felt. Everything’s ramped up these days, the speed of life never seems to decelerate, people’s attention span is nil, and this is reflected in our stories.
Pacing is more important than ever, plot is king, “high concept” (the greatest misnomer in lit) still commands the biggest paydays, and I just felt this need to stop, take a deep breath, and say: What’s missing? And what’s missing is character.
When you emphasize story and plot as heavily as we do now, characters can easily gravitate to roles at best, tropes or stereotypes at worst — Always Second Best, Captain Oblivious, Evil Jesuit — and this creates characters based on ideas or functional necessities, not people.
To get to the level of awareness and imagination where you can create the kinds of characters a reader or audience never forgets, you have to take time. The process of creation and discovery, the back and forth between letting the imagination run free then bending it to your will, this all takes a quieter, more patient — more loving for lack of a better word — mindset.
I wrote The Art of Character to begin a dialog on getting back to a more patient, human brand of storytelling.
Tell us a random fact about you that we never would have guessed.
When I was in the band, back in the Midwest, the only compliment I can remember ever getting on my musicianship was: “Who’s the guy that sings like a chick? He’s really good.”
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.
About the Author
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? David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. He lives in Vallejo, CA.
You can find out more about David on his website.
The Art of Character is available on Amazon.