Monday, July 15, 2013

An Interview With David Corbett - The Art of Character

Today, we welcome David Corbett to Writing From the Peak for an interview on The Art of Character, his non-fiction book on the craft of writing.

An Interview With David Corbett:

Q1: What made you switch gears to write this book after you'd published in fiction?

I taught an online course on character through the UCLA Extension Writers’ program, and that obliged me to write out ten lectures. I tend to be somewhat thorough (read: obsessive) in my lectures, so once I was finished, I thought: Be a damn shame and an awful waste not to use all this stuff. So I talked to my agent, who to be honest was not enthused. Another book on writing? Oh, the ho and the hum. But then she read what I’d provided and saw I had a unique take, both practical and philosophical, and the writing itself was superior to most how-to books. I was trying not merely to instruct but inspire. So we packaged the thing, sent it around, and Penguin agreed to publish it.

Q2: Do you feel character building has been under-represented in books on craft?

The trend in recent books on writing has been on structure, with character seen as a crucial element of that, but character is never the central focus. Robert McKee’s Story, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey—three of the most influential texts out there right now—all touch on character, but in the first two books it’s dealt with primarily in functional terms (how character serves the story), and Vogler’s approach sees character more in terms of archetypes than real people. All pronounce the importance of character but give little real guidance on how to conceive or develop great characters.

The guides I’ve read dealing specifically with character also felt strangely formulaic or uninspired to me. All had decent tips but I felt they missed the crucial element: That there is no way to create great characters without a comprehensive understanding of oneself and the elements of one’s own life that form the foundations of personality. Your material is yourself. Or, as Chekhov put it: “Everything I know about human nature I learned from me.” My book tries to teach how to be a perceptive and responsive student to one’s own human nature, the better to deliver that understanding to one’s characters.

Q3: While writing The Art of Character, did you run into problems unique to writing this sort of book versus fiction?

All creative work is essentially problem solving. That’s as true of fiction as non-fiction—or mathematics. I just needed to figure out what was necessary to deliver the best book on character I could write, and get it down. I teach, so it wasn’t that fundamentally different a process than I was used to.

Q4: What do you think is the best way to learn craft (i.e. books on craft, workshops, personal experience, etc.)?

Classes and textbooks provide you with an inventory of questions to ask as you’re writing: Where should I begin my story? Whose story is it? What creates the conflict? What are the stakes? How can I amplify the stakes and intensify the conflict? How can I sustain suspense and generate surprise? The best answers to those questions lie in the books you love, the books that have inspired you as a writer. Our best teachers are always the writers we admire and hope in some small way to emulate.

Q5: What do you think is the biggest mistake writers make in character building?

They rely on the story idea and don’t plumb the character as a unique being whose wants and yearning and fears and shame all drive the action—make it necessary, not just possible. The archetype approach hasn’t helped this problem. We’re seeing thinly disguised reiterations of cardboard heroes and mentors and such rather than real people whose lives generate the details of the story, not the other way around.

Q6: Was there a resource you found invaluable in honing your craft?

I consider the three books mentioned above invaluable, even if I also consider them limited with respect to character. Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing was also a crucial text for me, as were Stanislavski’s three seminal texts: Creating a Role, Building a Character, and The Actor Prepares. (I learned most of what I know about writing from studying acting and trial and error.) Oakley Hall’s The Art and Craft of Novel Writing was a very important and useful source, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream also proved incredibly helpful.

But as I noted above, in the end I’m like everyone else, in that I learned most of what I know about writing from the writers I admire.

Q7: What piece of advice would you offer aspiring authors?

Writing is rewriting. (Eudora Welty) And you can’t revise what you haven’t written.

Q8: What's next for you in your writing?

My latest novel (my fifth), The Wrong Girl, is currently making the editorial rounds in New York. My third novel, Blood of Paradise, just sold in France, and I’m working on a film project with producer Shane Salerno.

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. For more information, visit

I'm also excited to tell you that David will be presenting a workshop, free, online, via Pikes Peak Writers tomorrow, July 16. It will be live on July 16, and we'll post it online within a week of that date.This workshop is free, but you must RSVP to to receive the link to the online site of the event. Space is limited!

THE OUTER LIMITS OF INNER LIFE: Bringing Characters to Life by Looking Within.

Join award-winning author David Corbett, Pikes Peak Writers, and Delve Writing, for this free, exclusively online Write Brain workshop on creating characters with depth. You will learn how to build an intuitive connection with your characters through an informed understanding of your own past, and how to use that bridge to create compelling backstories that bring your tale to life. David will discuss the crucial role of both helplessness and willfulness in exploring character, and how these seemingly contradictory inclinations are crucial in creating complex and engaging characters. He will also explore ways to heighten conflict in your story through a better understanding of the emotional stakes. By the end of the class, you'll walk away with a healthy start on your next bestselling novel and a deeper understanding of your characters and your story.

(Note: You can access this recording late the third week of July on the Pikes Peak Writers website. There are two available there now, completely free, from Page Lambert: Manifestation of Yearning: The Flesh & Blood Factor of Good Storytelling and Jennifer Lovett: Twitter and Facebook for Authors.)

This interview was originally posted on The Warrior Muse on June 10, 2013.

About the Author:  After years of letting her writing fall by the wayside, Shannon Lawrence has recently thrown herself back into it. Her main focus is fantasy and horror and she has just finished a Young Adult Fantasy novel. She has a flash fiction piece featured in the anthology Sunday Snaps: The Stories, and her short horror story "The Blue Mist" will be in the March 2014 issue of Nightfall Magazine. She has also discovered a love of photography and enjoys photographing the breathtaking Colorado scenery and wildlife, as well as her children. She blogs about reading, writing and photography at