As a writer who is more on the “plotter” spectrum than the “pantser” spectrum, I routinely struggle with creating riveting characters. In my stories, they become plot puppets—pawns in a game of chess that I solely control, which makes for lackluster storytelling. In my quest to become a better writer, I searched high and low, trying to find a book on character that would give me the most comprehensive overview possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, writers of all skill levels… if you buy one book on character development in your life, I highly recommend this one. David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV is an excellent guide to creating vivid, memorable characters for whatever writing project you are working on. Utilizing examples ranging from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to television’s hit series “Breaking Bad,” Corbett’s advice is very comprehensive in all the right places. With exercises at the end of nearly every chapter and his ability to breakdown intimidating concepts into digestible bits, he manages, beautifully, to answer any and every question about character that you might have while, at the same time, leaving you with room to explore the concept of character on your own in other books. He will take you on a journey of developing your characters from the ground up—from conceiving them and giving them desires, to creating secondary characters and crafting voices for your characters.
Sometimes, he goes beyond character to discuss literature itself, settling the literary-versus-genre-fiction debate through his discussion on character: “The problem lies not with genre but with formula, which consists of seeing genre conventions as restrictions rather than mere guidelines, ends in themselves rather than possibilities. The key, always, is to escape the restrictions of story by giving the characters the freedom to surprise, to step outside the story so they can live it on their own terms while still honoring the core themes and events the story demands” (Corbett 18). Corbett’s deep understanding of character is what makes this book so rich and valuable. As Elizabeth Brundage says her in review of the book, The Art of Character is not a “writing by numbers” book that will leave you with a perfect character by connecting dots on a paper-thin picture. It will ask you not only to look deeply within your character fears, life, motivations, etc., but also your fears, life, motivations, etc. so that your character can be as lifelike as possible.
However, a word of caution: While I do recommend this book for writers of all skill levels, Corbett does assume that you’ve had experience writing with characters of some sort, and feels as though he’s talking to an adult writer at times. He assumes that you’ve at least heard of first-, second-, and third-person point of view, dialogue, and the absolute basics associated with character. In drawing from life experience to create characters, Corbett also reassures his readers not to get discouraged if their lives so far have seemed uneventful to the point of having trouble writing about moments such as their “worst failure,” “worst illness,” “most shattering loss other than death,” “favorite coworker,” “least favorite coworker,” etc. At best, if you’re still in college and can’t really attest to “coworkers” in an actual office yet, draw from your experience in school. Who was the best in group projects? Who was the worst? Have you ever had to stay home from school for sickness? But more importantly, being honest with yourself will help you be honest with your characters. That is the takeaway here.
The Art of Character is one of those books, yet again, that you will have to read twice: once for the basic gist, the second for a deeper understanding. And be sure on that second read to do the exercises and take careful notes. I highly recommend it to intermediate and advanced writers, as well as any ambitious beginning writers who aren’t afraid of getting down and dirty with character.