The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

Determine If You’re A Writer In 1 Easy Step

When people learn that I write, some try to engage me with stories, usually from their own lives, that they feel would make a good story. Some people have told me their life story would make a great movie. Naturally, a person’s subjective highs and lows seem very significant to that person, but I rarely carry the conversation any further. I like hearing stories, of course, but I tend to reserve my critical storytelling skills for other writers.

Because I’ve had my head wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of storytelling for a little while now, I assume that honestly discussing story with people will sound cold and mechanical. I ask, “What is the climax in the movie of your life?” and the person answers, “My kids.” I say, “Did having children resolve some central conflict that stood in the way of your motivations throughout your life? Was your life just a series of occasions, or was it a driven narrative wherein you tried to achieve your goals through a series of mounting conflicts?” By then the person is across the room with a stiff drink. (Even in Children Of Men, a dystopian tale where humanity has become infertile, the birth of a child is not the climax. I can think of one seriously awesome science fiction novel where a birth is the climax, but I can’t spoil it.).

I feel that a story is just a story until it engages the imagination with something meaningful and new, at which point story can become art. Most people don’t have lives that reflect anything remarkably new. Even horrible conflicts and disasters throughout life don’t guarantee that the movie of one’s life will be interesting. And few things make me yawn harder than a story about being hard-done-by.

Many people think they are full of good stories, and surely they do get interesting ideas, but ideas don’t make a person a writer. Plumbers get good ideas just like judges and filmmakers do. So what makes a writer? Fortunately there is an easy, one-step test to determine this.

A writer writes. Get out of the habit of trying to figure out what people and things ARE and focus on what they DO. If you do not write, and make a habit of it, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a writer. If you have amazing ideas that seem like they want to come out of you and take on a life of their own, you had better find an outlet for them—be it film, campfire stories, news articles, a useless blog, etc.—and work at it every day. I write every day and still rarely call myself a writer.

A carpenter has the vision for a table and knows the techniques to achieve it. He understands the form and function and can bring his vision into reality. His neighbour says, “You know what would be cool? A three-legged, cubist mosaic table with a hole in the middle.” The carpenter might ask, “Why would that be cool?” If the idea has merit, the carpenter, not the neighbour, will know it. He also will know how it should be put together, where to compromise vision for function, and when you can expect it finished.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 2

One of the earliest influential philosophers is Thales from ancient Greece. Since him there has been a continuous succession of thinkers who built upon their predecessors, criticizing what they don’t like, correcting what they can, and emphasizing what makes the most sense. Since Thales we can trace the path of Western thought through to today, mapping the brain change of the world, and it’s all pretty interesting, minus the Dark Ages.

The classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) set the stage for world philosophy, and many other cultures absorbed their ideas before the formation of distinct philosophies of their own. Some would claim the Greeks were the fathers of philosophy, who made an art of thinking that benefited the rest of humanity. Others would argue that the Greek philosophers stunted the growth of future free-thinkers, limiting would-be revolutionaries with their categories and strict methods.

A goal of many intellectuals is to surpass their formative history and offer something new to the world, whether it be an invention, a way of thinking, or a new analysis of something we’ve taken for granted. It can be hard to break away from tradition and offer something new, but one thing I’ve learned is that the broader the net we cast for information, the bigger the potential catch. Even opposing opinions offer us a chance to compare and contrast and flex our own intellectual and intuitive genius.

I think reading is one of the best uses of time. The following books helped me to think in new ways.

Critical PathCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky Fuller is an autodidact, inventor, engineer, and revolutionary thinker. His goal is simple: to make things easier for human beings by thinking about a problem and coming up with a novel solution. It doesn’t seem like he made a fortune, but his perspective has influenced a couple generations of scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. A major thrust in this work is the idea of ephemeralization (a term he coined), which describes our technological development trend of being able to do more work, more efficiently, in less time, with less material. Think of what a computer looked like in the 1970s and compare it to your smartphone. The brilliance of this book is that Fuller is truly a systems-thinker, and always has the big picture in mind. And best of all, he’s a little kooky. I recommend this book for the socially conscious.


Quantum PsychologyQuantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Written with humour, erudition, and infectious optimism, this handy little manual offers us a new look at our selves. This book is a guided tour to opening new ways of thinking and acting. It asks us to look at what we know of the world, then to look at how we know these things and why. In 200 pages this book challenges every belief, every behavior, and every excuse to avoid being who we want to be. This is a manual about writing your own life script but it is far from being New Age. Wilson’s voice is authoritative, wise and hilarious throughout, and every chapter offers practical exercises for the reader to begin opening new horizons. Recommended for everyone.


StoryStory by Robert McKee

This book, and its author, are a little bit legendary in the film industry for a variety of reasons. McKee attacks the construction of a screenplay using big, fundamental ideas that shed light on what stories have to offer to the human experience and what makes a story satisfying. His aggressive writing style almost challenges the reader to prove him wrong when he explains why character is story, why story must be told through conflict, and why there must be a major emotional value change in every scene, sequence, act, and movie. When I first got the book I assumed, since I like so-called art films, that I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say. After all, Eraserhead doesn’t have much in common with, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But most of the points McKee makes hold true for just about every movie, every novel, every short story, short film, opera, play, campfire story, drunken anecdote…Recommended for anyone interested in storytelling.

Why I Outline

Books about writing come in all shapes and sizes, and I try to read a new one every few months to shed light on the writing process. A few that I’ve read from major authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov really shook me up. When I read that these guys didn’t like to outline their novels and preferred to “wing it”, three things struck me: 1) these guys seem to have perfect confidence in their talent for writing; 2) these guys obviously have a huge natural talent for writing; 3) no wonder the end of The Stand was a let down.

It’s a little scary to think that I’m five books into A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and there’s no guarantee that he won’t lose his way and start a storyline about Mord the Gaoler’s secret teeth. But the reason these successful authors get paid the big bucks is that they’re consistent and they’ve proven they can deliver. Track record means a lot in the publishing industry. Every novel that Stephen King writes is an immediate best-seller, so that says something.

For anything longer than a few chapters, I outline the whole story before writing any prose. It’s important that the whole of the story is reflected in its parts. If a scene doesn’t bolster the spine of the story, it doesn’t belong. I can really get a kick out of digressive or tangential passages, but they must have a point. Having a fully realized idea about the structure of an entire work allows a writer to create only scenes that fit, scenes that meaningfully turn the story on it’s course through the climax. It all has to be meaningful.

George R. R. Martin has said he likes to give his characters freedom as he writes a scene, and to see what the characters want to do. But for anyone like myself trying to catch the attention of editors and publishers, there is no room for undirected action in a book, script, short story, whatever. Every sentence must show the reader something about the characters or move the story forward (which are really the same thing). If a sentence is pretty but doesn’t reveal anything essential to the story, it must go. Recycle it into poetry, which is more forgiving of stagnant, disconnected thoughts.

Unseasoned writers want to impress people with a unique voice, and so they allow themselves flourishes of “style”. But writing that draws attention from the momentum of the story comes off as self-indulgent to any editor who reads hundreds of stories a month. These authors are missing something crucial: If two authors are told to write the same story as plainly as possible, their stories will still be totally different. Their unconscious writing tendencies make up that difference.

People who try hard to be unique miss the fact that social conditioning, genetics, inner experience, and everything else shape the way they view the world. All of this conditioning effects what people notice in the world around them, what they think about when they hear certain sounds, and how they relate external facts to internal experience. And this fundamental uniqueness is something we can’t get rid of, we can only try to hide it with a facade. As the man says, “This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am.” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

I used to think I had a way with words until I started noticing embarrassing turns of phrase in my older writing. These were naive attempts to show my unique style instead of being confident in my own uniqueness and striving for clear language. Now I try to shape my thoughts into clear, distinct little packages. For the most part authors do well when they abolish any conscious attempt at style and tell the most honest version of their story. (My favorite champion of clear language is The Underground Grammarian. It’s dry, but hilarious.)

With this in mind, I lay out the biggest beats of my story first so I know they are solid. I might have scenes in mind already, but I put them aside and figure out the major turning points first. Or, if I’m lucky, the scenes I’ve already come up with are the major turning points of the story. When the structure best represents the story I want to tell, I figure out all the other scenes I need to get from point A to point Z, and rough them out. This saves me way more time than it takes to do. More than half of my writing time is devoted to figuring out the structure and what scenes will fulfill that structure.

Once I have my scenes figured out, there are a handful of questions I ask myself to make sure the scenes have essential dramatic elements.

1) Whose scene is it? Stories are told through character, and the plot develops through action. Knowing the central character for each scene keeps the writer and the story on track.

2) What do the characters in the scene want? Characters should want something, as Kurt Vonnegut said, even if it’s just a glass of water. A character who wants nothing isn’t motivated to take action, and whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, things need to happen in order to move the story along. Otherwise you might as well be looking at a painting.

3) What is the conflict? Story is told through conflict. Don’t try to outfox me and say, “Not necessarily Eric…” because it just is. The conflict can come in any form, but there must be one. Nobody goes to see a movie about people just sitting around having a good time.

4) What is the turning point of this scene? If a character wants something and there’s a conflict, what happens? Well something has to happen, that’s for sure. My character wants a beer (he’s based on me). If he goes to a bar and buys one and drinks it, that’s not interesting writing even if the beer is really good. If he goes to a bar but the lineup is huge, that’s conflict. Maybe he’s motivated to try something new or clever to get what he wants. So he cuts in line. But he pisses of an MMA fighter. It’s a turning point. Now he’s forced to make a decision based on his wants. Does he apologize and go across the street to that sketchy biker bar? Does he pretend he to be deaf? Does he decide to order him and the fighter a whiskey? Only to find there’s no single malt!

While my conscious mind is working on all these points to make sure I’m telling a coherent story, my unconscious mind is automatically going to fill in the details I haven’t thought of. In this way the conscious and subconscious mind work together like light and shadow to illuminate the story. There is an adage that authors usually write more than they intend to write. Looking at my older writings I definitely see instances where symbolism has crept in unconsciously. I’m usually impressed at the interesting ways these elements add to the whole. If these elements can work their way into a nice, tight story structure, then we’re off to the races.

For anyone who isn’t widely published and completely confident in their writing, I recommend a thorough outlining process and asking these tough questions about each scene. Honest, economical writing is always in fashion.