Book Note: The Art of Character by David Corbett



I hope your holiday season left you a stack of books to start 2014 off with a literary BANG! Mine did. My holiday season also brought me a sweet baby girl at 10 lbs 3 oz without any of the delivery drama that accompanied her sister. Priority always falls to family, but I’m hoping to get some reading in this year as well. I could not have picked a better book to get me going – both for reading pleasure and to kick-start my writing again.

The Art of Character by David Corbett is a book about writing characters. I’ve been dabbling with fiction writing for the past year – something I never thought I would be interested in – and wanted to get a better idea how to develop people on the page. This book will be a resource for years to come. Every time I picked it up I came away with ideas for my characters, or writing challenges to try, or a new angle to connect. Right now I don’t have the time to do justice to all of these benefits, but the intellectual stimulation was satisfying.

The first section challenges writers to examine their own lives as sources of insight. Almost all the exercises in this section seemed aimed at a non-fiction writer trying to develop her story. The level of self-scrutiny that Corbett recommends could be a bit terrifying, but just a couple examples that popped in my head proved that it could also be rewarding. When was a time I felt vulnerable? I mulled on that one for a while before an incident I had largely forgotten surfaced: when I walked into our house and slowly started to realize that the open drawers under the TV, the open sliding door, the open window in the guest bedroom all indicated that our house had been burgled. And I didn’t know if strangers were still in my house or not.

The second section is the real meat of the book and the largest part. Rightly so. Corbett delves into the nitty-gritty of character development. Desire, motives, tics, physical descriptions, sociology, psychology, and many more critical elements are covered chapter-by-chapter. Corbett pulls from a range of novels and films (which means my To Be Read list has several more books on it now) and in some cases follows a few examples through myriad steps to demonstrate his points.

The third section is titled “Roles.” Most of the chapters look at the Protagonist and the various issues that should be considered when creating one. The additional chapters look at the Protagonist’s opponent and the secondary characters. While his writing on these subjects is equally informative and analytic as the previous sections, it was a footnote that caught my attention. In the chapter of secondary characters Corbett includes just a small list of the various roles that secondary characters can fill, including: Cannon Fodder, Evil Clown, Quarrelsome Sibling, Monster-in-Law, Pompous Ass, and Snooty Servant. Basically, secondary characters sound like a lot of fun.

The fourth and final section deals with technique, and within that it covers Point-of-View and Voice. These two areas are particularly troublesome to me. Since my stories and characters are not even closely developed yet the writing that I have done has different POV’s and obvious areas where my authorial voice is stepping in loud and clear. I appreciated Corbett’s basic outline of POV’s and some of the pro’s and con’s of each. At least as I move forward I will be able to consider more clearly what story each character is bringing to the whole and how that story can best be told.

This is one of those books that will stay with me. I expect that in ten years it will have torn pages, notes scribbled on most of the pages, comments in several of the exercises, a bent and possibly wrinkled cover. Likewise, I expect that I may just eek out a character or two who resemble a reasonable fictional person. If you’re a fiction writer, this is a good one to read.

Lastly, it is impossible to read this book and not consider the strong relationship between reading and writing. His examples are taken from a range of books and film, and his exercises challenge readers to look at passages from their favorite writers and analyze the strategies that were employed.

Reading and writing in the new year – I can get on board with that.

5 Responses to “Book Note: The Art of Character by David Corbett”

  1. theparisreviewblog

    The Art of Character seems so intriguing to me, especially as a writer. I have a literary review blog, so I’m always looking for new inspiration. Great post. Keep writing!

    • RebeccaV

      Oh I’m so glad you stopped by – I particularly enjoy reading literary fiction (though my interests are all over the place) and always looking for books to add to my TBR pile. I’m looking forward to checking out your site!

  2. Carrie Rubin

    First of all, congratulations on your new baby!! Over 10 pounds? Guess she wanted to make a statement!

    Second of all, thanks for this great rundown. I hadn’t heard of the book ‘The Art of Character.’ Sounds like a great resource.

    • RebeccaV

      Thanks for the congrats – I figured when she was punching my bladder and kicking my tonsils she was going to be big.

      I think it has some great perspective and challenges for writers…but I’m a newbie at this whole thing so a lot of instruction is helpful.

  3. Book Note: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett | Rebecca R. Vincent

    […] AS A WRITER: I was intrigued by Patchett’s design to include the entire story within the setting of the home. By confining the environment Patchett forced the story to be an exercise in character development. What a challenge to limit an entire novel to one place. And she succeeded adequately enough in creating memorable characters since the place where I received the recommendation to read this book came from another book: David Corbett’s The Art of Character. […]


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