David Corbett, who lives in Vallejo, Calif., is a former private investigator and is the acclaimed author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Books), Blood of Paradise (nominated for an Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running? His most recent book is The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV (Penguin).
At nearly 400 pages, The Art of Character, which publishes in late January, is a generous serving of Corbett’s knowledge on the craft of writing. Part reference book, part volume of essays, it’s insightful, entertaining, funny, and incredibly helpful. The following, “Serving and Defying the Tyranny of Motive,” is a short excerpt from Corbett’s book.
More often than not, people don’t know why they do things.—William Trevor, “The Room”
The Mystery at the Heart of Character
Sophocles described his heroes with the term deinos, which translates loosely as “wondrous and strange.” A character who lives up to that description possesses a kind of incandescence, reminding us of the unpredictable capacity for loving sacrifice, heroism, fierce persistence—or craven selfishness, cowardice, vacillation—that each of us carries within his heart.
But creating stories and characters is a practical matter, too, requiring craft. The chasm between the ineffable thing we’re after and the simple tools we have at hand can feel discouragingly vast. It’s simple to say: The writer’s task is to balance expectation against surprise, word for word, action by action, scene by scene. Like many things that can be simply put, it’s incredibly hard to pull off.
In characterization it requires creating an initial impression of the character that feels coherent or whole, then shoving her through a doorway toward the unknown, into a gauntlet of trials and reversals, revelations and confusions, that will shred her familiar, coherent sense of self and offer the possibility of growth, even transformation.
That’s the trick, as it were, and yet there remain limits to what a writer can get away with. Wile E. Coyote cannot stop wanting to catch the Roadrunner, no matter how many anvils fall from the sky.
This testifies to the unyielding force of desire. The inescapable urgency of what a character wants, the vibrant way her craving and need defines her, creates what I call the Tyranny of Motive. Like all tyrannies, it demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.
How Much Do We Need to Know About a Character?
We can’t possibly know everything about anything, and this is no less true of our characters than the cosmos. Even the author can benefit from a sense of mystery before his own creation. The vibrancy of characters, rooted in their capacity to act seemingly of their own volition, also generates perhaps their most important attribute: their ability to instill a craving to know more about them.
We need to feel comfortable enough with a character to begin writing—enough to be able to imagine how she navigates the world of the narrative, specifically how she behaves with other characters. But we also need to ask, given our best understanding of what she might do at a given point in the story: What if she did the exact opposite?
This is not a science. It’s barely a craft. Although we can learn techniques and tricks, characterization remains somewhat elusive, like fingering mercury. There are times I wonder if it isn’t a symptom of a basically benign mental disorder—or the adult version of having an imaginary friend.
Whatever this curious faculty is, it requires an ability to feel as though we’re in dialogue with our characters, observing them as we observe a dream—not controlling them like marionettes. We need to engage not just the mind but our intuition in developing a character. This is how, to the extent it’s possible, we defy the Tyranny of Motive.
The Limits of Intellect
We don’t get to know someone through a recitation of biological data; we get to know them through interacting with them—especially during emotional, unpredictable, or demanding times. So too we get to know our characters by engaging with them in meaningful scenes, filled with conflict, pathos, and risk—scenes that reveal the most significant aspects of their lives.
Readers and audiences shouldn’t be vexed by a character’s behavior, but they should never feel entirely comfortable either, or they’ll be several steps ahead of the story at every turn. This may seem counterintuitive to those who’ve been browbeaten in English classes to identify the root cause of a character’s actions, but this is a fool’s errand.
One sees the same sort of error in the usual understanding of “tragic flaw.” If actors portrayed Medea solely by focusing on her jealousy, Coriolanus his pride, Hamlet his indecision, Macbeth his ambition, the results would be ridiculously wooden. Such an approach fundamentally misconceives the very nature of these characters.
The reason that Abel’s death at the hands of Cain never feels as compelling as Oedipus’s murder of Laius—or Adam and Eve’s disobedience, or Prometheus’s theft of fire—is because Cain’s violence is so tidily explained by envy. In contrast, Oedipus’s hot temper, Eve’s unbridled curiosity, Prometheus’s compassion for man—they never seem to tell the whole story. Which is why those tales continue to intrigue us centuries later.
Robert McKee makes this point in his writing guide, Story:
“Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.”
This is a sneaky, subtle, maddening truth. A character most predictably fascinates at precisely the moment you set her free and permit her to defy your own and your audience’s expectation of what she might do.
Explaining your character kills her. Whatever she does, the reader needs to feel her actions arise from the whole of her personality, her wants and contradictions and secrets and wounds, her attachment to friends and family and her fear of her enemies, her schooling and sense of home, her loves and hatreds, her shame and pride and guilt and sense of joy. As important as a character’s core desire is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it be teased out and separated from everything else about her.
Simply tying actions to motives is too simplistic to feel satisfying. It smacks of an overly rigid and unsophisticated view of behavior. And the more the reader sees the writer’s hand in a character’s behavior—the more the behavior can be reduced to readily explainable causes—the more that reader will feel shackled to the Tyranny of Motive, rather than introduced to something more elusive and intriguing, something wondrous and strange.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Art of Character by David Corbett. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Corbett