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David Corbett

Serving and Defying the Tyranny of Motive

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.

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