The Art of Character: The Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization

 Creating believable and resonant characters is one of the great challenges of the fiction author.

Paintbrushes and paletteThe concept of character has also become more important in narrative non-fiction and memoir, and even business books start with character stories to illustrate their points. In today’s article, David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, helps us with some key aspects to keep in mind.

Imagine the following scene:

A woman shops in a grocery store at 10 am dressed in evening wear: a cocktail dress, bolero jacket, opera gloves, a string of pearls, patent leather pumps. Her makeup is subtle and tastefully done, her hair neatly combed.

            She reaches for a can of peaches on a top shelf, straining, unable to get a grip. Glancing around, she sees no one able to offer assistance, stares once more at the unnerving peaches, then suddenly hikes up her skirt, notches the toe of her pump on a lower shelf and starts climbing as though up a rock face.

            Tongue between her teeth, reaching as far as she can, she wiggles her fingers, finally nudges one of the cans — it totters. Then falls. Several others tumble down with it. She jumps back down, shields her head from the avalanche — she may be hurt, but before anyone can get to her she very slowly drops to her knees, picks up two of the cans, clutches them to her chest, and begins to sob quietly.

There is no description of what this woman looks like beyond what she’s wearing. We presume she’s short, but her age, race, weight, height and so on are all unstated. But it’s unlikely anyone who reads the previous paragraph will not form a distinct mental image of her.

What are the most important things that make that visualization and engagement possible — that make the depiction compelling?

  • The character needs or wants something.
  • She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan — imperfect, admittedly (one might say necessarily) — for overcoming that difficulty.
  • She exhibits a seeming contradiction: she’s dressed in evening wear at the grocery store at mid-morning.
  • Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable. (She may even be hurt, enhancing this impression.)
  • Her sobbing suggests there is more to her predicament than meets the eye — a secret.

More than any of the other considerations, these five concerns are key to any compelling character.

That doesn’t mean we’ve uncovered the secret crazy magic formula, or that by methodically running down this checklist we can do all that’s required to make a character leap off the page. Characters can’t be crafted from a grab bag of traits, no matter how clever or interesting. That’s a recipe for an idea — a plot puppet — not a character.

Characterization requires a constant back-and-forth between the exterior events of the story and the inner life of the character. This requires training your insight, asking the right questions and not hedging on the answers, and learning to listen to yourself when, from the back of your mind, a voice insists: No. Not yet. Make it better.

That said, these five considerations can provide a touchstone as you work. Either while conceiving the character, writing the initial drafts, or polishing a later edit, as you’re evaluating the character you may ask yourself if any of these five qualities is missing, or underdeveloped.

If so, consider providing such a trait, or bringing one already in existence into greater focus, to see if it resonates with the story, echoes other aspects of the characterization you’ve already developed, helps clarify or intensify interactions or conflicts with other characters. or in some other way enhances your depiction.

The reasons that these five specific concerns are so central goes to the heart of who we are as human beings:

  • The most profound actions we take reveal an inner yearning, a desire for meaning in the face of death.
  • Our true character is never revealed so nakedly as when our desires are thwarted, and we need to adapt, improvise, get creative, dig deeper within ourselves for greater resolve or deeper insight. One might even say our character is forged at such times.
  • We instinctively respond to vulnerability. Few things engage our empathy as automatically as a wound — including invisible ones, like sorrow, loss, and regret.
  • Contradictions reveal that we’re more than we seem, or care to admit. Our public self gets betrayed by our private self. Pieces don’t fit. We must be many things to many people. (Or, as Jean Cocteau put it: “The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction — the breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality.”)
  • And secrets get at the difficult truths of guilt and shame in a life lived among others. On some level, we all believe ironically that we must hide something of ourselves to make ourselves visible. No one would accept us, let alone love us, if they knew the whole truth.

These aspects of character can’t be cranked out mechanically. A rushed approach to anything will bear only scattered results. To paraphrase one of my favorite professors: The difference between great artists, and artists who are not so great, is that great artists think deeply about simple things.

And so in our writing, we should strive to think deeply about five rather simple things:

  • the nature and quality of yearning
  • how profoundly frustration of one’s desires distorts the personality — or defines it
  • what it means to be wounded
  • the curse and crutch of secrets
  • the inescapability of contradiction

From that foundation we can move on to exploration of the physical, psychological, and sociological elaborations that flesh out the character, render her and the world she inhabits more real.

But at every stage, it remains important to resist the seeming reassurance of checklists and easy answers, and instead to be patient, to seek solitude and quiet, the better to think deeply and to respect the mysterious gravity that resides in the seemingly simple.

Do you have any tips or questions about writing believable characters? Please do leave your thoughts in the comments below.

art of character corbettDavid Corbett worked as a private investigator for fifteen years before becoming the widely acclaimed author of four novels and short fiction. His work has been singled out as a New York Times Notable Book, twice chosen for Best American Mystery Stories and nominated for the Edgar.

His latest book, The Art of Characteris the ultimate guide to creating captivating characters. David has taught at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, 826 Valencia, Chuck Palahniuk’s LitReactor, the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and at numerous writing conferences across the U.S.

Top image: paintbrushes and palette

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  1. Steven says

    For me, characters are all about conflict. Conflict with themselves and conflict with eachother. I really try to get into the heads of my characters and figure out what they want out of life. Either they’ve already got something and could lose it or they’re striving for something that always seems to be just out of reach. I think a characters appearance should be relevant to the scene. I might give a brief description of a character but I won’t spend three paragraphs talking about them unless the character or the scene they’re in is important.

    To use the grocery store example above, let us suppose our protagonist gets her peaches and is standing in line at the cash register. Unless there is conflict with the other customers I won’t mention anyone waiting in line with her. When she gets to the cash register I might describe the cashier, maybe have the cashier be a stark contrast to the protagonist and have her dwell on this.

    Okay I’ll get off my soap box now. I could talk about the complexity of characters for hours. Thanks for the post Joanna and sorry for the blog-post of a comment. I’ll try to keep it short in the future. 😉

  2. says

    Thanks Joanna for sharing it. This is my weak point, I’m “too kind” to my characters, I need to learn to go rough on them for the sake of a compelling story.

  3. says

    Thanks Joanna and David. I’ve been reading a lot on creating compelling characters and I think your example is really great. I grasped the contradictions and what made everything work. I am now thinking how this can be applied to a few of my characters…

  4. Susan Tolbert says

    Great post! I have struggled for years to find unique but believable ways to introduce characters and to continue to keep them that way, but to add new layers of complexity and what the film business often calls “dramatic need”. William Goldman’s writings about character development are often just as useful for novelists as for screenwriters.

    Your description of the women, however, reminded me of one my weaknesses: I often forget to describe characters! One thing I cannot stand in novels is an overly elaborate description of the character’s physical traits; it usually bores me, because I want to get inside the person’s head as soon as possible. Being a kind of misanthrope, with little interest in mundane details, I tend only to focus on those traits that stand out as odd or intriguing. This woman, for instance, made me think of the character of Susan in the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”–Bohemian, New Wave and creative…until she began sobbing! Susan would never do that. She would probably shrug and walk out.

    So, in a recent short story I started, I forced myself to describe two characters, both mail carriers, as uniquely as I could, but with an emphasis on the idea that the main character who sees them is like most of us: we don’t usually “check out” the appearance of our mailmen (or women). Because the mail carriers both bring something unique and possibly dangerous into the main character’s life, she considers them more carefully. It was very difficult to write about these guys! One was old, about to retire, with a Leprechaun-like appearance (short, wiry red hair, starling blue eyes and an energetic, happy manor). To write about someone so extreme-looking was difficult because I was tempted to use extreme words, and allowed only “Leprechaun” to remain after editing.

    The other, new carrier was strangely easy to describe, since he is average-looking, young, physically fit but not musclebound and has a pleasant but rather vacant air about him. This fairly boring man’s appearance is what catches the eye of the main character. He seems TOO mundane and “safe”! Writing about him was fun, like describing an apple or a log. I had the challenge of making him look “normal” but possess a scintilla of danger running just beneath his surface.

    So…that is one way that I try to conquer my dislike of describing physical appearance. The other ways I have found successful are to introduce details piece by piece or to combine them with some action, or as seen through the eyes of another person, often with judgment and suspicion, or even approval (which is less fun!).

  5. David Corbett says

    I’m going to try this again, to see if I can get out of moderation limbo:

    First, Thanks to Joanna for inviting me here to say a few words and share this forum with each of you.

    Steven: The relationship between character and conflict is inherent in all of the qualities I discussed. You state it well: Desire creates conflict (because the world is not designed to gratify our desires). That’s why how the character responds to frustration of her desire is so central—it’s how she responds to the conflict inherent in wanting something. Vulnerability is just the woundedness that comes from having wanted something and suffered for it. Contradictions and secrets help depict the conflict between who we might want to be and who we feel we must be among others.

    As for physical description, I always try to focus on how the character’s appearance affects her interactions with others. Description for description’s sake seldom interests me—how we look (or how we think we look) is a mode of interaction.

    In this scene, the others in the checkout line, including the cashier, would be of interest solely (perhaps) in fleshing out why this woman is dressed so curiously.

    Gyula: You’re not alone in being too kind to your characters. It’s a common writer problem—because writers are often by nature reflective, introverted, outwardly gentle and even cautious people. But as Stephen says, character is conflict, and only by putting your characters through the gauntlet can you and the reader gain a genuine understanding of their essence.

    Thanks, heather, I’m glad the post was useful.

    • Steven says

      Hey David, thanks for the feedback. You comment about ‘putting your characters through the gauntlet’ was perfect. That’s exactly what I do. It’s not done out of sadism but the realization that I want the world I’m creating for my readers to feel real. In real life people don’t always have a happy ending or get something because they rub a magic lamp. Nothing irritates me more than when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie and the protagonist(or someone else), seems to accomplish the impossible just because the plot needs them to. I don’t have a problem with characters overcoming challenges but it should happen as a result of personal growth or struggle not as the result of a plot convenience.

      Anyway. Thanks for responding and I hope Joanna has you post again.

      • David Corbett says

        Thanks, Steven. As one often hears in writer workshops: Act 2 is otherwise known as Torture the Protagonist. Not out of sadism, as you point out. Rather, stories are about change, and we all resist change. Only by facing repeated failure and frustration do we get it: Somethin’s gotta give.

  6. barry knister says

    What I look for as both writer and reader are characters that do not rely on formulas and clichés in their development. When I find myself relying on precedents from my reading as I create a character–or see this in something I’m reading–I become skeptical and take stock. It’s a symptom of laziness, a failure of imagination. And this applies as well to dialogue. Boilerplate, derivative speeches are the kiss of death.

  7. says

    Thanks for the great tips. For my characters, I try to write them so that the reader is aware of their motivation and the rationale behind it, but the character isn’t. A lot of times my characters aren’t sure exactly of why they want something or how to get it, which leads to a lot of room for twists and turns, as well as lots of character development over the course of the story.

  8. says

    Character starts with a name. I have to name my characters. I just sent a submission of a historical romance and when I was trying to plot the heroine, I saw a bottle of creamy Italian salad dressing so I thought of Italiana and then it became Liana because the character lied at the opening scene but the more I thought of it while writing, why not just Ana. But the process helped me in developing the scenes and character. The names are important to get me in writing the story. My fictional American president in my political action suspense thriller novels is Calvin Woodrow. My too favorite American presidents based on historical accounts are Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson, because of business instead of politics. I decided to create the same president in various novels. He promotes market economy as a way of improving the American economy and global economy. Knowing the two presidents keeps me reminded of the political theory I need to include in my novels. Nothing published; the novels are going through the traditional gauntlets and I have several WIPs with the same president. But I am glad that I am learning the self-pub route.

  9. David Corbett says

    Susan: Goldman’s an excellent guide for writers regardless of form, and “dramatic need” is another way of saying “yearning,” the term Robert Olen Butler uses, and the one I prefer. “Dramatic need” sounds a bit like jargon to my ear, whereas “yearning” returns us to something human, and characters lacking humanity quickly devolve into plot puppets, no matter how ‘dramatic” their “need.”

    The key to the woman’s sobbing is that it does not relate to the present situation. The present situation has triggered a deeper sense of futility—the source of which as yet remains a secret.

    You tap into a key point in recounting your stated aversion to description—which nonetheless you think about quite well. Describing the character serves two purposes. One is providing the reader a visual image that anchors the character in their imaginations. I agree with you: Here, less is definitely more. The other, subtler, and to my mind more important purpose is to convey how the character’s appearance affects his or her interactions with others—arouses suspicion or relief or discomfort or attraction, etc.

    Barry: Agreed. The devil is always on the details and there are times you simply have to keep digging, changing, revising to get to something still true to the scene but uniquely, freshly stated.

    ED: Your technique is known as dramatic irony, where the reader is aware of what the character isn’t. And a great many excellent stories reveal the character only discovering their true motives or ambitions as the conflict strips away their delusions, artifices, denials, confusions, etc. In fact some writing guides consider this essential: That there’s no real drama if the character is fully self-aware from the start. In that case, the only suspense that’s created is through answering the question: Will he get what he wants (rather than also: How does he come to understand what he wants)? But sometimes it’s helpful to leave the reader in the dark as well. Otherwise both you and the reader have a position of superiority over the character that can inadvertently diminish him.

    Daniel: There’s a section of The Art of Character that specifically deals with the importance of the character’s name. I always try for a sound in the name that for me conjures something essential about the character, or provides at least the hint of an image: Shel Beaudry, Frank Maas, Dennis Murchison, Cassady Montesano, Jordie Skellenger. And yet, ironically, a name is one of the attributes a person has no control over, unless he deliberately chooses to change it. It’s given to him by others, which is usually true of nicknames as well. In this way, names are subtly, curiously social in nature. They attach us to others—our parents, who named us; the people we’re named for (if that’s the case); and the people who nickname us, for better or worse.

  10. says

    Dear David:

    Absolutely wonderful piece. Vivid and essential. What I especially liked is how you linked the need or want of a character with the character’s most fundamental want: the desire for meaning in the face of death. Thinking through character on this level will help us give our characters and stories greater moral depth.

    Also, Aristotle said that action is character. Your article certainly concurs with that statement in showing us a woman who right away is in the midst of an action fraught with conflict. But what’s wonderful is how your very cinematic example actually takes us inside, to a small but intriguing extent, her emotional state. It’s good to be reminded that emotion is revealed principally and most convincingly by what characters do, not by a lot of narrative “telling” or character monologuing (unless, perhaps, that narrative or monologuing is unreliable or otherwise reveals a lot of interesting subtext).

    Thank to you too, Joanna, for inviting David to contribute this. I look forward to sharing this piece today.

  11. says

    Dear David:

    Absolutely wonderful piece. Vivid and essential. What I especially liked is how you linked the need or want of a character with the character’s most fundamental want: the desire for meaning in the face of death. Thinking through character on this level will help us give our characters and stories greater moral depth.

    Also, Aristotle said that action is character. Your article certainly concurs with that statement in showing us a woman who right away is in the midst of an action fraught with conflict. But what’s wonderful is how your very cinematic example actually takes us inside, to a small but intriguing extent, her emotional state. It’s good to be reminded that emotion is revealed principally and most convincingly by what characters do, not by a lot of narrative “telling” or character monologuing (unless, perhaps, that narrative or monologuing is unreliable or otherwise reveals a lot of interesting subtext).

    Thanks to you too, Joanna, for inviting David to contribute this. I look forward to sharing this piece today.

  12. David Corbett says

    Daniel: Thanks so much for the kind words. I think a lot of beginning writers fail to grasp that deeper element of character because they shun the question in their own lives — what would gratify my yearning? It’s not a question that avails a simple answer, but there’s a difference between vagueness and complexity. Regardless, only by examining in one’s own life what it is that you’ve most wanted, what has brought the greatest happiness and sense of fulfillment, and how elusive it has seemed, can one hope to understand it in one’s characters.

    Aristotle’s not the only one to associate character with action. Nietzsche famously pronounced that “The doer is merely a fiction attached to the deed — the deed is everything.” And Henry James chimed in with: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”

    It’s an interpretation of character that largely vanished with Roman drama & comedy, then the Church taking over Western culture for almost two millennia. The notion of soul and essence gained greater prominence — notoriously hard to dramatize — which gave us the saints, comedic types, the chivalric hero, and Everyman, the greatest dullard in Western culture. A decidedly mixed bag when it comes to character.

    BTW: It’s generally agreed that Aristotle based far too much of the Poetics on Sophocles’s Oedipus the King — a blatant example of faulty induction from the greatest natural scientist among the ancient Greek thinkers. That’s what happens, I suppose, when philosophers go slumming in the arts.

    • says

      Dear David:

      Thanks so much for your reply. While I wouldn’t want to go as far as Nietzsche in his understanding of the importance of action, I agree that the principle that “character is revealed by action” has been a prevalent one in Western culture.

      I’m not sure I agree, however, that this principle largely vanished with Roman drama and comedy, and then with the advent of Christianity. True enough, Christianity in particular introduces an interior dimension to the person that still very much influences fiction in our own day (such as confessional literary novels like Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD). But I’m not sure this Christian influence can make up part of the blame for a loss of focus on action in fiction. Dante, for example, is a very strong character in his own Christian epic, and the protagonist of what is arguably the greatest work of literary art in Western culture. There are various analogical levels to Dante’s Comedy, to be sure, but all of these–as Dante himself says in his letter to his patron, Can Grande della Scala–are dependent upon the literal level: i.e., the action of Dante finding himself lost in a dark wood, encountering Virgil, descending into Hell, etc. And when we account for the fact that Dante’s understanding of human action was inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy of human action was deeply indebted to Aristotle, we can then trace a line between Aristotle’s principle of “character is revealed by action,” on the one hand, and the action depicted in Dante’s epic, on the other. Your interesting comment deserves further reflection than this, but this is my first reaction.

      A final word about Aristotle. I don’t think he can be accused of abandoning his customary inductive method in the Poetics. Consider Poetics 13-16. In these chapters you find Aristotle sifting through a variety of particular literary works, trying to discern how the proper effects of tragedy are produced. The analysis, as in his other works, is deeply rooted in the examination of particulars. I don’t think Aristotle ever went slumming.

      On the topic of Aristotle’s preferred kind of tragedy, you might enjoy Stephen White’s essay, “Aristotle’s Favorite Tragedies,” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., ESSAYS ON ARISTOTLE’S POETICS (Princeton University Press, 1992).

      Thank you again, David, and I very much look forward to seeing your book.

      • David Corbett says


        Thanks so much for the deeply thoughtful response. Of course, once the West reintroduces Aristotle, the worm has turned, precisely for the reasons you mention. But between the early Hellenic period and the re-introduction of Aristotle to the West by Aquinas (borrowing from Moses Maimonides, who himself borrowed from Averroes), you have over a thousand years of Neo-Platonism, which makes of the world a shadow realm. Earthly actions pale before their eternal consequences. Augustine famously fulminates: “Do not try to fashion your Self. You will only fashion a ruin.”

        And Aristotle’s pupil, Theophrastus, penned a volume called MORAL TYPES that became a handbook for characterization for centuries, especially in the Roman comic writers Menander and Terence, but on through and even beyond the Renaissance as well, into the 19th century (you see his influence in Thackeray and Dickens in particular). These types, though insightful, are fairly rigid — like fate. Or the soul.

        Aristotle (due to Aquinas) can, I believe, be credited with beginning the return to scientific inquiry and this in turn to a more terra-centric view of life and humanity. It leads to men like Pico della Mirandola renouncing Augustine’s idea of the Self and saying instead that man fashions his own destiny — something both Hamlet and Richard III, in particular, wrestle with.

        As for Aristotle slumming — I was being glib. You’re quite right. There are scholars, however, who find in his concepts of hamartia and anagnorisis in particular a heavy reliance on Sophocles, especially Oedipus the King, and they come to that conclusion by examining some of the plays (that have survived) that Aristotle refers to in the chapters you cite.

        But you’ve intrigued me with the White essay, and I’m currently trying to hunt up a copy. Thanks for citing it.

        • says

          Dear David:

          Thank you for your further comments. I’m really enjoying this discussion. I know you’ll agree with me that there are tremendously rich sources for reflection on the art of fiction too often languishing in a forgotten past, and I very much appreciate your efforts here, and I suspect in your book as well, to bring them back into discussion.

          Clearly I have a lot to learn from you about how philosophical currents in the West impacted the depiction of character in literature. I think you’re right that neo-Platonism led to a certain depreciation of the bodily character of human existence. I’m not sure of the reference you make to St. Augustine, but of course he was heavily influenced by neo-Platonism. I’m not sure what he would mean by “Do not try to fashion your self.” Is that in the CONFESSIONS? I know that one of Augustine’s concerns in the CONFESSIONS is to find his true self, what we might call his “character,” by searching “inside” for the presence of God. This work is one of the seminal texts of Christianity and in it we see the emphasize on interiority surging to the fore. But then again, we’re also gripped by the “action scenes” in which Augustine takes up with a mistress, leaves her, travels to Italy, meets St. Ambrose, etc. Perhaps these action scenes play no small role in bringing us “inside” Augustine’s spiritual search. I’m just thinking out loud…

          I’m very intrigued to learn more about the influence upon literature of Theophrastus. I’ve always been struck by how Shakespeare’s characters, for example, come on stage already “set” in their characters. Sometimes with a flaw already a vulnerable part of their characters. Othello being the prime example that comes to mind.

          I’m not sure why you say the soul is rigid. On Aristotle’s view the soul is the seat of the intellect, will, emotions, imagination, etc. Aren’t these elements of the self precisely what are changed by our actions? Fiction itself would seem to presuppose that we are not so fated, that the actions we take can change us at the level of the soul (understood in the Aristotelian sense).

          The period of classical modernity was a very turbulent time and had a huge impact on literature, and still has in many ways. I think Protestantism played an enormous role in de-emphasizing what might be called the “incarnational imagination” which Catholic authors in the 20th century–Waugh, Greene, O’Connor, Percy and others–struggled to bring back. Another strain of classical modernity is the one you mention: the rise of enlightened thought in which man becomes the measure. Hamlet, the student from Luther’s own Wittenberg, may evince both these strains.

          Do you get into any of these issues in your book? I want to read it in any event, but if you do then my appetite is whetted all the more.

          And if you would like to continue the discussion, please feel free to do so either here or at or

          • David Corbett says

            Perhaps you’re right, Daniel, we may be getting a bit into the weeds for other commenters, so we can take this up elsewhere. Thanks for the invitation in that regard.

            But to answer a few questions quickly. The quote from Augustine has this cited as its source in RENAISSANCE SELF-FASHIONING: More to Shakesepare, by Stephen Greenblatt: Augustine, sermon 169, quoted in Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 30.

            The soul, I was taught, was “eternal, fixed and immutable.” We strayed when we failed to focus ourselves on our inner divinity, because we were “fashioned in the image of God,” and discovered our true natures through the imitation of Christ. Yes, this is Catholicism + Neo-Platonism, and whenever you assert Aristotle as the counter-position I can only agree. But that’s what distinguishes Aristotle from Plato, his refusing to fall into the trap of “eternal forms.” But this ultimately leads to a sense of character as constructed (or “fashioned”) rather than discovered. This is a relatively modern conceit.

            No, I don’t get into this much in the book, except perhaps a little in the very first chapter (and the epilog). I wrote a section with this in mind, but it ended up being left out — the book is already over-long. Perhaps in a future book, though, I’ll find a way to keep it in.

        • says

          Different Daniel, but your reply has me thinking that I should have studied Ancient Greek Philosophers and Ancient Greek Literature back when I was still ambitious enough to try to get a college degree. I do not want to go to the college environment today – maybe Internet learning, if I have the extra money and time. But I certainly will do the Google search to learn more. I knew that I was going to be a writer in my old age and learning from Ancient Greek related teachings would have been more interesting than Calculus and Calculus-based Physics. The one Ancient History class for Engineers that I had to take, I was taught that the Roman Empire really had black and white cameras to take pictures along with the teachings of Roman sewers and aqueducts would be viable in the modern world.

          • David Corbett says

            There are wonderful classes on Greek drama and mythology taught by Elizabeth Vandiver available through the Teaching Company. You can get them in CD or DVD format, and I’ve found them invaluable. (And the Shakespeare courses with Peter Sacco are also superb.)

  13. Zac Totah says

    Great post! I know that out of all the facets of writing, creating resonant characters is the hardest part for me. I’ve read a number of how-to books and started absorbing more from the fiction I read, trying to pinpoint what make characters work in different situations, and I think I’m grasping the concept and learning that it can be done. My concern is that when I start writing my books, everything I’ve learned won’t shine through. My biggest worry is maintaining consistency with characters, and staying true to who they are in what they do, think, and say throughout the course of an entire book. For someone like me who’s better at almost everything else, that seems a pretty high mountain to climb.

    • David Corbett says


      One of the gteat challenges of making a character consistent is understanding that at least the protagonist will have to change, and that all characters reward most when they have the capacity to surprise — but how to do this without create a character that readers think: But he wouldn’t do that!

      Contradiction is key in creating and developing a character precisely so you better understand the conflicting, warring sides of the character’s personality. Secrets also help you realize that however consistent the character’s representation of himself among others, something always remains hidden. That understanding creates the kind of depth and contrast that can allow you see both the coherent and conflicted aspects of the character as part of a whole.

  14. Matt says

    Great post! I think this really nails down what’s important about characterization. I know at one point, many years ago, I seemed to focus more on making the characters habits and speaking traits unique. But I’ve also found myself working hard to develop that VP internal and external struggle. For me (and I think this is what Zac is saying) this is the hardest. My characters seem to make choices during first drafts that often seem guided more by intuition. Right now I’m ok with that, and I find I worker harder at the second draft searching for the details and consistencies to make to resonate the characters choices.


  1. […] Art of Character- About characterization – the five cornerstones of dramatic characterization. One delightful tidbit from this link is “Characterization requires a constant back-and-forth between the exterior events of the story and the inner life of the character.” And goes on to discuss why these five essentials are important […]

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