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.
David Corbett is the New York Times Notable Author of four novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and too many poems. Recovering Catholic, ex-PI, one-time bar-band gypsy, his book on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character—“[A] work of art, an indispensable guide… a writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul,” Elizabeth Brundage—was published by Penguin in January.
It may seem callous or even glib to say, but artists should never regret their misfortunes. Heartbreak is a gift. If endured wisely it opens the eyes of the heart. It’s self-pity that’s poison.
Of course, it’s no easy trick to endure personal devastation, let alone wisely.
Our pains, sorrows, miscues, and wrongs misshape us, disfiguring our spirits, our hearts, our consciences. We become brittle, self-protective, mistaken, false. We unknowingly chase the ghosts of our past through the labyrinth of our days.
Our battles with a favored sibling for a parent’s love unconsciously inspire a habitual pursuit of married lovers, as we reenact over and over the daily contest for approval and intimacy. This time, we’re sure, we’ll be the one who is chosen.
A mother’s narcissistic flamboyance leaves us desperate for devotion and acceptance, which we ironically seek from lovers as grandly unavailable as she was.
Nursing a loved one through a long and painful death creates a need for emotional intensity, a daily crisis of profound love, which simple, gentle, accepting affection can no longer fulfill.
Our lives can become a kind of moral and emotional sleepwalk, and it often takes a devastating loss, tragedy, or crisis to shock us out of the habitual behavior that has come to identify us. This crucial moment of insight forms one the core epiphanies of our lives, and forges the decisions that point toward change.
Anyone who has experienced a therapeutic breakthrough, or been obliged to perform a “fearless moral inventory,” as those in twelve-step programs must, know this kind of self-scrutiny. But writers must know it as well.
Such “crises of insight” and moments of decision form the cornerstones of drama. They may take the form of a dark night of the soul, a sudden horrible feeling of What have I done?, or a hard-won acceptance of ourselves, warts and all. We can’t expect to portray them well in our characters without understanding them in our own lives.
Return to those moments of failure and shame and guilt and loss, not just to flesh out the emotional specificity, but to reflect on how that fear, shame, failure, or loss changed you, made you fearful, untrusting, obsessive, brash.
Then search out those moments in your life where you’ve wrestled with those shortcomings, faced them squarely, and made the difficult decision to find a new path—toward success, or joy, or acceptance.
Identify the people who inspired you, or obliged you to be honest about who you were and what you were doing. As long as you put words on the page, those moments, those people, will guide you to the psychological, moral, and emotional territory where your truth lies. Ground yourself there. Write from there.
Who’s your favorite fictional character? What are his/her most memorable traits?