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January 29, 2013

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One can acquire everything in solitude—except character.

—Stendhal, On Love

Every story worth telling in some way mirrors our lives, and to that extent explores four key questions:

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Where am I going?
What does it mean?

Note that I use the word “explores,” not “answers.” Storytelling is an art. It can’t provide scientific certainty and it shouldn’t try. Though there is considerable craft to fiction—this book wouldn’t exist if that weren’t true—it remains rooted far more in searching than finding, more wedded to the hypothetical “what if” than any conclusive QED.

As long as we’re alive, the question of who we are and how we should live remains open. No one convinces us less than the person who crows, “I have the answer.” And ironically, this is precisely why fiction provides a more satisfying depiction of human life than any scientific or otherwise theoretical rendering can offer.

It also explains why desire is so central to the exploration of character. As we learned from the very first storybook tales we heard, human want can inspire the indifferent, betray the foolish, and undo the steadfast. And nothing is more ephemeral (or self-deluded) than satisfaction; our wants rise up continuously, propelling us through the hours and days and weeks and years. Though most stories conclude with a gratifying resolution, even a child can intimate an unsettling sense of continuation to the journey in even the most final of endings, the inescapable presence of an implicit “And then …” Or the more ominous “And yet …”

The importance of character to story lies in this open-endedness at the core of our lives. Stories that emphasize ideas or problems—the conundrums of philosophy, the lessons of history, the truths of science, the consolations of religion—invariably hit rough sailing the further they drift from the shore of character. Ideas too often serve as a digression from the messy stuff of life—ourselves, each other. For some they provide a kind of false salvation. But the core reality of life remains: We die. Ideas, no matter how “eternal,” can’t save us. And because we can only honestly stand on one side of death, we can never know for certain how our lives will turn out, which is why we experience our existence most profoundly in the interrogative mode, situated in a world premised on, as Constantin Stanislavski put it, the magical “What if?”

The craft of characterization is an attempt to honor and explore the truth of human nature through the art of storytelling. We see in our characters reflections of ourselves, which is why we detect in their stories, no matter how fanciful or dark or grand, an attempt to better understand our lives. And what else is there to discuss, really, than our lives?

Where concept can give us the general outline of a story—the setting and situation, the fundamental problem, the moral dilemma—it’s through character that we bring the general down to earth. Characters infuse a story with conviction, nail it to the mysterious details of daily life by revealing the unique and inimitable ways people get things done, the beliefs that guide them and the errors that betray them, their crucial decisions, their hopeless failings, their critical deeds. Each of us, as the character Murray Burns puts it in the film A Thousand Clowns, is trying to reach some understanding of the “subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.” As sagacious as this may sound, it’s fundamentally a question of character. The answer lies not in what we believe but what we do. In the stories that affect us most profoundly—whether taken from myth, the Bible, Greek tragedy, Renaissance drama, the novel, postmodern fiction, film, TV—it’s the characters that linger most tenaciously in the mind. In some “subtle, sneaky, important” way, they are us. This book is the result of my own approach to characterization as developed through the writing of numerous stories and several novels, an approach that has evolved to embrace the insight embodied in the quote from Stendhal that began this Introduction: Character is not created in isolation or repose; it’s forged through interaction with others and the world. Even in solitary struggles of endurance, such as arduous physical ordeals or battles with illness, there is a contest at the heart of the matter, between the part of us that would surrender and the part that continues on.

That’s no less true for writers than anyone else. The words we write succeed least when we disregard the reader they’re meant for. Call it a contract, if that helps. But the reader keeps us honest, if we’re aiming high enough. Conformity can kill, spiritually for sure, and yes, integrity matters. But there’s always someone who taught you that. Write for them if no one else. Characters form the code that permits our engagement with the reader—they stand in for each of us in the narrative world we both intend to enter. I realize this can make writing sound like a quasi-functional neurosis, or at least a kind of controlled hallucination—or professional daydreaming. But at some point in your life you’ve felt that curious, ineffable stirring in your imagination—the shapeless volition that seems to both arise from within and yet come from elsewhere, that pulse of urgency we somewhat crudely refer to as the creative impulse. It’s why you’re reading these words. You may even believe it’s why you’re alive. You craft stories. And characters—whether they’re demons or angels, apparitions or simply mental stuff—are your inescapable cohorts. This book will help you engage them with greater confidence and deeper insight.

—David Corbett, from the Introduction to The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV

(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)

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