I write on a tiny couch in a corner window where I can bask in the muted light of morning. Cross-breezes keep me cool, and by midday the rumble of traffic from a nearby thoroughfare gives way to the throaty calls of neighborhood crows and the occasional barking dog. What else keeps me company in my little writing oasis? A sign in the window. Unlike the dulcet sounds and calming scenery of the slowly-waking world, this sign is harsh, unequivocal, and typed in bossy 46-point black font. Because when I’m daydreaming about muses, I need someone to kick me in the rear. And that person is David Corbett, who recently helped me crack the code of writing character. Here’s what the sign says.
…AND SOMETHING CHANGES
Obvious? Maybe. Taught in screenwriting 101? Definitely. But I read a lot of other people’s stuff and find that many first-draft scenes and characters don’t integrate these time-tested ingredients for page-turning fiction – including my own terrible first (and 20th) drafts. Another writer may eschew the idea of “formula” writing. But I’ve learned from David and other mentors that there is a lot to glean from popular fiction and commercial films that connect well with audiences. As readers and viewers, we’re engaged when we understand a character’s motivations; we get carried away by story when the scene creates tension between what the protagonist wants and what the world insists on serving up. When I’m doing rewrites, revisiting a piece that just feels flat, or when I otherwise get stuck in stucks-ville, I consider David’s Corbett’s words. I hate rules as much as the next guy, but when I heed the sign, my stories work better.
Here’s more paraphrased sage advice from David:
When a person expresses himself, he is displaying character. The words he chooses and how he acts and interacts with people reveal clues to what he wants. More clues are dropped by the choices he makes in the pursuit of his goals, in the choices he refuses to make, in his view of himself and others. Central to his words and actions is the notion of choice. Words and actions show a character assessing his world, making decisions, and dealing with the consequences in an immediate way. Ultimately these choices reveal 1) Values, which are suggested by his preference for one option over another, and 2) Character, by the resilience he displays in seeing a choice through. Conflict defines character.
I highly recommend finding David Corbett online at LitReactor or his Web site. He offers consulting services, leads reasonably-priced virtual workshops, and has a book out called The Art of Character. Amazing guy and a no-frills, give-it-to-you-straight, smart instructor. And he looks like John Malkovich, which is pretty awesome.
David Corbett’s services and acumen are highly recommended. And I’m not even on his payroll. Frankly I’m not on anyone’s payroll anymore – but that’s another storyline altogether.