Wednesday, January 23, 2013


DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am so pleased today to have with us on Jungle Red my friend David Corbett, the New York Times notable author of four novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and one of the best writers I'm privileged to know.  

David describes himself as a recovering Catholic, ex-PI, and one-time bar-band gypsy, and his book on the craft of characterization, THE ART OF CHARACTER, will be published January 29th by Penguin. (That's NEXT Tuesday, folks, so we are very lucky to get a sneak peek.) I read this book in galley (and yes, my blurb is there in the long list of praise from much more famous writers) and what I said was that this book should go on every writer's shelf, along with Stephen King's On Writing and Elizabeth George's Write Away. It's that good, and that inspiring, both for neophyte writers and those of us who are, um, a bit more seasoned...

So I asked David: I want to know how this book came about. Was it inspired by your teaching? Your writing? (I think it must have been bloody hard to write, much more so than fiction...)
And David said: Had I known then what I know now, I would have run screaming naked into the night…

In 2008, I was asked by Linda Venis to teach a course at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. This meant I had to come up with something about writing fiction that I felt I knew well enough to at least pretend to be knowledgeable. I’d be in front of a classroom of students who needed real instruction, not just witty anecdotes, off-the-cuff tips, and war stories.

I decided to approach character since it’s an area I feel comfortable with and think I do reasonably well.

Only afterward did someone tell me: Good God, man, you never teach what you do well. The fact you do it well means you do a lot of it instinctively, and that’s the hardest thing to teach. One, much of your skill is unconscious. Two, you don’t possess the language to describe how you do it. Three, once you begin to analyze it, you’ll gum it up for yourself.

Let me repeat: Had I known then what I know now, I would have run screaming…

For better or worse, this sage advice came to me too late to make a difference. I titled the course: Who’s in Charge Here: Building Vivid Characters Who Serve the Story.

My premise was this: We often begin with a story idea that suggests a certain cast of characters, though they may seem vague at first. Then, once we begin fleshing out those characters, they begin to possess a life of their own—and wander off the reservation of the story. If they do so interestingly, great. But how do you guarantee that happens? How do you serve their unique essence and the story at the same time? That’s what I hoped to teach my students.

It turned out I had a pretty good knack for classroom teaching—God knows why—so Linda wanted me back. But the weekly commute from the Bay Area to Los Angeles for one Monday night course proved a little daunting. So Linda suggested teaching online.

At the risk of being tedious: Had I known then what I know now, I would have…

Well, if you teach online, you have to write out your lectures so they can be read. Charming wit and personal charisma don’t cut it.

So I was obliged to lay out my thoughts on the subject matter in detailed, systematic fashion for a ten-week course. I stuck with character because, well, I’d done it and no one had died, the polar ice caps hadn’t melted, and Venus hadn’t collided with Mars. (Note the high threshold for meaningful reflection.)

And so I was obliged to begin a long, elaborate, and detailed examination—and explication—of the what, the how, and they why of characterization as I understand it.

This time I titled the course: The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters. I hoped to continue to address the same tension between character and story demands, but expand the focus into exploring the writer’s own memory and experience to deepen characterization, and stress the importance of understanding that a consistent character is a boring character if she lacks the freedom to do the unexpected. How far can you push that and still have a character that readers will accept as real, integral, and whole? That somewhat grand, quixotic scheme formed my ingenious, evil plan.

All together now: Had I known then what I know now…

Once I was done with those ten lectures, I thought: It would be a giant waste not to expand all this bullshit—excuse me, knowledge—into a book. I discussed it with my agent, we put a proposal together, and Rebecca Hunt, then with Penguin, loved the idea and bought the book.

And know what? The cautionary advice I received was correct in some ways. I began thinking about characterization instead of simply doing it. But that passed. In time I discovered a new, deeper level of instinctual engagement with my characters and the language necessary to render them compellingly on the page. I became a better writer by reteaching myself how to ride my fiction bicycle.

Strange, but true.

So I’m glad and grateful I did it. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I dodged a bullet. But it’s a lovely little book and I don’t think I need to be too ashamed of it.

As to your reflection on how hard it must have been, the hard part wasn’t being instructional. Yes, I had to read a lot and think deeply about things I’d previously shrugged off or not even considered—I’d never really struggled with point of view before, for example, always employing multiple third person subjective—and that was a head-scratcher on many fronts.

I also had to dig up examples for the things I was trying to illuminate, and that’s easier said than done.

Q: What’s a good example of contradiction created by the concealment of a secret?

A: Sir Percy Blakeney of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Trust me, it took a while to come up with that one. Haven’t read that book since I was twelve.

But as I said, it wasn’t the instructional part that was the most daunting. It was trying to be more than that. I had to be interesting and unique, because there are so many books out there on the subject. I had to bring a new approach to the table—that much was obvious.

But above and beyond that, I wanted the writing to inspire. I didn’t want to craft a manual, with all the prose style of a pamphlet on how to grow African Violets. I wanted students and writers to read the text and get excited, feel compelled to put the book down, run to their desks and begin writing.

I’d had a teacher like that when I studied mathematics at Ohio State. His name was Dr. Arnold Ross, and never before or since in my life have I ever been in a class where, as soon as it ended, I couldn’t wait to get to the library to begin my homework.

The best compliment I received on the book came from my editor who said it made her want to get back to her novel (and she has). That’s when I knew I’d accomplished at least a little of what I’d set out to do. Hopefully, I’ve done more than just a little, but that’s up to my readers to decide.

BTW: If the Jungle Red Folk would like a peek at the text, here’s a modified excerpt, published on the website for the west coast literary zine Zyzzyva.

DEBS For more about David and the book, visit his website:

Or check in with David today over on Murderati. (Yes, the man CAN be in two places at once!)

But we have a slight edge here on JR, because David is giving a signed copy of THE ART OF CHARACTERIZATION to one of our lucky commenters.  And he'll be dropping in to answer questions and respond to comments, so be sure to drop in and say "hi."

Oh, and David, I'm blushing to admit I've never read The Scarlet Pimpernel. So, should I? 

(P.S. The very lucky winner of Mychal's "cub" is Leslie Budewitz! So Leslie, email me your mailing address at deb at deborahcrombie dot com. And we will expect to see some of your journal entries!) 


  1. Dear Deb:

    You know, I think you'd actually love THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. It was my mother's favorite novel -- very romantic with lots of intrigue and adventure. The kind of book you think you'll never read after high school -- like TREASURE ISLAND -- and then pick up and get lost in it.

    There's a pretty good movie of it with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon (1934), and an updated (1982) TV version with Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

    So -- I'd say, get it from the library and see what you think.

  2. I’m guessing there will be quite a few folks around who will be very glad you didn’t know then what you know now . . . as difficult as I imagine it must be to define the elusive features of what it is that makes a fictional character “compelling on the page,” I think you’ve provided much food for thought in regard to the creation of “the adult version of having an imaginary friend.” I’m looking forward to reading your book . . . .

  3. Ah, the 1982 movie: "Sink me!" Loved it, and I see exactly what you mean about a concealed contradiction in a character. Oh, to write such a one!

    Since I woke up this morning with the entire plot of a book ready to go (which I never thought actually happened!), if I don't win The Art of Character I will most definitely be buying it. Thank you for not thinking too hard about writing it beforehand, David. And best of luck with this new book.

    Could you say a little about how writing fiction and non-fiction differs? I've written quite a bit non-fiction, and am more than a little terrified about crafting story, at least a good one. Thank you.

    Looking at the captcha and idly wondering how I was expected to type a falling man character. Realized it's the numeral 34. Guess I need some coffee.

  4. Hi David welcome! Read the excerpt and loved it. Look forward to reading the entire book - and putting it on the shelf next to Hallie's masterful, Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel.

  5. Welcome David--this sounds wonderful! And such a great description of how we stumble into these things...I'm off to read the excerpt now!

  6. I agree with what you have to say...a lot of what we do, when we're good at so personal to us it's hard to explain it so that someone else understands. That said, I do love it when a 'pro' can offer even the smallest nugget for me to learn from. Especially when it comes to writing stories and building worlds and creating engaging characters. I'm off to pre-order this book. How can I not read this and add it to my very selective collection of writing books?

  7. Good to know about The Scarlet Pimpernel (I'm with you, Deb). And your book sounds fascinating and instructive. I'll look for that one too!

  8. "This is not a science. It’s barely a craft. Although we can learn techniques and tricks, characterization remains somewhat elusive, like fingering mercury. There are times I wonder if it isn’t a symptom of a basically benign mental disorder—or the adult version of having an imaginary friend."

    Thank you for this, Mr. C, first of all. I thought it was just me. Second, you sure know how to put words and sentences together. Wow! How did you learn to write so well being a PI? I will be buying your first novel today. Third, your craft book sounds really good from the except, so if I don't win, I'll be buying that as well.

    To date, the best thing for me on characters was a book on method acting, which taught as you mentioned in the except to draw on pieces of your own character and experience. Do you ever tell writers to take an acting class?

  9. Hey, David - the book sounds great! Can't wait to get my hands on it, since my characters are currently wandering off the reservation and I wish I knew where they're going.

    This is one of my favorite things: a contradiction created by the concealment of a secret. It's what absolutely drives crime fiction.

    Hope to see you this summer at Book Passage Mystery Conference, and that you'll be talking about character (the fictional variety).

  10. David, I love this line: "There are times I wonder if it isn’t a symptom of a basically benign mental disorder—or the adult version of having an imaginary friend."

    I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I feel as though I'm not writing, I'm taking dictation. And my characters get very unhappy with me when I stray.

    I've been told that characterization is one of my strengths (by critique groups), but I'm always looking to learn more, so it looks like I'm putting another book on my pile. =)

    Re: Scarlet Pimpernel. Loved the book. Really, really enjoyed the Jayne Seymour/Ian McKellen movie version too. What an excellent example of the point.

  11. Dear Joan: Thanks so much. From your lips to readers’ ears. Or eyes. Or both.

    Karen: Ohio, eh? I grew up and went to college in Columbus. The main difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is that in fiction every choice is up for grabs. You can change anything because you’re making it up. That’s both liberating and terrifying. Ultimately you have to learn to make strong choices and stick with them. In non-fiction the challenge is how to make the facts sing.

    Rosemarie: I can’t think of a more flattering, humbling place on your bookshelf than next to Hallie.

    Lucy I mean Roberta, Lucy, Roberta (my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter…): Yes, stumble. Let’s hope I picked myself up sufficiently.

    Terri: Thank you so much. Let’s hope my nuggets aren’t quite the smallest. (Gee, that sounds vaguely lewd, doesn’t it?)

    Tammy: You’ll like The Scarlet Pimpernel, I’m sure. Baroness Orczy was a major figure in early 20th century suspense/adventure fiction, and this is undoubtedly her best.

    Jack: That’s uncanny. I talk a lot about Stanislavski in the book and I learned most of what I know about character – and writing in general -- from studying acting. It’s invaluable, and the writers I know who have also done it consider it invaluable. (Oh, and I was a fledgling writer who became a PI, not a PI who became a writer. But you do write a lot of reports.) Thanks for picking up my novel. Deeply appreciated.

  12. Hallie: Hey, girl! Oh yes, I’m now offically a mainstay at the Book Passage Mystery Conference, gratefully humbly so. Yes, a contradiction driven by a secret – you would not have had any trouble coming up with an example. Or dozens. Why was it so damn difficult for me?

    Mary: Thanks so much. You know, I caution writers about merely “taking dictation form imaginary beings.” Too often the character who comes easily can be derivative of another character. It’s a constant back and forth, surrendering to the character, then asking hard question, then surrendering again. But one also has to trust one’s intuition. When the Muse speaks, only an idiot doesn’t listen.

  13. David, that's a great post over on Murderati. A little more of the "guts" of the book, if you'll excuse the expression. And you defy the laws of physics very well:-)

    Oh, and okay, okay, The Scarlet Pimpernel it is.

  14. The Scarlet Pimpernel in the 1982 movie, when he was playing the silly fop, used the expression, "Sink me!" frequently.

  15. What a wonderful post. And how very true it is that it's always harder to teach what we do well and instinctively! I have discovered that with my homeschooled daughter. My passions are writing and history. I write every day and I've taught history at the graduate level, but I often find myself banging my head into the wall to come up with ways to put concepts I deeply understand and appreciate into language that will make sense to (and inspire!) my fifth grader.

    The book sounds wonderful. I'm a bit stuck in my WIP, and am thinking that reading it might help give me a creative jumpstart.
    I hope so!

  16. Hello, David. We met years ago at Bouchercon or Left Coast -- in Monterey, I think. I still remember some of your characters with terror, so I'd say you DO know what you're talking about!

    And Debs and Mychal, I'm thrilled to win the "cub" -- many thanks!

  17. Netflix may get the Corbett bump -- just added The Scarlet Pimpernel to our queue. (It grows and grows... .)

  18. I very much enjoy how you think. It is wonderful to consider the autonomous lives characters have and to what extent they exert their wills over the author.
    Thank you

  19. Looking forward to the book, but I don't need to win today. I'll be getting one at Book Passage when you are reading there on Feb 21st at 7 p.m. I'll buy a drink for anyone who shows up and mentions Jungle Red!

    For Bay Area folks or if you want a weekend, he's also teaching a class on Satruday April 6th and 7th at Book Passage on the Art of Character.

    David is a gifted teacher for many of us. Great column.

  20. Debs, thanks for bringing David to us this morning. Loved the excerpt. I am such an aficionado of writing books. At one time, we learned that I had a bigger, better collection than our local university library where they have an undergrad creative writing program and an MFA program! Need to add this one, I can see.

    Karen, how exciting about the novel that came to you in your sleep! What a gift! Now, all you've got to do is write it. Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Seriously, having that kind of sense of a whole story can be so wonderful when beginning, instead of feeling you're scraping it out of stone, the way it can sometimes be. Best of luck!

    Concealed contradiction in a character, yes! I'm working with that in this book. I haven't read Scarlet Pimpernel in decades. I foresee a trip to the library. Thanks, David!

  21. Hi David!

    Nice to see you over here!

    I can't wait to get my hands on your book. Currently, I use Elizabeth George's WRITE AWAY as my bible for character. It strikes me that your book will pair up most excellently with hers and provide yet deeper discussions on the topic.

    Also, I trust your book will be good because I know you're a good teacher (from Book Passage).

    One question: What's the most instinctual thing you do that you found yourself having to analyze? You mentioned POV -- anything else?

    Now, shall I go bother you over at Murderati? :-)

  22. Yeah, excerpt is what I was trying to say, not except. We drop a lot of Rs in Joisey.

    Got the Kindle version of The Devil's Redhead and started reading. Nice. Next blog, you have to discuss Point of View.

  23. Deb: You’ll thank me (re: The Scarlet Pimpernel.)

    Karen: Sink me! How glorious.

    Beth: I know, the inclination to just say: Do it this way, can be so overwhelming. And unproductive. I always find when I get jammed up that if I go back to the characters, I rediscover the “juice” behind the story. Their wants and fears and shame and pride drive the story, so if you’re stuck, let them help you.

    Leslie: Yes, I remember. How nice of you to say hi. Though I’m sorry I terrorized you. Thanks for the kind remark. (As for “The Corbett Bump” – sounds like a cocktail. Or something best left alone.)

    Libby: Thank you. The first chapter is titled, “Are Characters Created or Discovered?” It covers some of that uneasy ground, where it seems our characters are visitations, until we let them know who’s boss.

    Allison: It looks like I’m the one who owes YOU a drink. Thanks, sis.

    Linda: I’m hoping the book finds its way into both your and the local university library’s possession. Thanks for the kind words.

    Lisa: You’re so nice, thank you. I think WRITE AWAY is one of the great books on writing, and George’s concept of “the pathological maneuver,” i.e., how the character responds to stress or denial of her wants, was very influential on my thinking – I spend a whole chapter on it. As for the instinctual thing I find most difficult to teach: dialog.

    Jack: My spelling is execrable when I’m posting because I’m going so fast. Point of View: focalized versus non-focalized, position of irony vs. position of suspense, subjective versus objective mode – oh, and first, second, third and omniscient. Bored you yet? Quite a sticky ball of wax. But far more interesting now that I’ve explored it a bit.

  24. Hey, Deb, you can borrow my copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel if you want to. Loved that book when I was a kid! And David, I'm so thrilled that your book is finally coming out. Soon you'll be enshrined in the pantheon of great writer/teachers! Well deserved.

  25. Hey David--welcome!
    I have had the same experience. I once agreed to do a two day workshop on character and when I tried to prepare I realize that my characters wander into my books and start speaking and acting. I certainly didn't create them or put them there.

  26. Hi David,

    I'm going to read your book, because I need to. I have to. I must learn to ride my fiction bicycle. I think I've found it, but it's a wreck.


  27. David, marvelous piece. It seems you've developed an impressive insight into character development.

    I had to laugh at the comment about characters taking on their own life. During a conversation with another writer we discussed how strange/amazing/scary the moment is when one of your characters starts doing their own thing. This funny, articulate woman floored me when she said, "I wasn't sure if this was a good thing, or if I was having a psychotic break."

  28. David, I'm looking forward to reading your book and will be reading the excerpt shortly.


  29. sounds great - I look forward to reading the excerpt.

  30. Gigi: There’s a pantheon? Is there a dress code? (Thanks for the lovely words.)

    Rhy: Yes, I’ve heard you talk about your sometimes intrusive characters and how they wag their fingers and tongues at you, demanding their will be heeded. If only every writer were so fortunate.

    Reine: Fiction bicycles can be repaired. And once you learn to ride, you never forget.

    Diane: Sometimes we just have to admit we’re mad and be done with it.

    Anonymous Monique: Thank you so much. Somehow, you don’t seem so anonymous.

    Susan: Thanks! Hope you feel as enthused once you’ve read it … :-)

  31. David,

    So glad there's now a book version of your teaching since I could never get to a course.