DAVID CORBETT’S “FIVE CORNERSTONES OF DRAMATIC CHARACTERIZATION” FROM “THE ART OF CHARACTER”


I want to talk about David Corbett’s “Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization” written about and described in detail in his writing manual, “The Art of Character.” If you’re a new writer—or even a seasoned one in need of a refresher—go do yourself a favor and pick this book up from your local bookstore. Corbett is a New York Times notable author of several novels, most recently “The Mercy of the Night.” He is a writing teacher at the UCLA extension program, and teaches at writing conferences and seminars all over the place, like at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Ca. He is a local Bay Area author and his agent is with the firm I once interned with.

Before I get into the key “five cornerstones,” I want to quickly mention that I’ll be heading out tomorrow for 13 days to Colorado and Wyoming and won’t be blogging (or taking new clients) until after Sept 25 or so, after I return. I leave you with this post until I get back; hopefully you enjoy.

Ok, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, I am going to use my as-of-yet unpublished—though praised by many a successful author, including three NYT bestselling authors—suspense novel, “The Grim Room” as the example for each “cornerstone” that David raises. Keep in mind that his ideas are practiced and not theory and are very practical and are steeped in the history of other writers and in classical and Renaissance literature and plays that extend all the way back, probably, to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. So in other words: these ideas aren’t exactly “original,” but they are unique in the form in which David expresses them in current times, when the book was released in 2013.

The Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization:

  1. The character needs or wants something.

  2. The character has difficulty getting the “thing” and makes a plan.

  3. There is a contradiction.

  4. Something unexpected happens; the character thus becomes vulnerable

  5. There is a secret

Ok, let’s go through these chronologically.

1) The character needs or wants something. Well, in my novel the main character, Tippo Doyle, is getting out of state prison in chapter one. He wants to stay sober, fix his worsening PTSD (due to a severe occurrence in prison), get a job, rebuild his friendship with his older brother, who’s picking him up and with whom he’s going to live. But the main thing, really, is that he desperately wants to find the woman he’s still very much in love with: Rebecca Akerman, even though it was her mom who was behind his incarceration (she’s a DA’s assistant, a city prosecutor).

2) The character has difficulty getting the “thing” and makes a plan. Tippo gets out of prison and immediately is confronted with the fact that his brother, ironically, is dealing cocaine, the same thing which landed Tippo himself in prison in the first place. Worse, he finds himself struggling to adjust to “real life” and to outside sobriety. And even more difficult, he is having a hard time finding Rebecca, even though he’s been told by his brother (who heard second-hand) that she lives in the Bay Area somewhere, near where his brother lives, and where he’s now staying. Covering her tracks, her number is unlisted and she is not on social media. Tippo makes a plan: he decides to go confront his brother’s friend who told his brother Rebecca lives in the Bay. But when he does, he is confronted by an SFPD cop who tailed him and works, under the table, for Rebecca’s mother; he will be a major hurdle for Tippo in finding his lost love. The new plan is to find a way around that cop.

3) Contradiction. Despite being a former drug addict and a jailbird, Tippo is actually quite vulnerable and sensitive. He’s changed and he’s a good guy, only wanting to basically start his life over. What people see of him on the outside—tattoos, felony record, tough demeanor—is only the shell he wears to “survive.” His brother supposedly being the “kind” one, it’s his brother who is now dealing drugs and is mean to Tippo, who is only trying to change and “make it.”

4) Something unexpected happens, rendering the character vulnerable. Finally, after frantic searching from both Tippo and Rebecca (they both have a POV), the SFPD cop stops by Tippo’s brother’s house and informs him that Rebecca is engaged to be married. Shocked, deeply hurt, Tippo is also kicked out of the apartment by his angry brother, who tells Tippo he needs to see a therapist. Tippo is given a quarter-of-a-million bucks from their parents’ trust account they passed on to Tippo’s brother who was 18 when they both died in a car crash a decade ago. Tippo’s brother had held onto the money because Tippo had been dealing drugs and then was arrested and convicted. When he finds out she’s engaged, he feels the abandonment not only of her, but the wound from his parents’ death when he was a teen. Also, he feels abandoned by his brother. He leaves the apartment with all his stuff and buys alcohol, relapsing. So in several key ways, he is now very vulnerable.

5) A secret. The secret Tippo carries in the novel is a heavy one, and is not solitary. Really, he carries two secrets: He was raped by another male inmate in prison nicknamed “Kid Maniac,” and he is slowly going insane. Nobody knows, during the course of the novel, just how crazy Tippo is becoming inside. Like “The Shining,” this process happens slowly, over the course of time; it’s an evolution. Or a devolution, if you will. His rape, having had to join a white supremacist gang in prison, and his holding onto the thread that he and Rebecca can still somehow be together, are what start to drive him to the point of insanity. In the end, after finally finding her, he convinces her to flee with him for a weekend in her family’s cabin, against everyone’s wishes. She does, and there the ultimate scene will ensue, shocking readers.

***So, as you can see, this is a wonderful, basic, classic formula for discovering solid, taut, and mesmerizing characters and thus good plots. The point is always, as Corbett repeats constantly, to give your characters DESIRE. They must want something, and the story must be their drive towards and attempt to achieve that “thing.” Of course, there is always the surface “thing,” and the deeper, often unconscious “thing” deep within us, and sometimes those two desires conflict. They do in “The Grim Room.” His exterior desire is to find Rebecca and for them to be together again, which, when you look at it objectively, is very unrealistic given the background of the two characters. But his deeper desire, his more unconscious want, is self-love. He wants, he in fact yearns, for some degree of self acceptance, peace of mind, and happiness. “The Grim Room” is a reference to prison, a nickname for the pen, but it is double entendre, because it’s also the prison within his troubled mind. Therein lies the rub. Make your characters need things…on multiple, potentially competing or conflicting levels.

And then push them through an incredible journey, hurdles and all. This, I can pretty much guarantee, will make for fascinating characters and a solid plot.

Write on.

“You said it. Let’s edit.”

Michael Mohr

***If you’re looking for a book editor I might be your man. I look at YA and adult fiction and memoir only. If you’re interested please do send me the first chapter and a short description/synopsis of the book. I can do a one-time free test edit to show you my style. If you like it, we can go from there. Email me for rates, etc. Michaelmohreditor@gmail.com. As of now, I am booked tight until early November at this moment, which could change at any time. The sooner you email me the better to get in line. Hey, what can I say: I am sought after J I am also about to leave town for 13 days. I will not be working during that time but I will respond to emails. I cannot perform a test edit until after I return in the last week of September, but I will perform test edits in the order in which they are received, and will offer slots for the full edit, if I feel we’re a good fit, in the same manner.


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