Effective characters – how to write them

Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog
Effective characters in House of Sand and Fog

In his book, The Art of Character, David Corbett offers several suggestions for constructing effective characters: Characters must demonstrate a powerful desire, hide a secret, suffer a wound, and display a contradiction. What is equally important, however, is how these elements interact to produce authentic and individual behaviour. 

In this article we’ll examine the relationship between a character’s desire, secret and wound—three crucially important elements for authentic behaviour. I would argue that David Corbett’s fourth element—a character’s clashing traits, such as a murderer with a soft spot for stray animals, although useful, can be subsumed within the character’s secret or wound. It is, therefore, not discussed at length. 

In House of Sand and Fog, Kathy Nicolo is defined by a desperate desire to keep the house she has inherited from her father, not only because it provides security, but because its loss will expose the secrets she has been hiding all along—that her husband has left her and that she is suffering from depression which renders her incapable of living a normal life.

”Effective characters fight for external goals while simultaneously struggling against their inner demons. Characters must confront these demons before they can exorcise them.”

Kathy’s desire, her secret and her wound, then, are causally connected—a row of dominoes about to fall. Kathy’s desire to keep the house stems from her wound, while her secretive behaviour stems from her need to keep the truth hidden.

Here is an extract from David Corbett’ s book that highlights the power of wounds and secrets, and how they motivate character behaviour: 

Midnight Cowboy exemplifies a psychoanalytic view of man’s condition: We are wounded psychically, often early in childhood, and live with continuous anxiety over abandonment, rejection, or abuse. To protect ourselves from further wounding, we develop a shell, a false persona, a defence or adaptation—we drink, do drugs, become perfectionists, work ourselves to death, pursue only meaningless affairs, get stuck in unfulfilling marriages, shy away from the risks necessary for true success, adhere to Pollyannaish optimism, hide away in cynical isolation.”

“An effective character is created by a writer who understands the relationship that exists between a character’s desire, secret and wound, and uses it to drive authentic behaviour.”

In the Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist, seems more than a little eccentric. He goes to the same beach cafe every day, eats the same waffles, drinks the same coffee, and works on the same equations representing an intractable mathematical problem. His behaviour seems totally unreasonable, given that he has done this for thirty years. It is only when we dig deeper into his secrets that we begin to understand his motivation.

We could sum up a character’s behaviour, then, as desire + secret + wound = authentic action.

EXERCISE: Before writing a new story identify the central desire of your protagonist. Next, motivate his need by tracing it back to a wound that occurred in his past. Foreshadow, but do not reveal, the secret motivation for his behaviour by dropping hints along the way. Find the right moment to reveal all.

Summary 

Create authentic behaviour for effective characters in your stories by causally linking their desires, secrets and wounds.

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