The 5 Cornerstones of Characterization


by Michael Mohr


David Corbett—New York Times Notable author of many novels including Blood of Paradise (2007), Do They Know I’m running (2010), and The Mercy of the Night (2015)—published a sparkling, extremely-helpful nonfiction writers’ guide in 2013 entitled, “The Art of Character.”

In this book, he touches on many aspects of fine, intelligent, deep, 3-D characterization not only for writing books—literature—but for other mediums, thus the subtitle of the work: “Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV.” Amongst the nearly 400 pages of astute, deft suggestions concerning how to pen purposeful, profound people on the page, Corbett uses Greek tragedy, modern psychoanalysis, and the psychology of Myth to demonstrate, from many vantage points, how one can deepen their conception and understanding of literary characters.

One of the most helpful conceptions and guidelines, in my humble opinion, is his “Five Cornerstones of Characterization.” I realized while reading “The Art of Character” that much of what he writes about is, for many writers, for the most part intuitive. And yet, as a freelance book editor, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I read year-round that lack the basic essentials of these five incredibly helpful (and I’d vote just about necessary) points. It is far too easy for a novel to begin delving, blurring into the far-reaching and terrible Death Land of anecdote, veering dangerously far away from any semblance of “plot” or “deep characterization.”

That’s not to say that some great works of literature lack essential plot: On the Road; The Sun Also Rises. But these books contain fantastic, powerful characters which push us to both empathize, understand, care, and thus keep turning the pages. And that is, I believe, the most important, crucial point here: A writer’s job is to make a reader care. If we don’t care—about your characters—the fact of the matter is we’re going to stop reading. Simple as that.

You can write a more literary, “character-driven” novel, even to a certain extent devoid of plot, but it still must contain strong, believable, well-rounded and developed characters, must contain real drama, must play with tension and conflict, must draw us in and hold us, make us give a crap about who and why. Therefore, I posit that character, itself, is the most important ingredient of a novel. Without plot, you can still survive with deep characters we care about, as mentioned above. But without good characters—exhibiting 2-D, flat, weak characters we can’t relate to and we don’t care about—you are dead in the literary water. (Best bet is both good characters and a solid plot.)

Here are the Five Cornerstones of Characterization, as provided by David Corbett from “The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV.” (Taken from page 48 of the book. Slightly edited/modified for simplicity/clarity.)

1) The character needs or wants something

2) She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan for overcoming that difficulty

3) She exhibits a seeming contradiction

4) Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable. (She may even be hurt, enhancing this impression.)

5) There is a secret

The main thing here, and what he constantly mentions in the book, is this notion of desire. The main character—your protagonist—must have some kind of need/want/desire, driving him or her forward. There must be something they’re trying to get: love (internal and/or external); redemption; salvation; revenge; a lover’s attention; a best friend; success; etc. Corbett talks about internal versus external needs and wants, how the two often play against each other.

There is often a clear exterior want/desire, which if preferred so that readers have a clear notion of the main character’s drive. But underneath that external drive/desire/need/want/yearning, is something deeper, a more internal longing that might either add to the external want or even play against it (which creates fantastic tension).

But the point here, your main character must have a desire and the story must be driven principally by that desire. As we go along, we’ll discover, bit by bit, that a deeper internal desire exists within the character’s interior world. But also, cornerstone #2 suggests that the character will soon bump up against the obvious: a series of hurdles preventing them from achieving their goal of getting what they desire (externally and/or internally).

This creates drama and tension. When a character has something they want and they try to get that thing and are prevented from getting it due to another character who has an opposing desire/want/need…now we have good drama. This is the stuff of great fiction. (The Hunger Games; The Girl on the Train.)

I won’t get into the final 3 cornerstones—I’ll let you think about them on your own, ponder their wisdom, and read “The Art of Character” to discover more depth—but I will say that one thing I’ve noticed in my own [published] writing (and another point Corbett discusses) is that in order to truly find out what a main character’s true desire might be, and how that might come into conflict with another character, and how the external might conflict with the internal, you have to mine your own life.

Write a list down of some of the bigger things in your life, external things, you’ve consciously been aware of “wanting,” “needing,” “desiring.” If you’re honest with yourself, that’s a long list, even just considering for half an hour. Now add to the list the internal things you’ve desired; love, attention, closer friends, a particular type of respect, more open and honest conversation, less politically correct discussions in social settings; whatever.

Now take those two columns and add to each how many of those desires were thwarted for whatever reason: some might be due to time issues; some to your own shortcomings; some to shame, guilt, fear; some to external forces, other people who prevented you somehow from achieving your external goals (or internal ones); etc.

The point here is to get you thinking deeply about how to craft an intriguing, realistic, believable, 3-D protagonist (and more minor characters, too, as well as the villain) in your writing. Because, again, if we don’t buy your characters—if we can’t envision them existing in real life, with all our problems, insecurities, failures, joys, loves, pride—we’ll never care enough to finish your book.

And that’s what we all want: For readers to finish our books. (And to write great, compelling characters that almost literally jump off the page.)




Guest post contributed by Michael Mohr. Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest; Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and blog is .

10 thoughts on “The 5 Cornerstones of Characterization

  1. This reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut wrote, that a character should always need something, even if it’s only a drink of water.


  2. Reblogged this on MalloryKelly and commented:
    I’ve heard the concept of this before and apply it when I write but reading it again gave me an unexpected breakthrough for one of my characters!

    I’m grateful for a Creative Writing teacher in college who was wonderfully dialed in to elements like these. By actually putting down what makes great writing (and reading) into words it helped me realize that I could write fiction. It’s simple. Not easy, at all, but simple. Like there’s a pile of nuts and bolts in your brain and all you have to do is sort them and assemble something fantastic. It takes a long time but when it comes down to it, it’s just nuts and bolts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.