July 28-31, 2022

New York City


The Compass of Character: Creating Complex Motivations for Compelling Characters

This exclusive pre-conference workshop kicks off the 2020 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference weekend on Thursday, November 5th. Seats are limited, so register today!

All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self. As soon as you create a character, you are automatically confronted with the question: What is the self? How can the self be grasped? It is one of the fundamental questions on which the novel, as novel, is based.

—Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

As much as modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism have flirted with the possibility of eliminating character from the novel, it inevitably finds a way to sneak back into our idea of what narrative is, what it requires, and what it means. The reason for this is simple—as long as fiction concerns itself with the human condition, it will require a method of representing that condition—and the human beings who inhabit, create, and perpetuate it.

Although psychological realism, too, has come under fire in certain quarters, with a resurgence of interest in the kind of archetypal figures found in myth, folklore, and allegory, not to mention the Kafka tradition, where situation and existential crisis transcends distinctive human individuality, by far the greater share of storytelling continues to portray characters with the kind of psychological depth and complexity that we recognize as, for lack of a better word, “real.” And this preference exists across the entire spectrum of fiction, from literary to genre to YA and beyond.

In this workshop, David Corbett—award-winning author of The Art of Character (“A writer’s bible” —Elizabeth Brundage) and The Compass of Character (“You won’t find a more thoughtful, more human approach to crafting characters.” —Jessica Strawser)—will guide participants in a detailed examination of how to create, develop, and portray on the page compelling characters with complex and recognizably human motivations.

Through both the lecture materials and in-class exercises, you’ll learn:

  • How to explore the four key elements of motivation: Lack, Yearning, Resistance, and Desire.
  • How to explore moments of helplessness in the character’s past to discover the core problem of his or her life, and how that informs the character’s Yearning and Resistance.
  • How to develop the character’s moments of helplessness into patterns of behavior—Pathological Maneuvers and Persistent Virtues—that define their habitual conduct at the story’s onset.
  • How to let the understanding of Yearning and Resistance inform the character’s approach to her three levels of struggle: internal, external, and interpersonal.
  • How to interweave those three levels of struggle to achieve narrate and dramatic unity.
  • How to integrate that exploration with the standard background inquiries into the psychological, sociological, and physical nature of the character.
  • How to add nuance through exploration of vulnerability, secrets, and contradictions.
  • How to add additional complexity through an awareness that characters often fail to understand their Yearning and Desires correctly, or pursue misbegotten Yearnings and mistaken Desires given a false or fearful understanding of what they want and why.
  • How to reveal an awakening to the character’s more viable Yearning and Desire by making the increasing conflict encountered in the story a learning experience with the potential of greater self-awareness and deeper sense of identity.

Who this session is for:

  • Established writers, emerging writers, and creative writing students who want to enhance their exploration of character and expand their skill set for characterization.
  • Memoirists and other non-fiction writers who also rely on a realistic, compelling depiction of human beings in their narratives.
  • Any serious student of human nature and conduct.



David Corbett is the award-winning author of the writing guides The Art of Character (“A writer’s bible” – Elizabeth Brundage) and The Compass of Character. He has published six novels, including The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday, which was nominated for the Lefty Award for Best Historical Novel and will be re-issued in a new format by Suspense Publishing in Spring 2020. His short fiction has been selected twice for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York TimesNarrativeBright Ideas, and Writer’s Digest, where he is a contributing editor. He has taught at the UCLA Writer’s Program, Litreactor, Book Passage, and at writing conferences across North America and Mexico, and is a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed, an award-winning blog dedicated to the craft and business of fiction. www.davidcorbett.com