if you write… read this . . . by Peter Fox [April 2012]

 “Character is defined by
action. It is what a person does, not what a person says, that defines character”   –Syd Field.

Nature, plus injury, plus time, equals: Character.

Think of an island.

What is above the surface is what we see, that piece of earth with trees, hills, vegetation. But below the surface of the water, the foundation of the island runs deep, for miles, in fact, below the water. What is not visible is the foundation of the island.

The same can be said for characters in cinematic structure. When we watch a film, (if the writer and director have done their jobs properly) we watch characters in scenes where we enter late, leave early. We watch scenes where we exit one scene with a question and enter the next scene with the answer to that question. So, while we are seeing only the tip of the behavior of an actor, or character in any given scene, this mise en mise collection of scenes will create, in the mind of the audience, a conclusion of what that character is about. This collection will provide us with the answer to what the nature of that character is. It will also inform us as to what their injury was, and many other things.

Let’s start with the nature of character. That condition is the core of what a person is. It is the unadulterated state of being of a person before an injury occurs in the life of that person. It can be said that not everyone is born good.  Some people are more giving than others, some withdrawn and less generous. Some are outgoing, while others are more quiet and introspective. These qualities are at the core of that person’s nature.

They begin in a locale, which further informs, or shapes, their nature. This locale is often referred to as the ordinary world in cinematic language. Environment plays a role in the development of a person’s circle of being, and it bends or molds a character’s place in the world. The economic and religious forces around that character influence character, and can sometimes influence their very nature. But it is the nature of a character that enables the character to move through and endure the one thing that all cinematic characters must experience for the audience to be engaged: Change.

In the case of Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the character of Hannibal, as a boy, witnesses the brutal murder and cannibalization of his beloved younger sister. This injury is covered in the prequel, HANIBAL RISING. In this example, the nature of his character is forever destroyed. Because of this event, his nature is permanently and irrevocably damaged. The effect is that his character as an adult is more sympathetic. (Remember the line of dialogue by Hannibal?-“Read Marcus Aurelius. What is a thing, in and of itself? What is its nature?”)

The nature of every character is what determines what a character will or will not do, and the final disposition.

But in addition to the nature of every character, there are two more elements which need to be fully explored in the character histories and character monologues which will precede the treatment and beat sheet for the screenplay. The first element is injury.

This injury will usually occur in the character’s formative years. This is a not a hard and fast rule, but is generally the case. The injury can occur later in life, but in order for it to assist in building the elements of character necessary to render a believable character in cinematic structure, it must occur in the life history of the character, before the plot begins.  This is why the character history and character monologues are so important. The injury is often referred to as the fractured narrative. The fracture symbolizes the injury, the event that changed the course of the character’s life, perception of self, circle of being, and it influences the decisions that the character makes.

These examples are referred to in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The injury to Hannibal Lecter is covered in HANNIBAL RISING. The fracture in his narrative begins when the troops invade the village where he lives with his family, and his parents are killed. After his sister is killed, Hannibal himself, shortly thereafter, turns into a killing machine when the Japanese woman who mentors him is offended by a local thug. Clarisse Starling’s character talks about the spring slaughter of the lambs for the jailed Hannibal, and in flashback, we see the funeral of her father. Both examples inform us of what the fractured narratives for each of these characters is.

The third element is what happens when the nature of a character, who is in a given locale or ordinary world, and is then injured, is forced to deal with the consequences of that injury over a period of time. It is what happens when the character’s evolution has been fractured, hence the term fractured narrative. Nature, plus injury, plus time equals character. The combination of these elements must be known to the audience. But before they can be known to an audience, they must be crystal clear in the mind of the screenwriter. It is one of the most difficult tasks of the screenwriter’s many tasks, and the one that most aspiring screenwriter’s avoid. Just as the ambitious unproduced directors, producers and cinematographers rush behind a camera, the ambitious unproduced screenwriter will bypass this part of the process.

In order to render the most effective characters possible, this process should be completed for any character that appears on three or more pages of your screenplay.

Once this process is complete, the writer may come upon new discoveries in the task of identifying the central conflict.  As a reminder, The Pillars of Cinematic Conflict are:

1. Problem of Conscience.

2. It’s Not Fair

3. Man against the Mountain.

4. Life or Death

5. Stand and Deliver.

When the character’s nature, fracture in their life’s narrative, and the effect of these elements on the character, over time, have been established, you will find that writing about the character will be a deeper experience, not only for you, but for the person reading your screenplay and, ultimately the audience.

The purpose of this process is twofold. The first is to identify cinematic moments, free of dialogue, which will allow the reader/audience to access how the character feels about his or her condition. The second is establishing a baseline of behavior for the character’s response to the central conflict, or plot. How can a writer establish what the character will do in any or all of the five conflicts, listed above, without knowing that character’s nature, injury, and their effects on the character over a period of time? Remember, these principles cover the period of time in the life of the character before the action in your story begins. They are, in effect, that part of the island below the surface; those elements not immediately visible to the audience on first examination. But without them, there is no foundation for character.

Peter Fox has worked at Paramount, Universal, Sony Pictures and Warner Brothers as a Story Analyst and conducts The Inside Track for Story and Cinematic Structure at theaters,
nationwide. He holds an M.F.A. in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute. www.peterfoxworkshops.com