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Approaching Character: The Circle of Being

By Syd Field

Henry James, the great American novelist, in an essay entitled The Art of Fiction, asks a rhetorical question about the nature of character: "What is character," he writes, "but the determination of incident. And what is incident but the illumination of character." The key word of course, is "incident;" what the dictionary defines as "A specific occurrence or event that occurs in connection or relationship to something else."

How does this affect the creation of character? Take a look at Mystic River - the entire film is based on an event that occurs when a young boy named Dave is abducted. Twenty-five years later that incident/situation is recreated when Jimmy's daughter is brutally murdered. And the question is: did history repeat itself? Did Dave (Tim Robbins) kill her?

Does character determine incident and does that incident reveal character? It's something to think about when you're approaching the creation of character. The question was: how can we expand and enlarge our character's life experience so he/she becomes more real, believable and true?

So, I began thinking about what tools I could create that would benefit the writer. I turned back to my acting days, and remembered when I was doing stage work in LA and San Francisco, some of the exercises I did when I was writing a character biography. I remembered when I was being mentored by the great French Film Director, Jean Renoir, and created an exercise that isolated a major event in my character's life that impacted him when he was very young, say, between 8 - 18 years. Sometimes, the event could be younger or older, but most of the time it occurs during these formative years. The more I thought about it, the more I began thinking about how an acting exercise could benefit me as a writer. Could I use that in my writing workshops? If I could create an environment where the writer understands how the actor creates character and the actor learns how the writer creates character, both would benefit from the exercise. In that way, both engage in an interchange of ideas in order to expand and broaden the ability of creating riveting characters.

Writers and actors have a great deal in common. From my own experience as a writer and an actor, I know we approach our characters from different perspectives. The writer approaches character based on an idea, or notion, or experience, of WHO the character is, WHAT forces are working, and HOW those forces generate a history which leads to a dramatic need, and finally, an action.
On the other hand, an actor approaches character from words written on the page, an interpretation based, in part, on the dialogue and action written in the screenplay. The actor interprets the words, invents a history, creates motivation, gestures and accents, determines the kind of clothes the character wears, and then brings personal experience into the expression of the role they're playing.

Wouldn't it be interesting, I thought, to find out what actors can learn from writers and what writers can learn from actors? If writers did this exercise, they could get a clearer understanding of how dialogue effectively portrays character, directly and indirectly. Actors could learn how to build character from an idea, or notion, into full-bodied, three-dimensional portraits of real human beings.

When you're sitting down facing a blank sheet of paper, where do you begin? At the beginning, of course: WHAT is your story about? WHO is your story about? Can you define it? Articulate it? Once you know your character's DRAMATIC NEED, POINT OF VIEW, ATTITUDE, and how they change during the course of the story, you can begin to color the textural landscape of the character.

So I created an exercise called the Circle of Being. I call it the Circle of Being because if you draw your character's life as a circle, then slice it up like a pie, you can create an overview of the person's life into physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual incidents. These events can, and often will, actively affect your character's life during the emotional through line of the screenplay.

If you go into your character's life and ask yourself what traumatic incident might have occurred in your character's life when he or she was between the ages of 8 and 18, you can create an emotionally charged incident or event that strongly influences and impacts your character's life. Do this exercise and you can discover what the Circle of Being might be: the death of a parent at an early age; the family's move to a new city or country; the betrayal of a friend; an incident or event that causes a severe traumatic scar like Mystic River. It could be a physical event or injury. In Seabiscuit, the four main principles are strongly affected by loss: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) loses his son; Red Pollard (Tobey Macquire) loses his parents; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) loses his freedom; and Seabiscuit is deemed worthless and given away. The horse is sold to a trainer who forces the animal to train according to the way he thought he should be trained. The animal literally loses his identity; he doesn't know "how to be a horse, anymore," as Tom Smith says.

In Silence of the Lambs, the loss of Jodi Foster's father at the age of nine is an experience from which she has never recovered; her loss follows her through her encounters with Hannibal Lecter. We could say the entire action of the film is about the search for her father; that Hannibal Lecter becomes her guide, her mentor, one of the three father figures she encounters during the script. Her dramatic need is to find the serial killer, but her emotional need is to find and complete her relationship with her father. This can be seen in several flashback sequences throughout the script.

Once you've defined this Circle of Being incident or event in your character's life, you can explore its emotional and physical impact on the character. Then it becomes a powerful force enhancing and enriching the texture of the character.
As I started working with writers and actors, I began to see how effective the Circle of Being exercise is. In one of my exercise/discussion sessions, as the writers and actors began exploring their characters, I told them about the Circle of Being. Once they understood the concept, the results in their character development were truly amazing. I saw very clearly that the Circle of Being exercise is a powerful force guiding and generating the character's dramatic need throughout the entire screenplay. Participants found it gave their characters a profound sense of purpose and action and so helped to forge the action of the plot line.

What I found is that this particular exercise was extremely beneficial in the creation of character. After all, this event is what forms your character's experience, molds and shapes the very fabric of being. When you're doing research on your character, moving through the life events, it's quite possible you can uncover some kind of an incident or episode in your character's life that emotionally parallels and impacts the story line. The influence of this traumatic Circle of Being event could conceivably affect the entire course of the screenplay.

Case in point: Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill is a story of revenge. In one sequence, the animated sequence, we meet O-Ren (Lucy Liu) as a child hiding under her parent's bed while a Japanese Gangster ruthlessly kills her mother and father. In that moment, she swears eternal revenge upon the man who so hideously murdered her parents. Several years later, she entices the gangster into the bedroom and in the throes of passion, takes out a knife and ruthlessly kills him and his bodyguards, thus revenging the death of her parents. This relentless desire for revenge fuels O-Ren's insatiable drive to take over the entire Japanese underworld. It molds her character and shapes her destiny for the rest of her life. She is who she is because of that one event which happened to her as a child.

In Kill Bill, this theme of revenge is the basis of the entire storyline. Uma Thurman is out to kill Bill and revenge his ruthless act of killing everyone, including her unborn child, at her wedding. Bill's ruthless act is what put her in a coma for many years. The entire film is the result of the character's Circle of Being.

If you look at the significance of the Circle of Being, it can be any defining incident that embraces those internal, external, emotional, physical and background forces working on the character's life. So if you feel your character is too thin or one-dimensional, too passive or too reactive, or speaks in dialogue that is too direct or explanatory, one way to possibly solve the problem is to go back and explore his or her life in terms of the Circle of Being.

It brings amazing results.

Meet the Author: Syd Field

Acclaimed as "the guru of all screenwriters" (CNN), Syd Field is regarded by many Hollywood professionals to be the leading authority in the art and craft of screenwriting in the world today. The Hollywood Reporter calls him "the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world."

His internationally acclaimed best-selling books Screenplay, The Screenwriter's Workbook, and The Screenwriter's Problem Solver have established themselves as the "bibles" of the film industry. They are used in more than 395 colleges and universities and have been translated into 19 languages.

Field chaired the Academic Liaison Committee at T...