12. Character as Incident

12. Character as Incident
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Character as Incident


As part of an effort to define psychology as a science, an emphasis on lab experiments emerged. This shifted the emphasis of study from what was going on inside the mind to how mental activity expresses itself through observable behavior. Despite the major problems of Behaviorism, this work is greatly useful for storytellers who need to convey the interior experience of a character through actions that an audience can see. While, as your teacher, I cannot champion reductive theories of any kind, particularly those that limit the psyche to the actions its body takes, the conversation is very useful for storytelling. Just bear in mind, part of the problem with behavioristic theories comes with the danger of laziness and oversimplification. It’s too easy to believe actions have single explanations behind them, but, as McKee writes, despite the fact that “contemporary attitudes tend to favor mono-explanations for behavior…the complexity of forces [seems] more likely the case” (376 McKee).

  “We can know a lot about characters by how they react, or behave, in certain situations. Pictures, or images, reveal different aspects of character. Whereas character reveals the deep-seated nature of who people are, in terms of values, actions, and beliefs, characterization is expressed in the way people live, the cars they drive, the pictures they hang on the wall, their likes and dislikes, what they eat, and other forms of individual character expression. Character is expressed in who they are, by their actions and reactions, by their creative choices. Characterization, on the other hand, is expressed in their taste and how they look to the world, what they wear, the cars they drive” (55 Field).


HENRY JAMES ON CHARACTER AND INCIDENT: One of the most articulate literary theorists of the nineteenth century was the great American novelist Henry James, author of Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, Turn of the Screw, and Daisy Miller, among other masterworks. James was fascinated with the art of fiction writing, and approached it like a scientist, the same way his brother, William James, the famous psychologist, studied the dynamics of the human mind. Henry James wrote several essays trying to document and define the intricacies of creating character. In one of those essays, “The Art of Fiction,” “James poses a literary question” (Field 56).  “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character. If you say you don't see it…this is exactly what the artist who has reasons of his own for thinking he does see it undertakes to show you” (H. James 13).


“The reason why Henry James's statement is so relevant is because the elements within the character really determine the incident; how the character reacts to that incident is what illuminates and truly defines his/her character” (45 Field). Unpacking the statement a bit more, Field writes, “In The Art of Fiction, Henry James says that the incidents you create for your characters are the best ways to illuminate who they are-that is, reveal their true nature, their essential character. How they respond to a particular incident or event, how they act and react, what they say and do is what really defines the essence of their character” (44 Field).


ACTION IS CHARACTER: As Field himself sees it, “Film is behavior; action is character and character, action; what a person does is who he is, not what he says” (69 Field). “The essence of character is action-action is character” (206 Field). “Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character” (41 Field). “All drama is conflict. If you know the need of your character, you can create obstacles to fulfill that need. How he/she overcomes those obstacles is your story. Conflict, struggle, overcoming obstacles, both inside and outside, are the primary ingredients in all drama-in comedy, too” (41 Field).

HERO/PROTAGONIST AS ACTIVE (NOT PASSIVE): In that action is a primary way to convey interiority and essence, “your character has to be active, has to be doing things, causing things to happen, not just reacting all the time. Sometimes it's necessary for your character to react to a situation, but you can't have your main character constantly reacting only to things that happen to him. If that happens, he disappears off the page, and your story appears soft, without an edge. Your character is what he/she does. Film is a visual medium, and the writer's responsibility is to choose an image, or picture, that cinematically dramatizes his or her character” (54-55 Field).

  “Many aspiring and inexperienced screenwriters seem to have things happen to their characters, and as a result, the characters are always reacting to their situations, rather than acting in terms. Of dramatic need. When this happens, the main character seems to disappear off the page. It becomes a major problem in the screenwriting process. The essence of character is action; your character must act, not merely react. Again, what a person does, and not what he/she says, is who he/she is. This needs to be established, immediately, from page one, word one” (206 Field).


WILL OF THE PROTAGONIST: “Action and character, joined together, sharpens the focus of your screenplay and makes it both a better reading and a better viewing experience” (198 Field). “All protagonists have certain hallmark qualities, and the first is willpower… quality of will is as important as quantity” (137 McKee). “A PROTAGONIST is a willful character” (137 McKee).


In studying myths throughout human history, Campbell similarly found heroes to be agents of action. “The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is” (Campbell 209). “THE HERO OF ACTION is the agent of the cycle, continuing into the living moment the impulse that first moved the world” (Campbell 296).


McKee writes, “an ACTIVE PROTAGONIST, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him” (50 McKee). “A PASSIVE PROTAGONIST is outwardly inactive while pursuing desire inwardly, in conflict with aspects of his or her own nature” (50 McKee). Unfortunately, inward conflict is difficult to show, which is why stories that succeed at conveying inner experience through symbolically externalized terms are capable of stimulating meaningful interior experiences for the audience.

We can know a lot about characters by how they react” T

Henry James suggests that character and incident are inseparable T

Choices and actions express the true nature of a character T

The incidents a storyteller creates for characters are excellent ways to illuminate who they are T

 Character as active not passive

Strong protagonists are passive, reacting to forces around them F

According to field, the essence of character is action T

Willpower is a hallmark quality of protagonists T



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