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Writing Action/Adventure: Character Development.

Writing Action/Adventure: Character Development.
by Christopher Wehner


I think one of many important parts of an action/adventure script is character development. Along with great characters should be great dialog, good story structure and sound action scenes. But here I'm focusing in on our characters.

Character Development

I want to talk some more about character development. In my last essay on Writing Action/Adventure Part: I, I stated that we must care about the main character, the protagonist and that we must identify with them. Is this something that is really going to help you? No, not really. As a beginner, maybe I gave you something you have not yet heard, but everyone else probably said...big deal. And you're right. So lets try it again...

I've read that writers must create a complex, but yet easy to understand Protagonist -- along with an action packed story. [ See: Linda Stuart in her: Getting Your Script Through the Hollywood Maze, p. 158 ] Is that all I thought! But luckily she goes into some details by presenting us with some quotes from a few pros.

Steven De Souza states: "I think real life people are scared and reluctant, and that always makes the best hero. At the beginning of the movie Die Hard, McClane is a New York cop on vacation...minding his own business...and the fact that he wasn't a shoot-'em-up hero made him more interesting." [ Linda Stuart, p.160 ] He's right, when Hans and his 12 armed men enter the building shooting the place up, what does McClane do? He runs and hides! That's a natural reaction. For him it's because he knows he is no good to his wife if he's captured, but also we can assume he chose "flight" over "fight" -- at first. Then of course he becomes a virtual killing machine, while being hard to kill himself. So we care about him, and then we have fun with him.

Shane Black in Lethal Weapon gets us connected right away with his Riggs character. We learn that he is suicidal and missing is deceased wife to an obsessive degree. Both very natural reactions for someone overcoming this type of grief.

For me, depth and width is important for character development. What I mean is that we need to see the complete character. Riggs likes his .9 millimeter, cigarettes, his dog, the Three Stooges and so on. We learn about his Vietnam background and how he is one of the best 10 shooters in the world, thus he is a Lethal Weapon.

For Mertaugh, he likes his family, boat, vacations, life, and his up-coming retirement. He is a likable character right up front, and not as complex as Riggs...which is good. To have two characters on the verge of self-destruction would be pushing it. There's a nice mix in Shane Black's script. And as we all know, Shane is witty and humorous in his writing...he has his own style. His staccato bursts are short, and precise. He is always in complete control of this story.

A great article on Shane Black is in CREATIVE SCREENWRITING, winter 1996. In this excellent article by Eric Bauer I was shocked to find that Shane is so critical of his writing, and he really doesn't come across as arrogant.

In most action scripts, the ones that fail to connect to an audience and usually star Arnold S., our protagonist is so bigger then life, so confident and arrogant at times that they turn you off. Shane's insecurities are reflected in his characters. That helps to make them so real and believable.

Says Steven De Souza, "one of the most important elements in an action picture is that the hero and villian be equal and that the hero be something of an underdog." [ Linda Stuart, p.163 ]

Yes, lets not forget that our villian must be developed as well. In The Rock written by Jonathan Hensleigh, I think we find one of the best examples of a extremely well developed villian. [note: the script I'm looking at is Hensleigh's original version and I honestly must say I like the final shooting version better. I know Nicholas Cage did some changes with his character, and from what I'm reading I like what was changed from the original.]

Anyway, Ed Harris's character, General Hummel, is a man with a legit motive. In his mind, the government has been literally "shitting" on his special forces units for too long. The United States Government is not taking responsibility in his view. But, of course his motives maybe legit, the wanting to kill 80,000 people is not. We understand this character, but not his methods.

But, alas, something I love about this script: the villian can not go through with it. Thus, he becomes almost an anti-hero as he attempts to stop the rockets from being fired. I really loved this about the movie. It is laziness by writers to dismiss a villian's motives as simply craziness. No one is ever just insane, something drove them over the top to act out.

De Souza agrees, "I always try to create villians who are a little more believable...In DIE HARD the villian comes in and says if everyone cooperates, no one will be hurt..." [ Linda Stuart, p.163 ] Of course in the end he plans on killing everyone by blowing up half the building. But, that too helps to project his villian's character. Ruthlessness is something that villians have; the Oklahoma Bombing shows us that.

But we cannot go out and try to copy these examples. Come up with your own new and creative bad guys. Do not look at a certain example and change it around a little and put it into your script. That's cheating, and it won't get you anywhere.

For your bad guy to be understood, you should communicate to us his reasons for what he is doing. General Hummel (The Rock), communicates that to us in a very reasonable manner. We like him right up front, he has a legit gripe, and that's why we like him at first.

Lets look at a couple of scenes from The Rock:

Hummel sits behind the desk. Baxter, Frye, Darrow, Hendrix in front of him.
Silence. Hummel stares at his phone. The tension is palpable.	HUMMEL Time	BAXTER	(consults his watch) Fifteen minutes Frank.	CAPTAIN FRYE	We have two operational rockets	left, General. One on the	lower lighthouse, one on the rooftop,	ready for fire. (no response)	General.	HUMMEL I heard you Captain.	CAPTAIN DARROW Prepare for launch General? General?	HUMMEL Not yet.	CAPTAIN FRYE General Hummel, noon is approaching.	HUMMEL I'm aware of the time, Captain.
Hummel glares at Frye, then at the phone. Frye and Darrow .
exchange a look ....

What's this? Do we detect that our villian is perhaps human after all. The thought of killing 80,000 people or whatever was never really a consideration. It was a threat, and he only hoped that his bluff would not be called.

Hummel, with Baxter, Hendrix, Frye, Darrow and Crisp. The atmosphere is
now so fucking thick you can cut it.	CAPTAIN DARROW Eleven fifty-seven, General. Three minutes to go.	HUMMEL They're going to call.	CAPTAIN FRYE They are not going to call General.	HUMMEL I... I don't understand this.	CAPTAIN DARROW	I understand it. They're calling our bluff.	We have two operational rockets left. We	have to stick one of those rockets in	their ear, General.	HUMMEL Atom?	BAXTER I'...I don't know Frank.	HUMMEL Seventy thousand people... I didn't...	I didn't ever...	CAPTAIN FRYE You didn't ever what?	(no response) You didn't ever what, General?	(gets in Hummel's face) General, forty-eight hours ago I was in a cushy job at Pendleton. As of this moment	I am subject to prosecution for treason and murder.	Do you know what that means. It means the	electric chair. For all of us.	BAXTER He's right Frank. Authorize the launch or it's over.
All eyes on Hummel now.	CAPTAIN DARROW Authorize the launch, General.
Hummel nods...

But he can go through with it, however reluctant he will do it; at least that's what we think. But, the thought process that we are shown is coherent, even if he does go through with it.

Movies where they kill a whole car load of people then go out to breakfast is one thing. When you kill 70-80,000 you're gonna hesitate. And, well, thank God we don't have to watch it on screen.

Seeing Aliens from another world kill off half of the planet in INDEPENDENCE DAY, is different. We're are detached from that. It is fantasy and it's not one of our own doing it, but another race of beings.

Let's look at the climax of General Hummel's decision:

onto the field. Above, unbeknownst to anyone --
The V.X. ROCKET arcs over Oakland and --
-- Hummel, Baxter, and Darrow stare at the transmission from the
rocket's optic camera.
ON THE VIDEO MONITOR - We first see CLEAR SKY. The rocket
reaches its apex. Blue sky is now replaced by THE OAKLAND
COLISEUM directly below. We descend on 60,000 people.
watches the video monitor nervously. His jaws
at the video monitor.
He can't take it. Hummel lunges for the ROCKET GUIDANCE CONTROL
COMPUTER. Darrow tries to restrain him, but -- Hummel punches in NEW
The rocket veers off on a new vector. Heading now toward San Francisco
Bay. And
The F.B.I. Radar Technician reacts to the change in the rocket's
trajectory.	F.B.I. RADAR TECHNICIAN Sir, it's heading.,.into the bay?
A CHARTER FISHING BOAT bobs in the bay.
Four GUYS are fishing. Relaxing. Drinking beers. one guy looks up.
Sees something.	FISHERMAN What the hell.... ?
screams down. at 500 ft. altitude it DETONATES. Showering a
cloud of V.X. POISON onto the bay.
The FISHERMEN stand there, stunned as DROPLETS OF V.X.
POISON fall upon them. It's like a grey drizzle.
The Fishermen exchange looks. Hold out their hands, catching "rain
drops". One of them spasm. Another. The others. Skin turns black.
Blood runs from pores.
Frye and Crisp stare across the Bay in disbelief.	CAPTAIN FRYE I don't believe it. He pulled the plug.
Frye, disgusted, races down the STAIRS.

What a refreshing thing. Now the bad guys will most likely fight amongst themselves. It was perfect, and it worked brilliantly.

Action/Adventure writing is so interesting and fun to write, but also difficult. To simply reek havoc on paper and not develop well constructed characters will only make for a fun read, not a good movie. Challenge yourself to write the great script and be creative and visual.

One other note and De Souza just mentioned it, "underdog". I like the underdog. I'm not going to give any examples, but always keep this dimension in mind.

My script cut this month is from Lethal Weapon, it's one of my all time favorite scenes:

19A EXT. CHRISTMAS TREE LOT - DAY 19A Martin Riggs and three lot employees are gathered around the liftgate of a truck bearing a load of Christmas trees. The truck shields them from the view of customers picking out trees in the lot. The lot employees are actually DRUG DEALERS. They look around nervously in all directions as Riggs tastes a sample of their wares. RIGGS Good stuff. DRUG DEALER ONE You better fuckin' believe it. RIGGS Okay. Let's do it. How much? DRUG DEALER TWO How much for how much? RIGGS For all of it. DRUG DEALER THREE You want it all? RIGGS Yeah. (glances at the trees) And maybe a nice big six-footer to put it under. DRUG DEALER ONE The tree you can have for nuthin'. But the shit is gonna run you a hundred. Riggs lets out a soft whistle at the amount. RIGGS That much, huh? (digs into his pocket) Okay. Let's see what I got. He pulls out a roll of money and begins to count it out in twenties and small bills. RIGGS Twenty, forty, sixty -- The Drug Dealers exchange dumbfounded expressions. DRUG DEALER ONE Hey, man. Hey! RIGGS Wait, wait ... shutup. I'm losin count. Where was I? Oh, yeah... (continues to peel off the bills) ... Eight, ninety, ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven... (digs into his pocket for loose change) ... Ninety-seven-fifty. Sixty. Seventy-five. Okay, there's ninety-eight dollars and twenty cents... He is about to check his other pocket for change when Drug Dealer One stops him. DRUG DEALER ONE Forget it, dumbshit. RIGGS C'mon. I'm almost there. Gimme a minute to -- DRUG DEALER ONE One hundred thousand, you stupid fuck! One hundred thousand! Riggs is floored. He can't believe his ears. RIGGS Oh, Jesus ... I can't afford that. Not on my salary. (beat) Look... let's do this instead ... (pulls out his wallet) I take your complete stash, okay? I take it all. For free. And you assholes go to jail. As he says this, he flips open his wallet and shows his badge. The Drug Dealers at first look startled, then disbelieving. RIGGS I could read you your rights, but ... nah. You guys know what your rights are. DRUG DEALER ONE Fuck you, man. That badge ain't real. And you ain't real. DRUG DEALER TWO But you're sure as hell one crazy fuck! Riggs' eyes begin to blaze. His nostrils flare. Like a maniac, he lunges at Drug Dealer Two. RIGGS You callin' me crazy!? You think I'm crazy! You, wanna see crazy? I'll show you crazy! This is crazy! Riggs then proceeds to slap and pummel the Drug Dealer in the manner of the "Three Stooges"... complete with "WOO-WOO" sound effects. But he ends the routine by pulling a nine-millimeter Baretta from behind his back and pressing it against the neck of Drug Dealer Two. RIGGS That's a real badge. I'm a real cop. And this is a real gun. (to the other two Drug Dealers) Face down on the ground. Arms and legs out. Do it now! Dealer One and Three begin to follow orders but Riggs sees a flicker in their eves that him to trouble. He spins around -- a FOURTH DRUG DEALER is behind him with a shotgun. The SHOTGUN EXPLODES. Riggs ducks, allowing Drug Dealer Two to take the full force of the 'blast in the face. Riggs rolls in the sawdust FIRING his BERETTA. Dealer Four takes a bullet between the eyes. Dealer Two now has an AUTOMATIC RIFLE in his hand. It CHATTERS in Riggs' direction. Sawdust and pine needles fly in the air -- but Riggs is able to blow him away. One more Drug Dealer left. Riggs can't find him. His eyes dart in all directions. Where is he?! Behind Riggs, that's where! He presses a revolver to the back of Riggs' head, taking Riggs' Baretta from him and tucking it into his belt. That's when:
19B FIVE NARCOTICS OFFICERS 19B come running from their stakeout positions around the lot. But they stop short when they see that Riggs is being held with a gun pointed to his head. The Drug Dealer begins to move with Riggs toward a van parked nearby. RIGGS (to officers) Shoot him! Shoot him! DRUG DEALER (to Riggs) Shut up! RIGGS (to Drug Dealer) Fuck you! (to officers) Shoot him! Shoot him! The narcotics officers don't know what to do. They are frustrated. Helpless. Immobilized. Riggs sees the van looming up. The van means defeat. The van means disgrace. The van means victory for the bad guys, and we know that Riggs would rather die than be the instrument of the Dealer's escape.
19C CLOSE ON RIGGS AND DRUG DEALER 19C The veins are popping out in Riggs' neck. The Drug Dealer is getting nervous and panicky. His gun hand is trembling. The barrel of the gun jiggles against the back of Riggs' head. RIGGS (to Drug Dealer) Do it, asshole. Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. DRUG DEALER Shut the fuck up! They move closer to the van. The narcotics officers have their guns poised for action, but don't dare use them. DRUG DEALER (to officers) Guns down! Guns down! RIGGS (to officers) Shoot him! Kill him! (to Dealer) Pull the trigger! (to officers). Waste him! (to Dealer) Shoot me! (to officers) Kill him!! The Dealer is so freaked now that his grip on Riggs slips momentarily -- and Riggs sees his opening. He spins. Kicks the Dealer in the groin. Dislocates his arm -- sending the gun flying. Riggs retrieves his Baretta from the Dealer's belt and shoves the barrel into the Dealer's face. Riggs' entire body quakes with rage. His finger begins to squeeze back on the trigger. He wants to kill the guy so bad he can taste it... and yet, he doesn't do it. The other officers arrive and step between Riggs and the Dealer. Riggs turns away. Breatliing hard. Adrenaline pumping. He tucks the Baretta into his belt, then notices that his hand is covered with the spilled blood of one of the Drug Dealers. It gives Riggs pause. For a moment, he just looks at it. HOLD ON Riggs. VERY CLOSE. And the look in his eyes.

That's a great scene, one of the best of all time in my humble opinion.

  • Getting Your Script Through The Hollywood Maze; Stuart, Linda. Acrobat Books, 1993.
  • Creative Screenwriting; Vol.3 Winter 1996 No. 3.
  • Four Screenplays; Field, Syd. Bantam, 1994.
  • The Rock, screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh.
  • Lethal Weapon, screenplay by Shane Black.

    Next month I'll look at dialog and how important it is for action screenwriting.

  • More recent articles in Archive


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