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By Ron Moskovitz · December 1, 2011
In my last article, I discussed the basics of character arc: how a character grows and changes in response to the pressures of the story. Whenever I introduce this concept to students, however, I’m invariably hit with the same follow up question: “Does your lead character have to arc?”
The answer to that is unambiguous: no.
While an arc is a useful tool, and can deepen the audience’s connection to the character, there are dozens, if not hundreds of successful movies where the character doesn’t arc. The characters in these movies have their own templates, and one of the most common is the subject of today’s column: the force of nature character.
A force of nature characters are as unstoppable as a hurricane or a flood – all you can do is get out of the way while they change the world around them. They are who they are, unaffected by the chattering characters around them, and they do what has to be done.
Unsurprisingly, these characters are very common in action films.
One canonical example of this is James Bond. Although some tweaks have (thankfully) been made to the formula in recent years, the classic James Bond is a definition of a force of nature: he beats the bad guy, orders a vodka martini, and saves the day. He invariably ends the film in the arms of one lovely young lady, and half the time he starts the next film in the arms of another one. Bond just is. The films work in almost any order because Bond is fundamentally unchanging.
But it is not enough for a character to merely be unchanging to make them a force of nature. Forces of nature also change the world around them. A great example of this is the movie Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan and written by Jeb Stewart and Stephen E. de Souza, from Roderick Thorp’s novel.
The movie’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), has a fairly classic movie-character problem: he’s at odds with his wife. An early scene with Argyle (De'voreaux White), his chauffeur, shows the issue: “You thought she wasn’t going to make it out here, and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack?” It’s clearly shown to be his problem, not hers, when his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) reaches out to him – admitting that she’d like him to stay with the family – and he can’t help himself, he has to fire a jab at her about changing her name.
In many films, this would be a setup for a massive change of heart, where later in the film he admits that he’s been a bad husband and father and begs her to come back, and that turnaround became the key to his ultimate victory. And while it’s true that he does offer an apology (indirectly, to Sgt. Powell rather than to his wife) – the bigger changes happen in her: not only does she introduce herself by her married name at the end of the film, but the villain is ultimately defeated by the symbolic act of unhitching her Rolex watch, which represents her successful career. She changes more than he does, which is a classic indication of a force-of-nature character.
Nor is Holly the only person changed by McClane’s force-of-nature persona. Sgt. Powell is set up as a cop unable to draw his weapon, but he does so in order to save McClane at the end of the film. Meanwhile, John just keeps doing what he does: relentlessly combating the criminals at every turn.
Identifying that one relentless thing that your character does can really help define them. For example, in the first Alien movie (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett), Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is clearly set up to be fighting the Alien at every step of the way. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s not a coincidence that Ripley figures out that the beacon which attracted them is a warning, that she’s the one who tries to stop them from bringing the alien onboard the ship, or that she is an early advocate for the plan getting onboard the shuttle and blowing up the Nostromo.
She fights the Alien. It’s who she is, and ultimately is what makes her survival at the end of the film emotionally justified: while some characters earn their happy endings through growth, a force-of-nature character earns it through persistence.
These characters work so well in action films because they keep the audience’s focus on the fun stuff they paid to see. I suspect that’s why the character arc in Michael Crighton’s novel Jurassic Park (related to the lead’s lack of interest in children) was whitewashed to the point of non-existence in Spielberg’s film adaptation: Spielberg knew that we wanted to spend our time focused on dinosaurs, not people. While you can see a few echoes of Professor Grant’s resistance to all things family in the finished film, you’d never guess that arc was part of the story if you hadn’t read the book.
If you decide that a force-of-nature character is appropriate for your story, pay attention to these details. Define what they are relentless about, and make sure that’s consistent through the entire script. Then show the impact their relentlessness has on the world around them. The end result could be the creation of character as powerful and compelling as Ripley or John McClane.