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Screenwriting 101: Character is Decision Plus Action

By Anthony Faust · August 28, 2017

Character = Decision + Action

In the world of film, this formula can mean the difference between a poorly told story, with cardboard-thin characters, and a drama with rich, multi-dimensional characters who make key decisions that further the narrative.

As an example, I’ll use First Blood (1982). It’s one of Sylvester Stallone’s earlier films. It tells the story of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a Vietnam veteran who wanders into a town and encounters a hostile police force. Their subsequent abuses of him serve as a metaphor for the country’s mistreatment of returning war veterans, and it stirs up the monster inside him that the government created but whose consequences it never intended to deal with.

After Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots Rambo walking along the road, he gives him a ride to the end of town. The sheriff tells him he doesn’t want “guys like him” in this town. He tells him there is a diner about “thirty miles up the highway” after Rambo asks where he can grab a bite to eat. Teasle drops Rambo off at the end of a bridge on the outskirts of the town and tells him to “have a nice day”. The problem is, Rambo is hungry and he wants to eat in town. So he is at a literal crossroads.

As Rambo watches Teasle drive back to town, he is forced to choose between two different paths. Does he keep walking and not cause any further trouble? Or does he walk back to town and get a hot meal now, rather than waiting the whole day it would take him to walk to the diner up the highway?

Here’s a secret. The greater the difference between the two choices, the stronger the story.

Rambo could walk away, but his hungry stomach compels him to walk back to town. So Rambo does what we would all do. He heads back to town. This decision has created empathy from us. We are invested in his character. Of course, his decision prompts a disapproving reaction from Sheriff Teasle who spots Rambo in his side mirror, swiftly turns his police car around and apprehends Rambo.

Rambo’s decision has led to an action. He chooses to walk back to town instead of continuing onto the path he was on. Subsequently, Rambo is arrested. His decisive action has started the next sequence of the film. Now, back to the formula. We now understand the “Decision plus Action” part of it. Rambo made a decision and an action followed. But what does it mean to say that those two things combined equal character? What exactly is character?

If you think character means, “blond hair, blue eyes”, you’re missing the point. Character does not mean physical characteristics like weight, height, or eye color. Character does not mean trivial things like someone’s favorite color or birthdate. Character means what people do under pressure. It’s a persistent, invisible presence that should permeate a screenplay as we flip the pages.

Characters are shaped by decisions. When a man is trapped in a burning building, and others are trapped with him, the decision to save himself or sacrifice himself for the lives of others tells the world who he really is.

In First Blood, Rambo’s decision to go back to town for food tells us he is someone who will not be bullied. He is strong, assertive, and willing to fight. Everything he does after this point is simply a reflection of the character traits he showed in making that decision. They foreshadow the decisions he makes later in the screenplay as the plot thickens and as Rambo becomes enmeshed in the predicament he created. This is how good characters are written.

So, next time you’re at an impasse with how to push your protagonist forward, remember:

Character = Decision + Action.

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