Action is character.
So the old storytelling adage. What does that mean, exactly?
In this post, we’ll consider:
- The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
- Actions – what the character does
- Character and Archetype
The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
More or less explicitly, the main character of a story is likely to have some sort of task to complete. The task is generally the verb to the noun of the goal – rescue the princess, steal the diamond. The character thinks that by achieving the goal, he or she will get what they want, which is typically a state free of a problem the character is posed at the beginning of the story.
The action is what, specifically, the character does in order to achieve the goal (rescue the princess, steal the diamond). In many cases, this action takes place in a central scene. Central not only in importance, but central in the sense of being in the middle.
Let’s look at some examples.
1. The Godfather
Micheal’s world is the mafia. One day, his father the Don gets shot. Then Michael wants to help the family. As a consequence, Michael shoots a rival mafioso and a police captain. Until at last, Michael is the new Godfather.
The pivotal and central action of The Godfather is the midpoint restaurant scene where Michael Corleone takes the irrevocable step of shooting the enemies of the family. It is a point of no return for him. It marks how he has abandoned his initial wish to be free of the family business, and has instead embarked on the path that will lead him to become the Godfather.
2. Star Wars – A New Hope
Luke’s world is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. One day, he sees a message from a princess. Then Luke wants to help the princess. As a consequence, Luke breaks into the dungeon in Darth Vader’s Death Star. Until at last, Luke destroys the Death Star.
Stories are chains of cause and effect set off by trigger events, in Luke’s case, the “call” from Princess Leia. By finding her in that dungeon, Luke has achieved the want that seeing her image set up. The incident happens in the middle of the story, between the heroes’ being sucked into the Death Star and their escaping from it.
In the two examples above, the pivotal action is a consequence – via a chain of cause and effect – of the protagonist’s want. While it is highly advisable for authors to make the pivotal action a result of characters’ motivations, there are cases in which an outer force provides the central action. This is so in James Cameron’s version of the Titanic story. In general terms, the defining event in the story of the Titanic is the fact of the ship ramming the iceberg. James Cameron wisely places this major occurrence in the middle of the love story he weaves around it.
The central action tends to be a defining moment, in the case of the protagonist for the entire story. In the case of all main characters, their central action defines who they are at heart. Micheal Corleone is ruthless. Luke Skywalker is the fairy tale prince who rescues the princess. Protagonist Luke has a contrastor figure, Han Solo, whose defining moment comes at the climax when he returns to perform his central action by helping his friend Luke.
Actions – what the character does
If a character usually has some kind of task to perform, how does the character react to being set such a task? What does he or she do? These are the actions.
What exactly does the character do? The actions are “don the armour, ride the trusty steed to the dragon’s den and slay him (maybe)”. In a heist caper, the actions might be “persuade potential allies, plan the heist, attain the necessary gear, break into the house and the safe, and get away (maybe)”.
Notice the strength, the inherent “visibility” in the mind’s eye of these verbs. Actions are better seen than told. For the audience or reader to experience the actions as such, i.e. as an emotional experience, it is usually related in such a way as to allow perception of the action as an experienceable event, rather than a report. In other words: show, don’t tell.
From the character’s perspective, an action that makes it into the story is motivated. (All the other ordinary actions like having a cheese sandwich or going to the toilet are for the purposes of the story unmotivated and therefore not necessary to relate). The character has a reason to perform a story action, there is some sort of cause for this action to be carried out. And with that, an effect that the character wanted to achieve by the action. However, part of the author’s craft is to surprise the character (and the audience) by making the outcome of the action different from the expectation.
As the story begins, there may be some reluctance to set forth about the task at all. This has become a bit of a Hollywood cliché – the detective is usually an ex-detective, who must first be persuaded to take on the case. That so many screenwriters build protagonist reluctance into the first act of their stories may be the result of a popular interpretation – we would say a misreading – of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Be that as it may, in a way it is only natural that the protagonist feel some reluctance. After all, the task ultimately arises out of a problem – and who likes problems? Most of us would prefer to stay in our cosy armchairs rather than embark on a perilous journey with unknown end or consequences.
It is, of course, quite possible to show reluctance without resorting to hackneyed story devices. Michael Corleone initially does not want to get involved in the family business. But he later shoots the gangster Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey anyway, because the story gives him plenty of reason to do so.
And while we’re on the subject of Campbell – once the character has overcome the reluctance, gotten out of the armchair comfort zone, and embarked on the story journey to perform the task, he or she will likely meet the first resistance. Campbell calls this the Threshold Guardian. Getting past this character or difficulty marks the beginning of the story proper. The protagonist is out of his usual environment and on the journey towards the goal.
The specific action the character performs in order to achieve the task is usually the response to the perceived need. In other words, once the problem and the potential solution, i.e. the task, are established, a way will usually be made apparent, a plan will be set forth. Sometimes, an entire plan is mapped out, as in a quest or heist story (cf. Lord of the Rings or Ocean’s Eleven). And sometimes, the way or the plan are no more than the first step on the story journey, the first clue in the chain of clues which, for example, will lead the detective to solving the case. The character has to find the way step by step. “What will you do now?” Indiana Jones is asked. His answer: “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” Unlike the author, of course, who knows exactly what the character will do now.
Furthermore, stories are about characters needing to learn something in order to change. The best way to learn is to do. Doing is action, action is direct experience, and one learns best by experience. So it is more effective to show characters as learning something when they are active. Instead of waiting that things happen to them, active characters make decisions and try things out. Since learning implies changing, active characters tend to change more than passive ones, which is one more reason why passive characters are bad for stories.
Character and Archetype
We have said before that in story, action defines character. Take a step back to look at the overall story. You can see that the action the character takes to perform the task provides the story with an overriding verb. A direction, if you will. Try to describe the story in just one sentence (which you will have to when asked to provide a logline), and the sentence is likely to include the protagonist as subject and his or her action as predicate, i.e. verb. An adventurous archaeologist seeks an ancient religious artefact. When the father is shot, the son of a mafia boss must govern the family business.
Depending on how you express the action, you might find that the protagonist resembles an archetype. Luke Skywalker fights the forces of evil. During the course of the story, Luke becomes a warrior. Michael Corleone turns from the son, the prince, into the ruler of the family, into a father figure, into the (dark) patriarch.