Sarah Connor. Ethan Hunt. James Bond. There’s a deep bench of iconic characters that have helped define and exemplify action cinema for decades. Between preventing nuclear annihilation, rescuing hostages and restoring balance to the universe, these characters have proven themselves to be larger than life while also capturing the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.
One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to underestimate the hero of their action script. Some writers have a tendency to reduce their action heroes to their most base elements; they’ll focus on their proficiency for getting into car chases or their habit of spouting familiar catchphrases and punchlines, instead of really getting to the core of what makes these characters memorable and multi-dimensional. It can be a tricky balance figuring out the unique alchemy that really makes an action hero tick, but here are some traits that can help you to get the protagonist of your film to really stand out and make an impression on the page.
Leadership One great way to get an audience to respond to your action hero is to position them as someone who can motivate your other characters. A character who can function as a leader is a character who also holds an immense amount of power because they have the unique ability to influence and inspire others. William Wallace in “Braveheart” is a fantastic example of this — one of the most significant aspects of the film relates to that real-life Scottish warrior’s ability to rally others to his cause.
In the Marvel universe, Captain America is another natural leader; one of his defining qualities is his ability to unite other superheroes under his banner. When portraying an action hero as a leader, make sure to understand and communicate why other characters are driven to serve under them. In order to make a convincing case for your heroes’ ability to inspire others, you’ll need to get to the root of why they are an effective commander.
Courage This might seem like an obvious one. Audiences often expect action heroes in movies to display a preternatural sense of courage. Characters like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter have shown this trait off repeatedly through multiple films — if there’s trouble or conflict, you can bet they’ll rise to meet the occasion. Most action heroes display a sense of fearlessness that accompanies them into shootouts, fist fights and various other death-defying situations.
A neat way to really unpack this character trait, however, might be to have your action hero earn their sense of courage. One example of this is in the film “Edge of Tomorrow”, where the story’s protagonist, Major William Cage, essentially begins the story as a coward who wants to run in the opposite direction of the frontline. As the story progresses, however, Cage earns his courage and becomes a bona-fide action hero.
Caring When you think of the term “badass,” you might associate it with characters who are stoic, unfeeling and have their finger permanently glued to the trigger. But, if you really want to make your action hero feel memorable and unique, you might want to consider really giving them something to personally value. Look, this doesn’t mean you need to give your hero a permanent soft spot. But at the very least, your character needs to care about something — whether it be a loved one, or a moral code. Part of the reason why Ellen Ripley has become such an iconic figure is because in the film, “Aliens”, she’s given something bigger than herself to fight for. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, she faces off against the Alien Queen in order to protect a small child that has come under her care (And kicks off the confrontation with an all-time great line: “Get away from her, you bitch!”).
By giving your action hero something to fight for, you’ll also give your story a built-in sense of personal stakes. It’ll not only make your character seem more multi-faceted, but also more human, and yes, more badass.
Resilience Another quality commonly associated with action heroes is their resilience — their ability to take punishment and still come back for more. Whether it be Indiana Jones, Iron Man or the Bride, part of what makes these characters so indelible is the amount of times they can pick themselves up again after defeat. When developing and writing an action hero, its important to understand the forces against them and juxtapose it with your hero’s sense of fortitude. Part of what makes a character truly “badass” is their willingness to bounce back after a beating.
Consider the Bride AKA Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill” punching her way out of a coffin after being buried alive. Or the Terminator taking a severe ass-kicking from a liquid-metal assassin in “T2: Judgment Day” before saving John Connor one last time. Action heroes aren’t just someone who can deliver bullets and left hooks for days — they get back up again after defeat, to show what they’re really made of.
Self-Sacrifice A truly memorable action hero is someone who lives and fights for something greater than themselves. One of the most powerful qualities that an action hero can have is the willingness to take a loss for what they believe in. A hero’s ability to pay the ultimate cost for what’s important to them is an enormously effective character trait.
One of the reasons why Batman’s character arc in “The Dark Knight” series is so effective is because he is portrayed as a hero in service of something greater than himself. In both “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” he makes conscious choices that put him at a great deal of risk in order to preserve the things he believes in. In “The Dark Knight,” he shoulders the blame of murdering multiple people in order to preserve the soul of his city. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” he personally ferries a weapon of mass destruction away from innocents in order to prevent loss of life. This isn’t necessarily an easy character trait to set-up — you’ll need to create a layered, believable character whose sense of morality is well-developed. But if you pull it off right, you’ll not only have a badass hero but a memorable main character as well.