What are the best examples of feature screenplays and movies that showcase character traits without relying on character description and dialogue exposition?
In the visual medium of film and television, actions and reactions are the best way to define characters. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of using words to define characters. Yes, they can certainly use words to describe characters to a reader, but if you really want to make an imprint on the reader’s mind, your character’s actions will speak louder than any descriptive words you can conjure.
If you open with a character killing somebody, you’ve made an immediate impression on the reader. Now they’re invested in learning whether that killing was justified or not.
If you open with a character pointing a gun to their head, tears running down their face, you’re telling us that this character is in such a bad place that they’re contemplating suicide.
Actions and reactions are the best character descriptions in screenplays. Too many screenwriters rely on writing character descriptions when they first introduce their characters. If they don't use character description, they rely on expositional dialogue that is meant to offer information.
The problem with relying on scene description is that it doesn't offer the eventual viewer the information they need about that character.
The problem with relying on expositional dialogue to inform the viewer is that it feels unnatural and forced.
Actions and reactions are the way to go.
With that in mind, here we present a breakdown of actions that define the protagonist of the classic Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.Download the 'Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior' Script!
Defining Character Through Action: Mad Max
In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, cynical drifter Max agrees to help a small, gasoline-rich community escape a horde of bandits.
We've met Max before in the original Mad Max. In that original story, Max was a husband and father that lost his family because of a vile biker gang seeking vengeance on Max's highway police authority.
When we meet him in the sequel, he's a very different man.
The screenplay briefly describes Max's physical attributes.
A warrior, dressed in leather and steel, stands on a
hill crest. This is MAX.
After some additional images and narration covering the world leading up to the story's timeline, the narrator offers just a few tidbits of this character and where he is today.
And became a shell of a man. A burnt-out, desolate man, a dead man,
running from the demons of his past. A man who wandered far away...
The supercharger On the front of the vehicle dominates
And it was out here in this blighted place, that he learned to live
The dialogue is a stylistic choice that utilizes a narrator whose identity will later be revealed in the final moments of the story. But it would be his following actions that would define his character further — without any further narration points needed.
Also, keep in mind that this sequel was released in the United States (and other countries) as The Road Warrior. The original Mad Max didn't have much of a theatrical release outside of Australia, so much of the audience wasn't aware that The Road Warrior was a sequel to anything. This was the first time they were meeting Max.
Character-Defining Action #1 — Cunning Skills
In the opening action sequence, not a word is spoken. The story and characterization are defined by the actions of the characters — protagonist (Max) and villains.
Max is being pursued by three vehicles — two cars and one motorcycle. Each are hell-bent on killing Max.
Max's car is his best weapon. It's the last of the V-8s — complete with a fuel injection system that gives him an added boost and superior speed over most of the post-apocalyptic vehicles on the road.
However, his fuel is low. He disengages the boost and must now contend with the vehicles on even ground. He slowly bates one of the cars and the motorcycle — each of them approaching on different sides of Max's V8. As they approach the front of the car, they ready their arrowed weapons, pointing them at Max's face until...
He slams on his brakes, forcing the car driver's arrow into the arm of the motorcycle driver. Max doesn't miss a beat. He accelerates into the back of the enemy car, forcing it out of control into the second enemy car that has crossed their path. A deadly crash between the two enemy cars ends with Max slamming on his brakes to a screeching stop — victorious.
This sequence only lasted for a few moments. And in that time, Max's cunning skills have been displayed full force.
The black-on-black surges around a wide curve, revealing only three vehicles still in pursuit.
The first machine is Wez's big road bike, the GOLDEN YOUTH riding pillion. It is followed by a bizarre road racer and a strange dune buggy.
As the black-on-black crests a rise MAX is confronted by a tangle of wrecked vehicles on the road ahead.
He swerves, slaloms through the wrecks and accelerates into a sweeping right hand curve.
WEZ ramps his bike over the first wreck and corrects, avoiding the other wrecks.
The road racer ramps two wheels over the first wreck but cannot correct. It clips the second wreck. sends it spinning, then continues after the black-on-black.
The dune buggy decides to avoid the wrecks altogether and veers off the road to the right. It heads across open terrain aiming to intercept the black-on-black on the curve.
THE MARAUDERS CATCH UP - HIGHWAY. DAY.
A light flashes on MAX's dashboard, an alarm whoops.
MAX looks down at the fuel gauge: close to empty. He curses and flicks a switch, cutting off the supercharger.
The black-on-black slows ...
The DOG whimpers, crawls off its chair and under Max
WEZ overhauls MAX on the passenger side, He raises his forearm, aiming his gauntlet-style crossbow at MAX'S head.
MAX barely has time to glimpse the road racer drawing alongside the driver's door.
The passenger - a BERSERKER - wields a brutal, gas-powered 'gun': the heads of six metal arrows protrude from a big barrel. This weapon is the "Porta-pak".
MAX hits the brakes.
The road racer and the bike surge past the black car... just as the porta-pak fires.
Two arrows thud into the black car, three go astray and one hits WEZ in the arm.
MAX throws the black car in behind the road racer ...
WEZ, fighting to control the bike, leaves the road...
MAX changes down and hits the supercharger...
The black car leaps forward, ramming into the back of the road racer, bullying it along.
Wheels and metal screaming, the two cars approach an intersection littered with furniture and other debris. A road rig lies abandoned on the roadside.
MAX eases back for a moment then flattens the accelerator...
The black car slams into the back of the road racer... hurling it forward, just as the dune buggy regains the highway...
THE INTERSECTION. DAY.
The driver of the road racer screams as his vehicle hits the dune buggy, spinning it like a top, sending it crashing into the side of the road rig.
The road racer slides through a 180 degrees, rolls, smashes through a road sign and hits a power pole.
The pole thuds to the road as MAX throws a handbrake "U" turn and skids to a halt in the middle of the intersection.
MAX, carrying a jerry can, gets out of the black car. He looks down the highway.
Character-Defining Action #2 — Calm, Cool, and Collected
During all of this, Max doesn't bat an eye. He shows no signs of concern or apprehension. He shows no anger or emotion. And when he's the victor of the deadly, high-stakes chase, he shows no signs of arrogance or celebration.
This tells us that Max is numb to the emotions that most would feel in this situation. Emotions that would likely make even the best of us linger or hesitate at the worst moments when these deadly conflicts are upon us.
Character-Defining Action #3 — Survival Instincts
After he has seemingly won the highway battle, Max exits his V8 with a gas can. He rushes towards one of the crashed vehicles on the road and begins to collect any fuel that he can — even squeezing the dirt and dust of the road to drain it of spilled fuel.
These actions showcase one of his central character points — he's a survivor. Fuel is survival, and Max will go to great lengths for that fuel so he can keep moving down the road.
When he sees that the motorcycle driver, Wez, and his passenger are watching him from down the highway, Max keeps a keen eye on them. When Wez screams in pain and pulls out the arrow embedded in his arm, Max watches — still gathering the fuel as he does.
Max finally reacts to a possible threat when Wez revs his bike and races towards Max. Without missing a beat, Max stands, walks towards the approaching motorcycle, and aims his weapon (which we later learn is empty). Wez changes his mind and drives down the highway in the opposite direction.
Max is a survivor.
A RISE OVERLOOKING THE INTERSECTION. DAY.
WEZ is stopped on the crest of the road, looking down on the intersection. The arrow is still in his arm.
We see the GOLDEN YOUTH clearly for the first time: he is strikingly beautiful.
MAX, unfazed, hurries to the wreck of the dune buggy, crushed beneath the road rig. Fuel streams from its ruptured tank.
From inside the wreck, we hear the moans of the injured driver.
MAX puts the jerry can under the escaping fuel and - tearing a bandana from his neck - mops up the gasoline lying on the bitumen.
Suddenly, there is a shrill whistle.
MAX looks up at the crest of the road.
THE RISE OVERLOOKING THE INTERSECTION. DAY.
WEZ grins as he pulls the arrow slowly out of his arm. His eyes never leave MAX.
With that he puts the arrow back into his quiver and guns the motor. He reals the font wheel, hangs there a moment, then spins the bike around and roars back to the wasteland.
Character-Defining Action #4 — Faint Signs of Emotion
As Max goes about collecting fuel, he examines a big rig near the wreck. He opens the door and reacts to dead body falling out of the cab. In the hand of the dead body is a music box.
Max turns the knob of the box as "Happy Birthday" begins to chime. We suddenly see Max's humanity as he cracks a slight smile. But he's conflicted with that smile and the music, almost as if he's hesitant to remember the good things in his previous life.
But the moment shows us that he's not just a survivor willing to kill anything and anyone. He's not like Wez and his counterparts. He still has some humanity in him. Something that will come into play later on in the story.
Max examines the road rig: most of the tires have been punctured with arrows, the rear doors torn off and its contents pillaged.
MAX taps the.fuel tank - empty.
He reaches up to open the door of the cabin ...
There is an anguished scream. Max turns.
The hand of the dying driver emerges from the twisted metal of the dune buggy.
The fingernails score deeply into the paintwork, a rush of dark blood pours out of the wreck. Then, silence.
Max opens the cabin door ...
A figure drops down, crashing onto his shoulders. As Max struggles from its grasp we see that it is the bloated putrefying corpse of the rig's driver. Two crossbow bolts are buried in its neck.
MAX stoops and picks up a toy hurdy-gurdy which has fallen from the dead man's hand.
As he walks back towards the black-on-black he turns the handle, playing the first few notes of "Happy Birthday"
These are just a few of the actions that showcase Max's character. In the ensuing story, Max's actions divulge more examples of these character traits:
- He finds a scavenger that is more than willing to kill him for his vehicle. Max gets the upper hand but spares the scavenger's life. Another sign of his humanity.
- As Max watches the community being attacked by Wez, his master, and their army, Max uses the survivor of a failed attempt at escape to gain favor in the eyes of the community. Why? For fuel.
Screenwriting Lesson Learned?
Don't rely on writing detailed scene descriptions and expositional dialogue to showcase characterization in your screenplays. Those elements are a waste of prime screenplay real estate. And they also slow the pacing of the script down.
Instead, throw your characters into the fire of the conflict and let their actions and reactions define them.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies