Next up in our "Defining Character Through Action" series: There Will Be Blood.
We're back with another installment of "Defining Character Through Action," where we break down iconic films that use the things characters do to tell us who they are.
This time, we're looking into Paul Thomas Anderson Oscar-nominated film, There Will Be Blood and its memorable protagonist, Daniel Plainview, a silver miner whose cruelty drives his search for riches during California's late-19th century oil boom.
We'll explore a number of Daniel's character-defining actions and reactions, revealing that his deeds -- or rather, his misdeeds -- often speaks louder than his dialogue ever does.
Let's jump in!Download the 'There Will Be Blood' Script!
Note: The script for There Will Be Blood available online is a draft that has elements not present within the film's final cut. The script is also written by its director, so otherwise taboo things like camera shots/angles and CUT TO: transitions between scenes are elements that novice screenwriters should avoid.
Defining Character Through Action: There Will Be Blood
The film tells the story of Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the oil business as he fails, succeeds, and then reaps the benefit of his successes — not letting anyone stand in his way.
The screenplay never offers any type of character description for Daniel.
DANIEL PLAINVIEW (late 30's here) is, with pick and ax, in the middle of the day, in 110-degree heat in New Mexico, searching for SILVER.
There is no sign of character description. Not even an aesthetic description of his wardrobe. Why? It's unnecessary.
We know it's 1898 because the script told us so. So we assume that most people would have an idea about what a prospector in that time would look like. And we assume that the wardrobe department will figure the specifics out. Anything beyond that would be a waste of white space.
The script also ignores the temptation to give character background or describe character traits. Why? Because it will be his actions that define what type of character he is. In fact, for the first 15 minutes of the film, Daniel barely speaks beyond murmurs to himself. But by the end of those 15 minutes, we know exactly who Daniel is.
Character-Defining Action #1 — Obsessive Prospecting
We open on an image of Daniel in a silver mine shaft, forcing a metal pick into the hard rock walls with an almost obsessive and driven force. He strikes the rock wall over and over as sparks fly from each point of impact.
We see that Daniel is driven by one single obsessive goal through many different moments in that shaft — finding silver. Never does he show weakness or abandon despite all of the hard work. He's there to find silver. That's all that matters.
After he blasts part of the rock wall with dynamite, he falls deep into the shaft by accident, breaking his leg in the process.
Does he wallow in self-pity?
Does he quit to make sure that he can escape and find medical attention?
Daniel crawls over to the blast point to examine the rocks that have been exposed. When he sees chunks of silver, he obsessively murmurs to himself as he examines his found fortune:
There she is. There she is. There she is.
These actions show what Daniel strives for the most — his fortune. That's a huge character trait that lesser screenplays would have turned to character description or dialogue to communicate.
Character-Defining Action #2 — Unrelenting Drive
Without missing a beat after he has found his fortune, he puts chunks of the silver into his shirt and proceeds to pull himself up the shaft with his fractured leg dangling in the air. He's in pain. A lot of it. But he is driven to attain his fortune. Finding the silver rocks isn't enough. He needs to turn them over to the Silver Assay/Lease Office to achieve the wealth that he desires.
Not only does Daniel get out of the shaft with a severely fractured leg — but he also manages to drag himself over a mile across the desert floor to a local mining town.
We know that Daniel will get to any extreme to see whatever he takes on through. That's another character trait communicated through action alone.
Character-Defining Action #3 — Carrying a Shotgun
Throughout the opening 15 minutes, Daniel has a shotgun draped over his shoulder or lying next to his side.
Even when he's alone in the middle of the desert, the shotgun is on or near him. This tells us that he trusts no one. And he will not let anyone get in between him and his fortune.
Daniel carrying a shotgun also shows us that he's smart. He knows that if other prospectors see his find, he may have to defend himself.
When he lays on the Silver Assay/Lease Office floor, watching them grind his silver and fill out his tally form, his shotgun is by his side. He knows that he's an injured man and is ripe for being attacked or taken advantage of. But because he is so obsessive and driven, he's ready to use lethal force to defend his claim.
Character-Defining Action #4 — Onto the Next Prospect
It's revealed that Daniel receives $342 for the silver alone. That's worth almost $10,000 in today's money. The screenplay also denotes that he plans to sell the lease of the prospecting site, which would lead to even more money.
Daniel could really live it up in 1898 with that type of fortune. Does he go buy a house or farm to live the good life for a while?
He invests the money for bigger and better things — an oil well and team. He no longer needs to prospect on his own. He can now afford a team of men to help him. And he's becoming more and more innovative as he sketches plans for a better drill derrick.
This shows us that he will never stop seeking more and more fortune. First, it was gold and silver. Now, it's oil. And we know that when he gets oil, he'll only want more and more of it.
Character-Defining Action #5 — Loyalty
Because Daniel's team can help him attain more fortune, he's loyal to them. There's a comradery that he shows with those men. He shares his obsession and drive. He no longer carries a shotgun with him. He has power in numbers.
When one of the men dies during a rigging accident, Daniel takes in his baby son. He cares for him. He treats him and later raises him as his own.
And what's interesting about this fact is that Daniel is using him to build his fortune legacy. He now has an heir to his fortune. When he's too old, he'll be able to continue seeking his fortune by passing the physical duties to the next generation. However, we later see that his son turns on him in his adult life and becomes a competitor. Daniel's reaction to that is his obsessive drive to defeat any and all competitors — even his son. He feels that his son betrayed his loyalty. And that is Daniel's downfall.
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