The other night I popped in my well-worn copy of the 1988 film “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis and the ever lovable villain Hans Gruber played by the late Alan Rickman. It was a quiet night, my wife was out with the girls, my son was out with friends, and my youngest daughter was in her room watching some Disney show on Netflix.
I had finished my quota for the day on the novel and had some time to relax.
From watching the film through a writer’s eye, I saw something very interesting, something that made that film the success that it was. Up to that point in American cinema most action heroes were invincible. Arnold Schwarzenegger was terminating his way through obstacles that didn’t even slow him down. Jean-Claude Van Damme was kicking his way through opponent after opponent. However, here are a few things I noticed about John McClane that informed me about writing good action heroes:
- He’s Not Indestructible – McClane is in Los Angeles because he’s there to visit his estranged wife and kids and is really not the guy with all the answers. He’s grumpy, a little hard boiled and street-savvy, but he’s not above trying to patch things up with his wife. He also takes a lot of punishment: getting glass in his feet, getting shot and bleeding everywhere, probably breaking some ribs, getting burned. By the end of the film he looks like he’s been through a meat grinder. This taught me that action heroes need to be able to get shot, get beat up and barely make it to the end. This makes them seem more believable and human, and is one reason why we root for McClane.
- He’s Not That Lovable – Let’s face it. McClane’s wife can’t stand him. She only falls in love with him again because he saves her life and the lives of every person in the Nakatomi building. He is a thorn in the side of the bad guys for sure, and he is cross with every official he speaks to (grant it, they are morons) but he is verbal sand paper. The thing that makes a good action hero is that they are not very lovable, which in turn makes them more real.
- Moment of Clarity – The thing that makes McClane so interesting is that he is always able to make a last minute gamble for his life and by sheer luck manages to make it: the swing off the exploding roof via fire hose, the c-4 in the elevator shaft that blows back on him, the escape across a glass strewn floor. He always seems to come up with some kind of idea for how to survive, but at a cost. Andy Weir’s The Martian is an excellent example of the use of this device. The solution to the problem at hand creates more problems down the line. This is an excellent device to use in any novel.
The film was actually based on a novel by Roderick Thorp entitled “Nothing Lasts Forever”. It’s worth reading. In it we can see great examples of these three aspects of the action hero. I recommend you pick it up if you want to see how this kind of thing looks on the page.
If you have any suggestions, comments or tips about action heroes below, please comment. Happy writing!