Character-Driven vs. Action-Driven

Q&A Notes Webinar: “SETTING UP CHARACTER AND STORY, PART I”

From the Webinar Archives of Syd Field The Art of Visual Storytelling.

Q: Greg asks, “Please elaborate on the difference between the character driving the action versus the action driving the character.”

A: In the character driving the action, you have the character who forces that action throughout the story. In “The Descendants,” Matt King’s wife is in a coma and, for the first time in their marriage, or at least in the last 10 years of their marriage, he wants to become and has to become a father who takes care of his two daughters, one age 10 and one age 17. So, the difference between the character driving the action is that he has a particular dramatic need. “I want to change,” he says. “I want to become a better father and a better husband,” while he takes care of his comatose wife.
But the action driving the character, the character is given a specific assignment or specific action. In “Skyfall,” for example, the story is set up within the first three minutes and James Bond is given a particular action to accomplish, and that means the action drives the character. And it actually—I don’t know whether you have seen the film or not, but it actually leads to a very serious event in the life of James Bond. I’m not going to tell you what happens.
So the difference between the action driving the character and the character driving the action is that the character is given a particular action to achieve in the action driving the character and the character has a specific need within him or her that will drive the story line. So that’s the distinction. We’ll cover that when we talk about the nine ways to set up your story and character.

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