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5 Things Rocky Taught Me About Writing Knockout Main Characters

Recently, I watched all six Rocky movies back to back (yes, even Rocky V). I somehow managed to skirt around those movies throughout my child- and young adulthood.  Boxing movie? Something about some steps in Philly? Eh.


When someone finally convinced me to sit down in front of the first Rocky about two weeks ago, I was mesmerized. Never being particularly athletic, I saw the Rocky films not as bombastic boxing movies, but through a different lens—that of a writer watching an intricate character study.

No, seriously.

The Rocky movies achieved lasting popularity as a result of the hugely effective group of main characters. Here are five tips about characterization I learned while watching:

5. Keep your character’s core motive simple, then add layers of complexity.

Under the constant drumbeat of “be original,” and admonishments to stand out in a crowded marketplace, aspiring writers tend to draw main characters as intricate as Chantilly lace, all shadows and baggage.

Trouble is, too much of the main character’s essence gets obscured by layers of backstory.

From a tough Philadelphia neighborhood in the early ‘70s, Rocky Balboa just wants to make it out of his filthy apartment and dead-end job. A small-scale club boxer, Rocky wants nothing more than to do something big. When Adrian asks him, “Why did you want to be a boxer?” Rocky answers, “Because I can’t sing or dance.”

It really can be that simple.

4. Hit every emotion, even during ‘non-essential’ scenes.

Never miss an opportunity to show your character reacting to things. During the Thanksgiving scene in the original Rocky, Paulie and Adrian have a screaming match. Through it all, you can see Rocky stage left awkwardly shuffling his feet, an accidental audience to this private family fight.

Here, we’re watching all three characters develop even though the central story arc would have been fine without it (Rocky could’ve just pestered Adrian into going ice-skating without all the yelling). You see Paulie’s washed-up insecurity, the root of Adrian’s social maladaptation and Rocky getting a taste of what he’s in for as part of this dysfunctional little family.

3. Don’t change the rules offscreen.

When Rocky does things out of character (like flubbing his training before fighting Clubber Lang) the audience can see, or at least take an educated guess, about why. But it can be confusing when your creations do things that are out of character, seemingly without reason. This means some sort of seismic shift in the character’s moral compass occurs offscreen.

When your character makes a decision to start a new pattern of behavior, give your reader the reason why. A job loss? A new love interest? Witnessing something tragic? Whatever it is, let it happen in front of the reader, so we don’t get lost or distracted along the way.

2. Know which mountains to fly over.

Rocky Balboa doesn’t have much of a backstory. Where are his parents? In Rocky V, when Tommy Gunn, Rocky, Adrian and Robert Jr. are sitting at the dinner table, Rocky makes a passing reference in response to Tommy’s recollection of an abusive, alcoholic father: “Yo, Tommy, at least you had an old man to knock out, you know? I didn’t even have that.”

Other than that bit of color, we hear nothing about Rocky’s parents—and that’s okay.

Letting parts of your character be a blank canvas isn’t careless writing—it’s respect for the reader. Providing a complete backstory (unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien and that backstory is The Silmarillion) can feel like you’re controlling all the cameras and holding all the cards. Great reading experience for you, bad one for your readers.

Also, that’s a lot of extra work.

1. Let your character get beaten—a lot.

Spoiler alert: Rocky doesn’t win his last fight in the first movie. In fact, Rocky loses almost half the fights we see on camera, including one in which he’s knocked out three rounds and about 45 seconds into his first fight with Clubber Lang in Rocky III. And this is a good thing.

Who wants to identify with someone who does nothing but win?

I mean, you might like that person, and he or she could be a deus ex machina for your story arc, but that kind of Norse-god-warrior -superhuman-cyborg infallibility doesn’t lend itself to a main character who sticks around or that inspires affection or loyalty from most readers. Don’t be afraid to let your protagonists fail, fail often, and fail in epic fashion. We love it!


In the end, it can be easy to dismiss movies like the Rocky franchise as testosterone-soaked pseudoepics that are too simple by half. But taking some cues from Rocky Balboa can help your main characters pack huge punch (pun totally intended) and resonate with your readers.

What did you think of the Rocky movies? What movies have most inspired or informed your writing? Share them in the comments.

About Shanan Haislip

I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com and contributed to The Audacity to be a Writer. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

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  • Bryan, first off — YAY! You watched Rocky! Such an awesome movie!!!! I’ve only seen the 1st two, but it’s such a great example of character development.

    And I’m not sure if you know this but maybe a 6th ‘thing’ about the film is: “Write What You Know.” The movie Rocky, also follows Sylvester Stallone REAL life story fairly accurately, even down to selling his dog (it was in the movie, but the guy did it in real life have to sell his dog because no producer would take his script of “Rocky” and he didn’t have the money to care for his dog).

    So while character development is so important, you also have to pull from what you know — just as a human…. Which, ironically, will make your story/person more real.

    Thanks for this!

    • Hi Devani, this post is actually by Shanan Haislip. She’s a regular contributor. But still, your comment is totally interesting and I agree it helps to write about what you know. I’ve seen all the Rocky movies and I love the series.

      • LOL … I realized that after I posted the comment – Sorry about that xD Yep, great movies and the subtext of it is so intriguing to follow.

    • Hi Devani, after I outlined most of this post I happened to stumble across a “making-of” documentary of the Rocky movies that prominently featured Sly Stallone, along with his brother Frank (who apparently performed “Take You Back” — who knew?) and yes! The Rocky movies all match phases of Sly’s life, just as you said. I also found it really interesting, as a would-be memoirist myself, how he used allegory to tell his own story, and Rocky’s, at the same time.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Cathy Keaton

    The first Rocky movie is my favorite movie of all time! I’ve seen it 100 times at least since I can remember, and I grew up with the entire movie franchise when it was at its most popular. I’ve always wondered why Rocky always tops every other film for me, and I believe it has to do mostly with the film’s ability to depict reality as realistically as it can be depicted.

    I have always loved the Rocky characters to the point where I’ve always felt that they are real people out there living in the real world. That’s what character-driven stories are all about. Even if it’s something speculative like Star Wars, another favorite of mine, you could believe that Luke, Leia and Han exist out there in a galaxy far, far away. They are just that well written and acted. 🙂

    • I completely agree, Cathy. And I haven’t seen Rocky as many times as you have, but I’m catching up (I’m a movie re-watcher and a book re-reader). And thanks for that definition of memorable characters. I think you really nailed the essence of it, for me.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Hi Shannon, I have a buddy who hates Stallone, and I usally let him go on and on, then I hvae just one rebuttal – he wrote Rocky. Your excellent post is really inspiring and sure to annoy my friend (a win-win for me) 🙂

    • Ha! I’m going to remember that rebuttal. 🙂

    • Hugh, I know a few people like that, too. I wrote the last paragraph of this post with those people in mind. Sly’s a guy who is very easy to dismiss as a half-awake meathead… until you remember the Rocky series.

  • Hi Shanan,
    This is great advice for all writers, not just beginners. I’m not a beginner, but I tend to forget as I write and don’t see what’s missing. I’ve printed this out and will keep it near my computer.


    • That’s great to hear, Adelaide! I’m glad it helped a veteran like yourself 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Megan

    I love the kind of character that starts out as a regular guy and ends up being the larger-than-life hero. It is the ultimate escapist story – and I think it parallels nicely the reason we write: so we can escape our hum-drum jobs and create our own universe. So: why not let the reader come along for the ride? Start with a character they can identify with, then have that character become bigger than life – and your readers will dream of being bigger than life, too.

    There are any number of movies with such characters, but my favorites are the Matrix franchise, and Good Will Hunting (I’ve deliberately chosen a fantasy and a non-fantasy movie). Both movies spend most of their time on the transition from regular guy to superhero, which to me is by far the most interesting part. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of franchises like Superman, Spiderman, Batman etc., precisely because they spend only a token amount of time on the transition, and devote the majority of the story to the Super-Hero’s Superdeeds (which is more CGI than acting, and not particularly interesting to begin with).

    • Megan, I caught a couple of clips from an older Superman movie (not one of Christopher Reeves’; earlier than that) and was SO disappointed about how pathetic – understandably – the special effects were. They diminished the concept of Superman in my mind (and I am a big fan of modern superhero movies in general).

      Then I realized something similar to what you said–the Superdeeds didn’t look real, my belief wasn’t suspended, and… well, the wheels came off that larger-than-life personage faster than I could blink.

      Which only goes to show just how deep and complex and important our relationship to believable main characters should actually be.

  • Shanan – great post! The Rocky movies started when I was in the middle of my college career (mid 1970’s) and were completed a few years ago with Rocky Balboa (#6). The movies for me tracked with some life stages and the like. The movies are core as they are us in so many ways. We identify.
    There is a scene in the final movie which has a message lodged deep in my spirit. Rocky is talking with his son outside of Rocky’s restaurant. His son does not want him to fight Mason “the line” Dixon a much younger fighter and the fight is a product of a computer generated fight between the old and the new.
    The line is classic and bears repeating here:
    Rocky: “The world is a mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees if you let it. It is not how many times you get hit that is important. Rather, it is how many times you get hit and GET BACK UP that is important (reasonably close paraphrase).
    God reveals truth in many forms…..this line is truth to me….and is a microcosm of what keeps me going at times!
    Thanks for sharing….I recently caught parts of two of the movies as well!

    • “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can GET hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward.”

      What a wonderful way to sum up life and describe Rocky’s approach to boxing at the same time.

      I absolutely love that speech. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

      • Thank you…a while back I used it on my blog as well! I needed to hear that today!!!

  • La McCoy

    Love this!

  • Rafael

    Great content! If you can check my blog too: “www.rolecake.blogspot.co.uk”. Thanks