heroes need to have a lot of personality, and I wrote a whole series about how each hero must be surrounded by characters that sorely lack the hero’s most valuable quality. I’ve also written about how the hero can’t just agree with everybody, and how taking good advice is never as strong as rejecting bad advice.
…But somehow, even with all of that advice, I still found myself creating characters that are too flat. I finally realized that, no matter how uniquely valuable the hero is, or how much personality her or she exuded when spoken to, it needed something more: A hero must feel compelled to insert his or her personality into everyday situations.
Another way to put this is that the hero must have an active personality, not a passive personality. It’s not enough to stand out from the crowd simply as a counterexample. Most heroes should feel compelled to point out the flaws of those around them, either loudly or quietly (and sometimes just in muttered asides).
Let’s data-mine, shall we? In each of the 15 movies we’ve looked at, does the hero feel compelled to let others know that they lack his or her most valuable quality?
In 8 of the movies, the answer is a resounding yes. The heroes of Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, and In a Lonely Place have a razor-sharp rapier wit, Jack in The Shining is a snapping, snarling beast, and the heroes of Groundhog Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Iron Man are all sarcastic in a blunt-but-witty way.
But those are all men, so what about the women? All four female heroes were less vocal about their disagreements than those eight men. Are the women compelled to let others know how their perspective?
- Alien: Sort of. She’s very hesitant to speak up at first, to the degree that we don’t even guess she’s the ultimate hero. She lets herself be steamrolled over when she tries to maintain quarantine, for instance…but she gradually becomes more and more assertive as she grows into her hero role.
- Silence of the Lambs: Yes, but very respectfully. She’s very deferential to her mentor Crawford, but she cannot resist correcting him about his recollection of the grade he gave her. He then recalls that she confronted him in that class about the Bureau’s record on civil rights. These moments happen just when we’ve just begun to worry that she’ll be too meek to invest our hopes in. We let out a little “Whew!” because we’ve been reassured that this hero is at least a little vocally assertive, which is all we really need.
- An Education: Yes, in a snide-mumbled-aside kind of way.
- Bridesmaids: Yes, in a petulant-mumbled-aside kind of way.
- Jeffrey in Blue Velvet is even more polite and softspoken than the ladies listed above. He certainly has qualities that those around him lack, but he’s in no hurry to let them know that out loud. His roiling internal contradictions become clear to us through his shocking actions, not because he speaks up to share his unique point of view.
- The title character in Donnie Brasco also lacks a forceful personality. This is in fact the secret of his success: his ability to blend into the background. He mostly keeps his own counsel until directly confronted.
- The hero of The Bourne Identity is reluctant to speak up, but quick to act, so he’s assertive in his own way.