Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on?

An epic post!  I’ve  basically expanded this question into a whole book (coming soon!), and you can see me doing that in the many posts that I’ve appended to the end of this question...

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running and start dumping problems on their heads until they’re ready to stand up and do something about it. But you can’t assume that the audience will automatically bond with your heroes just because they're told to identify with them. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your heroes, for all the reasons listed in chapter two. 

The audience won’t go anywhere with your heroes until they win them over. Logically they know this is fiction and they shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome their resistance and make them care against their better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond the audience to the hero. This is the moment the audience forgets that they are watching or reading fiction and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:

Something Funny: This is easiest to do in first-person novels, of course, where the hero can win over the audience on the first page with a snarky point of view. In movies, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond the audience to characters who are scared to be funny out loud but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voice-over, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where the audience realizes this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: How is it possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? It takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes”: something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes.

Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Humvee with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about gang signs in selfies.

Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “save-the-cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience. The best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments.

Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off him. Blake Snyder cites this as a clear-cut “save-the-cat” moment, but it’s important to point out that it only works because it’s out of character. If he had stolen the bread for the kids, we wouldn’t like him as much. That would be more sympathetic but less compelling.

Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in The Hunger Games because she feels she’s already hardened herself, and whether or not she survives the Games, she doesn’t want her innocent sister to lose her humanity as well.

An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursue a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie. 
  • Blazing Saddles: Track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick out of You.” We now love this guy. 
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh-at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is hurt by the fact that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship. 
  • The hero of Rushmore daydreams he is a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality. 
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so it appears that she woke up looking beautiful. 
A Unique But Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done but have never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: Our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror. 
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of The Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s busy working an assembly line and can’t take his hands off for a second—not even to scratch his nose. 
  • William Goldman, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, writes about how nobody was bonding with the hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off, and reuses it. Suddenly, the audience is ready to go anywhere with this guy. 
  • In the case of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique but universal moment I never thought I'd see portrayed onscreen. 
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this person,” before they give up and tune out.

Rulebook Casefile: The Writer Gives the Villain Her Humanity in “Lady Bird”

One thing made me a bit uneasy about “Lady Bird” as I watched it. Kyle (Timothy Chalamet) is the movie’s caddish villain, but we first meet him reading “A People’s History of the United States” and we know he’s getting his hooks into the heroine when she reads it too. Later, when she accuses him of tricking her into sex, he attempts to change the subject by saying, “Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since the invasion in Iraq started?” (And Lady Bird wisely says “SHUT UP. Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.”)

But I watched and thought “Hey, I was the kid who loved that book, and I opposed the previous Iraq war when I was in high school …Am I the bad guy here?” But I could tell the movie wasn’t really saying that, so I wasn’t really put off.

Nevertheless, I was gratified when, in the DVD documentary, Greta Gerwig recounts a conversation she had with Chalamet, after she made him read a lot of political stuff to prepare for the role:

“And then he came back and he said, ‘You love this stuff!’ And then we had this whole joke, he was like, ‘The funny thing is that everyone will think that you’re Lady Bird, but actually, you’re Kyle,’ and I was like, ‘It’s true!’ Like when he says that thing about putting cell phones in our brains, I’ve definitely said things like that.”

It’s always good to raid your own life for specific details and gift them to your characters to make them come alive. Obviously, in an autobiographical coming of age story, Gerwig is going to give most of her personal details to her heroine, but she saves some for the other characters as well, even the villain—especially the villain, who is the easiest character to lose the humanity of.

I’ve talked before about how, in the opinion of actor Ronny Cox, all four men in “Deliverance” were aspects of novelist/screenwriter James Dickey. Every character needs humanity if they’re going to come alive, and there’s no better source of humanity than yourself. Thankfully, you contain multitudes. There are many people within you, so you can spread your humanity around.

Rulebook Casefile: The Effortless Moment of Humanity in the “Scandal” Pilot

Olivia is the main character of “Scandal”, so they pilot gives her a bad-ass hyper-competent “I want to be her” introduction, but Quinn is our POV character, so she also needs a great intro, and unlike Olivia, Quinn’s intro should be something more off-hand and relateable. Something that makes us say, “She’s fun, like me.”

When rewatching The Fugitive, I marveled at the fact that we basically love Tommy Lee Jones after he says one (personality-filled) sentence: “My my my my my my my, what a mess,” but I asked myself if that line would be as appealing in the mouth of someone other than Tommy Lee Jones, and I can’t tell for sure.

Rhimes, on the other hand, had created a name-brand of appealingly snarky dialogue that can be hand-crafted for every actor and situation. She makes it looks effortless, but it’s actually a very tricky business:
  • You don’t want it to sound canned, as if you stayed up all night thinking of the perfect line. 
  • You don’t want the other character to helpfully set-up the witty retort, or it’ll seem too easy. 
  • It needs to sound tossed off, without the character putting too fine a point on it. 
  • Most importantly (and this is what most shows get wrong), you don’t want it to be totally lacking in empathy. As the always-great Jason Pargin points out here: most “witty banter” actually just consists of incomprehensible cruelty and the audience is simply supposed to ignore that. 
Rhimes is more sophisticated than that. She gives her sympathetic characters a tart-but-not-bitter wit that doesn’t alienate us. Here’s a shortened version of Quinn’s introduction:
  • Harrison: What are you drinking? 
  • Quinn: I can't stay is what I'm saying. I don't do blind dates. 
  • Harrison: My parents met on a blind date. They've been inseparable ever since. 
  • Quinn: I'm happy for your parents, and for you, because it means you exist, but I don’t do blind dates. 
  • Harrison: This isn’t a blind date. 
  • Quinn: What? 
  • Harrison: It’s a job interview. What are you drinking? 
Quinn remains vulnerable and nervous, and Harrison maintains control of the scene, but Quinn’s quick automatic “because it means you exist” convinces us that she’s our type of person: naturally funny and willing to stand up for herself even when she’s feeling awkward. This type of dialogue is literally worth millions.

Rulebook Casefile: The Vainglorious Moment of Humanity in “How I Met Your Mother”

So if there are so many things wrong with Ted, why doesn’t the audience reject him right away? Well, let’s look for the moment of humanity. As in so many other areas, Ted also seems to fail this checklist item:
  • He doesn’t get off any intentionally funny lines…that’s Barney’s job. 
  • He doesn’t come off as especially kind…that’s Marshall’s job. 
  • He doesn’t have an oddball moment…that’s more something Lily tends to have. 
  • He doesn’t have any out-of-chraracter moments yet…though it probably would have been good to give him a an out-of-character flash of bad-assery to make us like him more. 
  • He doesn’t really have a unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment in the pilot. 
This leaves one more type of MOH that I added to both checklists a while ago but I’ve never mentioned elsewhere on the blog: the comically vain moment. The usually takes the form of exaggerated preening or mirror-prep that reminds us of our own vanities/insecurities, but here it takes a different form: a vainglorious vision of one’s own future. When Barney introduces Ted to a beautiful Lebanese girl, Ted quickly finds himself launching into this:
  • TED: Here’s how it breaks down: I’m 27 now. I’ll make partner at my architecture firm by 30, so that’s when I’ll start looking. It’ll take two years to meet her, that’s 32. We date for a year, and at 33, I propose. Then you need a year to book a room and a decent band. That puts me married at 34. So, yeah, marriage is the furthest thing from my mind right now. 
This is, in its way, appealing. This is an exaggerated version of something we all do. It’s telling that Ted’s MOH is of the laugh-at, not laugh-with variety, but it gets the job done: it establishes his vulnerability, his social problem, his inner flaw, and, yes, his charm, such as it is, all in one speech.

Straying From the Party Line: The Muted Hero of Alien

This movie somehow manages to be both an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter and a quiet, almost meditative tone-poem. How does it pull that off? Deviations: Our heroine is not volatile, not physically active, not misunderstood, and her dialogue isn’t bouncy.

The Potential Problem: Most viewers of this movie don’t even realize that super-still, whisper-quiet Ripley is the hero until halfway through when the male captain dies, leaving her in charge, where she finally shows some badassery. One consequence is that the viewer doesn’t identify with Ripley until very late. We’re not experiencing the first half of the movie from her point-of-view…or anyone’s. Instead of identifying with any one character, we’re floating in space, where no character can hear us scream. (This totally violates Monday’s rule: “All Events must be Character Events”)

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. The chilliness of the movie’s point-of-view plays into the tone and theme. What makes it work is that we do eventually identify with Ripley because, on a subtle lever, she does have a full arc, it’s just very muted: she’s the one who’s the most loyal to the company and to protocol—She defends the company against the complaints of Brett and Lambert, she alone tries to maintain quarantine, etc. She’s also the most adaptable: only she is equally at home in the bowels of the ship and on deck. When she realizes that the company, as represented by the cyborg Ash, is willing to sacrifice them all, she’s the one who has to do something that’s hard to want to do: ignore protocol, blow up the ship she’s in charge of, and shoot the company’s prized specimen into space. (As for violating the “character events” rule, I think Alien gets away with that, barely, because it’s a movie, not TV, so it can be more event-focused, rather than character-focused.)

Straying from the Party Line, The Bourne Identity: There is no Moment of Humanity

This is odd, because the character is intensely likable, right from the start, but I couldn't find any one “I like this guy” moment until at least a half-hour in. Instead, our hero is the ultimate everyman: he might as well be our video game avatar, he literally knows nothing we don’t know about who he is or where he is. He’s not charming or funny, or even very odd. He’s just believably devastated and freaked out. 

The Problem: Paradoxically, this sort of total audience identification is usually off-putting. We want to bond by getting to know a hero, piecing him together from dozens of personal details and idiosyncratic behaviors. We won’t recognize most of those details from our own lives, but, to the degree that they create a convincing whole, we will appreciate the intimacy that comes from seeing a realistic person in person in full, both publicly and privately.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, but it’s a huge cheat: they cast a preternaturally charming actor. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy was baffled and dispirited when he found out that they intended to cast Matt Damon, a baby-faced young star who had never made an action movie, but then he was glad to be totally proven wrong: Only an actor with Damon’s talent for guileless charm could have carried us through the opening third of the movie, until Bourne’s personal qualities begin to re-assert themselves, and he finally re-gains a bit of his metaphor family in the truckstop scene (“I come in here and the first thing I’m doing is catching the sightlines…I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.”) At that point we begin to see that there’s a compelling person lurking underneath the blank persona.

This also speaks to the importance of resourcefulness to likability. Bourne has less personality than most heroes, but he’s maybe the most resourceful character we’ve ever seen onscreen. In his commentary, Liman talks a lot about Bourne’s extreme conservation of movement, ability to scan a room, and his use of every part of his environment, which he and Damon planned out down to the smallest detail.

At one point, Bourne is trying to get out of the embassy and runs around a corner, then comes back and yanks an evacuation plan off the wall so that he’ll have a map. That can be as thrilling to watch as the punching, and Liman makes it clear how important moments like that were to him in building the character. At the very least, Bourne’s abilities fascinate us so much that we’re willing to wait for bits of his actual personality to start re-emerging in the truckstop scene.

Straying from the Party Line: Anna’s Unusual Moments of Humanity in Frozen

At what point do we decide that we love Anna in Frozen? It’s not the first shot, waking her sister up to make her make a snowman, where she’s cute, but kind of annoying, and it’s certain not the next scene, where Anna causes her own injury by leaping around recklessly. And yet, by the end of the next song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, we love her.

So what’s the moment during that song? Well, I think it’s split. Usually, when we have a “moment of humanity”, it’s an appealing moment: a moment where the hero is funny, or kind, or appealingly odd, or out-of-character in a cheer-for sort of way, or comically vain. Other times, it’s a little unique-but-universal moment, where the hero does something we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, but even here, it’s usually a moment we find amusing, such as the ones listed in the linked post.

Eventually, we’ll be given lots of reasons to love Anna, but I think that the first moment we love her is unusual: it’s a sad unique-but-universal moment. In the first scene, we see that 5-year-old Anna could push her older sister around and cajole her into making snowmen even when Elsa didn’t want to. After Elsa gets locked up, Anna keeps asking Elsa to make snowmen, but Elsa won’t come out. Then Anna says something totally heartbreaking: “Do you want to build a snowman? [no answer] It doesn’t have to be a snowman... [no answer] Okay, bye…”

You don’t have to have an older sibling to see how universal this moment is. And what makes it so heartbreaking is that Anna is used to having the upper hand. In the past, it had to be a snowman and she would brook no opposition, but now she bends on that before she breaks (It doesn’t have to be a snowman) and it’s that bending that really breaks my heart.

But there are dangers with beginning with a sad moment. Let’s return one last time to that Scriptnotes podcast, where they discuss the fact that the song was too depressing this early in the movie:
  • Jennifer Lee: And then how she would throw herself over furniture and that her friends are these portraits. All of that setup is what made us be able to save the song because we were all like “I want to kill myself” by the end of that song because it was so like — 
  • Aline Brosh McKenna: So you made it less sad by making her sort of an imp. 
  • Jennifer: Yes. And saying this is the girl that you’re going to go on the journey with. These are things about her that you can laugh in her loneliness, I mean, and that’s very Anna. But that was the hardest, I mean, a lot of songs came and went, but that one was the one we all believed in and couldn’t make work for the longest time. And it was because it was so much. It had to do so much. 
So they leavened this moment with some more traditional moments of humanity in the song, where Anna humorously interacts with the paintings in the palace. It’s dangerous to start with a downbeat unique-but-universal moment, no matter how compelling it is, because, as Lee says, we have to want to go on a journey with this character.

Postscript: Universal-But-Not-Unique Moments in Frozen

Before we move on, let’s look at some later attempts to add additional moments of humanity that land a little awkwardly. After that song ends, we see Anna wake up in the morning looking with terrible hair, only to find out that it’s inauguration day and prance through the palace singing a new song. In that song, she clumsily breaks stuff and she feels the urge to stuff some chocolate in her face.

These moments are all fine, but you could call them universal-but-not-unique moments. They work fine for kids, but the adults who are also watching the movie have seen them in a dozen romantic comedies. They’re likable enough, but they take us out of the movie, because they’re overly familiar, and they feel manipulative. They remind us of other stories, instead of real life, so these are the sorts of moments you should not fall back on. Find universal moments that are more unique, so we are startled by the reality of your characters, instead of thinking “Oh, they’re trying to get me to like her.”

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Unique-but-universal: erection


NO. not at all.  She doesn’t really stand out until she refuses to let them back on the ship.  We don’t realize that she’s the hero halfway through.

An Education

YES.  Funny: her sarcastic put-downs of her father.

The Babadook

YES. Her loving-but-bemused smile when she opens the closet and looks under the bed to show him that there’s no monster.  

Blazing Saddles

YES. Oddball: He sings “I Get a Kick Out of You” instead of a spiritual.

Blue Velvet

YES. Lots of oddball moments.  Just the way he says “I found an ear.”  When he shows Sandy the chicken walk.

The Bourne Identity

NO. Oddly, not that I can identify, although he’s very sympathetic.  Lacking all of those things, his likability is based entirely on two things: the pity of his plight and his extreme resourcefulness.  The rest is all due to the casting of Damon, with his open, honest, kind face, he imputes all of those MOH qualities to the character (whereas, based just on the script, he could have been a bland badass)


YES. Bad sex, making herself up before pretending to wake up, getting kicked out of the park, her penis impression, putting food on her teeth when talking to her friend.


YES. His funny insults to Ugarte.  Or when he stands up for Sam.


YES. Only somewhat. His exasperation with his cuckolded clients is somewhat amusing.  The movie makes up for its lack of hero-identification by making him extra-resourceful.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  A few.  His humor in the fugazi scene. His desire to just hear his wife breathe.  His amusement that both bosses want him shave his mustache off.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Goofy: “Don’t ya love your brother Mookie anymore?  I loves ya Jade.” Then bold: Yells “Hell no!” to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Farewell

YES. On the phone with her grandma, she lies that she’s wearing a hat to stay warm enough.  Her grandma then warns her that in New York criminals will rip your earrings right out of your ears.  She signs a petition on the street to save marine life just out of pity for the woman asking for signatures, then has a friendly conversation about how she used to have that job, and admits she quit before she could be fired. 

The Fighter

YES. He joke-fights with his brother while paving streets, then high-fives some black people, kisses a mentally challenged kid. Funny: you gotta pay them to shut up.


YES. She has many, but no one big one.  I would say it’s the unique-but-universal emotion of being shut out by someone who used to let you call the shots, and saying “It doesn’t have to be a snowman”  I’ll talk more about this soon.

The Fugitive

Just barely, when his wife says that he always looks sexy in a tux, and he winces and says he always feels like a waiter in one.  

Get Out

YES. He admires himself in the mirror, then knicks himself shaving, which is comically vain.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He’s a funny, friendly broadcaster onscreen, then he calls his co-worker “hairdo” off-screen, and we like both sides of him, at first.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He makes a lot of funny self-deprecating wisecracks in the opening voice-over.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he’s funny with the kids, kind to the drunk.

Iron Man

YES. Funny and kind: he cracks jokes in the jeep with the soldiers, knows their names, jokes about them throwing up gang signs in pictures. (In on the joke despite high status)

Lady Bird

YES. She’s mildly funny (saying her brother barely saw the knifing that caused her to be taken out of public school) and vain in a mildly comic way (insisting on her made-up name and saying “I want to go where culture is, like New York.  Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire.  Where writers live in the woods.”)

Raising Arizona

YES. Funny narration, compassion towards Ed, out-of-character hatred then respect towards Reagan. 


YES. Comically vain: imagining himself in math class, chatting with the dean and funder, etc.


Only sort of.  King struggles with his ascot and says “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll get a good laugh.”  It humanizes him enough for us to care about him, but we never really have a moment of “Oh, he’s just a normal guy like us” The movie never really pierces that historical-figure-gravity.  DuVernay decides she just won’t bring King down to our level.  It’s an understandable choice, but I wonder if it hurt the movie’s appeal to audiences (or cost Oyelowo his nomination)

The Shining

Jack: No.  Danny: Tony seems like a fun quirk early on.


YES. Hmm…I think we need a new category: the moment of chutzpah. We admire his careless contempt for the people calling him to show up the party. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. An out-of-character moment of vanity: corrects Crawford on her grade. Kind: she reminds him that she confronted him about the bureau’s record on race.

Star Wars

This is tricky, because the hero’s introductory scene was cut. Why is Luke so likeable?  He’s petulant and whiny, not kind, not very funny. We like his wisecracking, his curiosity, his dreamer quality, and his very universal quality of frustration at living in a remote rural area. As with Downhill Racer, we come to like him the most when he looks off into the distance at sunset.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he’s funny with the repo men. “You say the cutest things.”

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