Monday, November 08, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?

All of us see ourselves as having hidden dimensions. Therefore, we identify with heroes who feel misunderstood. Why are superheroes compelling? Because of their secret identities. Batman is an avenger and a playboy. Spider-Man is a wisecracking vigilante and a nervous nerd. Superman, when written well, is a superconfident savior and a humble bumbler. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cheerleader and a vampire hunter.

Wolverine doesn’t have a secret identity, but he’s still a contradiction in that he’s a rude, crude killing machine who is secretly sensitive and honorable. His teammate Cyclops, on the other hand, is exactly what he appears to be: He’s a sullen do-gooder on the outside and a sullen do-gooder on the inside, too. As a result, he’s never been very compelling in the comics or the movies.

Superheroes are the most extreme example, but in every genre, heroes and villains become far more compelling if they embody an inherent contradiction. Dracula is an erotic monster. Equally compelling, Frankenstein is an innocent monster. Jason from the Friday the 13th movies, on the other hand, is exactly what he seems.

Character contradictions are important no matter the genre, but in character studies and small stories, they become absolutely essential, because the hero’s contradiction is often your only story hook.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden made one of the best movies of 2006, Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling as an idealistic schoolteacher who is secretly a crack addict. Fleck and Boden returned two years later with Sugar, an admirable but unmemorable movie about a Dominican baseball player in Middle America. Miguel, their main character, is in an unfortunate situation, stuck in farm teams in farm towns where he doesn’t fit in, but he offers no internal contradictions. His whole personality is “lonely Dominican ball player.” The movie just doesn’t work. You can’t write a character study about a character who has no compelling contradictions.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  He’s a painfully shy virgin


NO. Not really.

An Education

YES.  She’s fed up with her life, ready to experiment.

The Babadook

YES. She has a potential for violence, repressed sexuality.

Blazing Saddles

Yes and no.  For the most part, what you see is what you get, and Bart is remarkably untroubled by his plight, but when we see the scene where he takes himself hostage, it’s hard not to think about W.E.B. DeBois’s description of “double-consciousness” 

Blue Velvet

YES.  the creepy voyeur.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he’s conflicted and broken.


YES. A depressed, lonely person who no longer bakes.


YES. Heartbroken romantic


YES. A bitter ex-cop, totured by his failures.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  in the mob: undercover Fed, outside the mob: morally compromised lost soul

Do the Right Thing

YES. Simmering rage and irreconcilable contradictions. 

The Farewell

YES. She’s hiding the fact that she didn’t get a Guggenheim fellowship and feels like a failure. 

The Fighter

YES. He’s ready to break out.  


YES. She’s tortured by her relationship by her sister and her suppressed sexuality.

The Fugitive

YES. An innocent and good man.

Get Out

YES. He blames himself for his mother’s death and he fears everyone is out to get him.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He’s bitterly depressed.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He’s actually the only one who can take down a night fury.

In a Lonely Place

Somewhat, he’s a better person than he seems to be, since he stands up for the drunk and secretly sends flowers to dead girl.

Iron Man

 Somewhat: people pretty much have his number, but he’s more down to earth than you would think. You could argue that he always had a conflicted guilty conscience underneath, but you could also make the case that he hasn’t had any qualms until this disaster.

Lady Bird

YES. She secretly loves Sacramento and her mom.

Raising Arizona

YES. The sweet do-gooder husband.


YES. The failing lost soul


YES. Weary, adulterous-but-committed family man.

The Shining

NO. Jack thinks so, but he’s wrong: they’ve got him pegged.  Danny has a dark power.


YES. He actually knows that he’s not good enough to be a writer, and he’s hiding a lot of darkness and bitterness. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Has strengths and weakness that others can’t see.

Star Wars

YES. The would-be galactic adventurer

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he’s really hollow inside.  

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