Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a default personality trait?

Metaphor families are a great way to decide what language a character will use, but it’s equally important to establish a default personality trait. 

To begin, let’s differentiate between three interrelated aspects of a hero’s personality:
  1. Their emotional state will change wildly from scene to scene. As your heroes go on the most momentous journey of their lives, they’ll quickly pass from frustration to joy to despair to triumph and everywhere in between. 
  2. Separate from their emotional state is their philosophy. Unlike emotional fluctuations, which happen in almost every scene, characters will engage in one big philosophical change over the course of the story: from selfish to bighearted, from innocent to cynical, from loner to joiner, etc. 
  3. Neither of these is the same as the character’s default personality trait. Because characters are in such an extreme state of flux, it’s tempting to simply declare that they have no fixed personality for the time being. After all, they’re questioning everything, so they’re hard to nail down. The danger is that no fixed personality quickly becomes no personality at all. You need to find a few hard-and-fast rules that always govern how a character talks, even as his emotional state varies and his general attitude shifts. 
Our emotions and attitudes may change, but our default personality trait stays the same. If a character’s default personality trait is gloomy, then you’ll always be able to identify that, even if the character happens to be happy today, because he will say something like, “I’m oddly happy today,” or “I’m happy for once.”

When you first meet people, it can be hard to tell the difference between their current emotional state and their default personality trait, but it becomes obvious over time. A certain overall aspect of their personality will always shine through, no matter what their mood or their current philosophy might be. Fictional characters should be the same way.

In Spartacus, the great Charles Laughton plays a bloated, cynical hedonist named Gracchus, who is more interested in aesthetic pleasures than the moralistic rhetoric of his fellow senators. But he discovers his conscience at the worst possible time—when he realizes it’s up to him to take a stand for democracy by martyring himself to protest the rise of tyranny. When we last see him, he picks out a knife to slit his wrists, but then he wrinkles his nose—the knife isn’t pretty enough. He chooses a more aesthetically pleasing knife, smiles, and then goes to the bathtub for a luxurious martyrdom.

By sacrificing himself, he’s doing something wildly out of character, but he still can’t shirk his default personality trait. Paradoxically, that’s why the audience accepts his change of heart. Gracchus has undergone a philosophical transformation, but his default trait remains the same. As a result, we still believe in his character, and his sacrifice becomes all the more powerful.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  A downer, lame joker, laughs at own jokes, overly specific in his descriptions


YES, resentful fuming.

An Education

YES. Coolly watchful and quietly sarcastic.

The Babadook

YES. Brittle

Blazing Saddles

YES. Sarcasm, charm, brilliance.

Blue Velvet

YES.  creepy placid optimism.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he’s honest, plainspoken, good-humored.


YES. She’s an eye roller. 


YES. Sharp-witted, breezy, withering sarcasm


YES. Cynical

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he ‘s sullen and resentful both at home and on the job.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Sullen

The Farewell

YES. Glum, which is a very alienating trait

The Fighter

YES. Meek, quiet, humble, seething


YES. Sunny, awkward

The Fugitive

YES. He’s anti-social, devoted, gruff, compassionate.

Get Out

YES. Leery but too much of a peace-maker to act on his fears. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Even after he becomes saintly, he’s still mildly sarcastic about it. He has the piano teacher kick the girl out so he can learn, he gets exasperated with the boy he saves for never thanking him. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He’s sarcastic and a pessimist, even when things are going well.

In a Lonely Place

YES. sarcasm

Iron Man

YES. Cockiness, charm

Lady Bird

YES. Her teacher then tells her “You have a performative streak”.  She’s overly dramatic, likeably shallow and vain.

Raising Arizona

YES. Mild, underreacting, put-upon


YES. Enthusiastic


YES. Brilliant, inspirational, steely, weary

The Shining

YES. Jack is testy and insincere.  Danny is meek.  


YES. Negativity.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Humility.

Star Wars

YES. Petulant, whiny, wisecracking

Sunset Boulevard

YES. bitter cynicism.

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