Friday, December 03, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with?

It’s no secret that all heroes need a great flaw—that’s one piece of advice that goes all the way back to Aristotle. Let’s look at some of the reasons why: 
  • Flaws add conflict: The hero is his own worst enemy. 
  • Flaws add motivation: The hero has a big reason to change. 
  • Flaws generate sympathy: It’s easy to feel for a flawed hero. 
  • Flaws foster identification: The audience feels flawed and is more likely to identify with flaws than strengths. 
Great, so let’s add a lot of flaws, right? Well, not so fast. One of the biggest mistakes many stories make is to pile on the pathos with a shovel. In the interest of telling a “brutally realistic” story, they actually present a comically unrealistic amount of gloom and doom.

I began to despair the state of American independent cinema after sitting through a grueling one-two punch of Greenberg and Big Fan in one weekend. The protagonists of these movies are such overexaggerated screwups they literally can’t do anything right. Even when opportunity is staring them in the face, they are itchy, twitchy, belligerent, and incapable of pursuing their own self-interest. This makes them utterly unconvincing caricatures.

Their behavior is unbelievable, because in real life you can’t screw up all the time and get through your day. More important, such characters just aren’t compelling enough to hold an entire movie. It’s impossible to care about a main character who won’t meet you halfway.

But the writer of Big Fan also wrote a great movie called The Wrestler, which accurately captures the tragedy of the functional screwup: the stand-up guy who’s clever and charming but nevertheless persists in screwing up 5 percent of the time, which is enough to ruin his life. How many decisions do you make in a day? What if every twentieth decision was self-destructive? That’s all it would take, isn’t it? The Wrestler is tragic because Mickey Rourke’s character is screwing up a good thing. The heroes of Greenberg and Big Fan aren’t tragic at all because they’re just screwing up lives that are already hopelessly wretched.
Straying from the Party Line: The All-Powerful All-Confident Hero of “Blazing Saddles”
Bart in Blazing Saddles is a far more confident and powerful hero than we’re used to:
  • He shows no hesitation before happily strolling into this wildly dangerous situation.
  • We don’t find out a lot about his hopes/fears/questions.
  • He seems to be largely un-anxious and downright bemused by his extraordinary journey, except one brief moment of self-doubt at the exact midpoint, but even here, we can see on his face that he’s almost incapable of staying unhappy for more than five seconds.
  • He’s not especially vulnerable, physically or emotionally.
  • He experiences no gutpunch. No one ever confronts him about any flaws.
So why does it work? Bart is a type of hero we haven’t encountered yet: the trickster. The trickster has nearly omnipotent powers, and yet remains sympathetic because his struggles are not physical but social: he is destined to be an outcast.

As an almost-magical being with the confident ability to happily run circles around his haters, Bart’s most obvious literary antecedent is Bugs Bunny (He does an outright imitation at one point, complete with Bugs’s theme music.) * So why do we like Bugs? Because his opponents are trying to kill him for no reason. He’s an asshole, but all he wants is to be an asshole in peace, and they won’t let him. (By contrast, look at this early Bugs cartoon, in which he actually lures Elmer Fudd in, and we suddenly hate him.) Elmer and Yosemite Sam are rampaging gun-wielding killers (of the nervous and aggressive varieties), but they meet the one guy that can defeat them.

We identify with Bart despite his lack of external and internal weakness, simply because his enemies are so vile, his situation is so desperate (though he doesn’t show it), and his chances for ultimate acceptance is so non-existent.We cannot truly fear for him, but we can still pity him.

And then there’s another issue: he may not betray much anxiety, but it is there in the subtext. We’ll discuss that next time.

*But who was Bugs’s antecedent? Br’er rabbit of course. So now we have a Yoruba legend, transformed into a slave folk tale character, then mass-marketed by a white author writing in a black voice (Joel Chandler Harris), then transformed into a deracialized (but somewhat Jewishized) cartoon character (Bugs Bunny, as voiced by Mel Blank) then turned into a black western hero by a Jewish screenwriter (Andrew Bergman, author of the original screenplay), then transformed again by a black co-screenwriter (Richard Pryor) and black actor that had been brought in to restore some of the original trickster authenticity!

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  He’s shy.


YES, the same good instinct that led her to try to maintain quarantine causes her to be blind to Ash’s treachery until it’s almost too late.

An Education

YES. Duplicity, contempt, gullibility

The Babadook

YES. Denial of grief, resentment of her son.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s too sarcastic and lacks control over his anger. 

Blue Velvet

YES. for each: he’s voyeuristic, creepy, and morally slippery

The Bourne Identity

YES. he’s been dehumanized and snapped like a broken machine.


YES. She’s depressed, broke, and won’t let things go.


YES. he’s become too cold-blooded and apolitical.


YES. Too cold.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  He’s so dedicated that he abandons his family and beats up innocent people to preserve his cover.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Shiftless (takes forever on his deliveries, avoids his son and his son’s mother unless he wants sex)

The Farewell

YES. Ultimately the movie flips in the final title card, revealing that her flaw was her self-centered, western urge to tell the truth (which we had perceived to be a strength) 

The Fighter

YES. He’s too selfless.


YES. Naivite, haplessness

The Fugitive

YES. He’s naïve, about the justice system, about the politics of the medical world, etc.

Get Out

YES. He’s too much of a passive observer.

Groundhog Day

YES. Bitterness, passivity, bad predictions of future

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. His flaws are rather small, but he can be naïve and pessimistic.

In a Lonely Place

YES. his hostility cannot be controlled.

Iron Man

YES. He’s arrogant, sleazy, naïve, etc.

Lady Bird

YES. She’s vain, she betrays her friend in a quest to be cool.

Raising Arizona

YES. Criminal tendency, desire to take the easy path, perhaps a secret wish to return to jail.  As the brothers say, “Either way we’ll be set for life.”


YES. He’s vainglorious.


YES. We get several flaws, but he doesn’t really struggle to overcome them and the movie struggles with depicting them in a compelling way.  When his adultery is revealed, it comes out of left field and we certainly never see him struggling with staying chaste or anything like that.  Another possible flaw the movie seems to imply is his reticence to use his army, but the movie never really pulls that trigger, it’s just implied but never openly addressed. 

The Shining

YES. Jack has many flaws.  Danny is over-sensitive to evil, and spends the middle of the movie catatonic.


YES. Many: he’s a morose, duplicitous, unfaithful, hostile, and an alcoholic who steals from his mom.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She’s too humble, too much in denial about her past.

Star Wars

YES. Naïve and whiny.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he’s easily corruptible and passive. 

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