Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?

But 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 (or sometimes just in muttered asides). 

It’s funny that what we consider sympathetic in a hero is very different from what we find sympathetic in real life. We want our friends to be sensible, but we have very little patience for sensibility in fiction. We want our heroes to be willful. This doesn’t mean that every hero needs to be brashly defiant. There are a lot of ways for heroes to stand up for themselves.
  • Sometimes, yes, heroes will engage in angry confrontation. 
  • Other times, they subtly mock or impeach what the other character is saying. 
  • Sometimes they’ll just quietly and brazenly ignore all opposition, which is a more direct type of defiance. 
  • Weaker characters may acquiesce but mutter sarcastic asides as they do it. 
  • In some cases, heroes fail to stand up for themselves, but they at least get their own say in first-person narration or voice-over. If characters won’t hold their own in person, they at least let us know about their defiance. 
But if you don’t want your heroes to be compliant, how do you straighten them out? After all, they have big flaws. Don’t they need to accept a lot of good advice? No, they need to reject a lot of bad advice. In a great scene from the classic drama Hill Street Blues, the chief desperately seeks out his AA sponsor, hoping to be convinced not to relapse. He finds the sponsor at a restaurant, where the sponsor unexpectedly mocks the program and our hero’s problems. Then the waitress brings out that drink the sponsor ordered. Our hero has seen what a relapse looks like, and that’s what he really needed. Rejecting bad advice is far more powerful for him than accepting good advice.

Our urge to see heroes defy authority can go to ludicrous extremes. The producers of 24 joked that whenever a script came in short, they had one stock scene they could use repeatedly because the audience would love it every time. Before President Palmer took whatever action he had decided to take, they’d have one of his aides run up to him and say, “Mr. President, wait! We just got some new poll numbers about this issue, and everybody disagrees with what you’re about to do!” Palmer would consider this gravely for about five seconds, then issue a stentorian statement: “I don’t care if they impeach me—it’s the right thing to do.” With that, he would boldly stride off into the situation room while his aide’s mouth hung agape.

Is this how we want a president to act in real life? Absolutely not. In real life, when presidents double down on their current agenda, even after the polls are screaming for them to reverse course, the American people become dispirited and depressed, and we blame their intransigence on corruption. But in our fiction, it’s a different story.

Compare this to later seasons of 24, in which President Palmer’s more pliable, poll-following brother inherited the Oval Office. He was perfectly nice, but the audience hated that guy. We all dream of saying no to our boss, and we want our fictional heroes to live that dream, even if the hero’s boss happens to be the American people.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. “I’m tired of saying the word ‘pussy’!”


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.

An Education

YES. In muttered sarcastic asides, yes.

The Babadook

YES. Very directly.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Gladly.  And when it’s not safe to tell them that to their face, he turns to us and tells us.

Blue Velvet

NO.  He’s polite and softspoken, hiding his internal turmoil. 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 Bourne Identity

YES. He’s reluctant to speak up, but quick to act, so he’s assertive in his own way.


YES. in a petulant-mumbled-aside kind of way.


YES. he has a razor-sharp rapier wit


YES. Very much so.  He’s openky surly and defiant of everyone. 

Donnie Brasco

Yes and no.  In the mob, he 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.  Outside the mob, however, he’s quick to complain and mock his bosses’ incompetence.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Yes, he stands up to both Pino and Buggin’ Out, trying to chill them both out.

The Farewell

YES. Many times

The Fighter

Yes and no.  He’s very reluctant to, but he speaks up for himself at several key points. 


YES. Sort of.  Like so many heroines, she is the master of the muttered aside. 

The Fugitive

YES. Not verbally, but he pointed refuses to stop doing what he’s doing whenever others tell him to back off.  

Get Out

YES. He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Constantly. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. but only in muttered asides. 

In a Lonely Place

YES. Very much so, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. He verbally humiliates friends and enemies alike. 

Lady Bird

YES. Not so much with her friend (which is good), but certainly with her family. 

Raising Arizona

NO. he’s reluctant to criticize




YES. He’s an expert at standing up for himself while still molifying his opponent, whether it be SNCC or Johnson.  

The Shining

YES. Jack, yes: he’s a snapping, snarling beast.  Danny: no.


YES. He has a withering, sharp wit. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Stands up for herself in a humble but definite way.

Star Wars

YES. He doesn’t boast about the force, but he certainly boasts about his home-grown shooting abilities.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he has a razor-sharp rapier wit.

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