You need to ask yourself, What are the rules they live by? Every character has these, though most don’t state them out loud the way John Wayne does in The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” In Margin Call, Jeremy Irons has a far more cynical philosophy: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.”
Stick to what the people would actually say if asked. Nothing like “I can’t stand germs,” or “I don’t like kids,” or “I’ll never get off the couch.” Those may be the real rules that actually define a character, but the purpose of this exercise is to get to know their self-image.
Once you’ve got your rules, you can start playing with them. Which rules are they forced to break over the course of the story? Which ones should they break but are too proud to do so? Which rules are they just deluding themselves about, since they’ve never really followed them?
The advantage of listing these rules is that doing so forces you to listen to your characters and allow them to define themselves. It’s easy for characters to become just a bundle of flaws: a false goal, a false statement of philosophy, a limited perspective, and a long host of ironic failings. But they don’t know that. They’re just living their lives, doing their own things in their own time, so you need to know what those things are, as they see it.
Rulebook Casefile: The Hero Should Have Three Rules He Lives By in Selma
King doesn’t know karate, and he never uses a blowtorch to build himself a tank. In his case, his specials skills overlap with another thing it’s good for every hero to have, three rules he lives by: “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.” He has learned these rules slowly and painfully, over the course of some campaigns that failed and others that succeeded. They are pithy and definitively stated. He will brook no counterproposals.
Obviously, not every great hero has a list of three they enumerate, but many do, and most heroes have a list like this implied if not stated. This fits into another thing most heroes have, a default argument tactic. Heroes should be specific, both so that we believe in their reality and so that we can invest our hopes in them alone: Specific language, specific tactics, specific ethos.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Keep your head down, avoid conflict, avoid women.
YES. Stick to procedure, do it myself, I deserve respect.
YES. Study hard, be smarter than others, get ahead, but she rejects #1 early on.
YES. I can handle it, don’t tell me how to raise my son, look forward.
YES. Implied: I can win anybody over, I’ll shake it off, There’s a smarter way to do this.
YES. Look under rocks, you only live once, I can get away with anything
The Bourne Identity
YES. identify the exits, identify the threats, avoid capture
NO. Not really. She doesn’t really have much of a self-image, or self-esteem, or set of principles. Maybe: “I deserve better.” (The most self-destructive rule one can have)
YES. Don’t get involved, everything is amusing, don’t buy and sell human beings.
YES. Respect the client, don’t accept being lied to, be superior.
YES. “Don’t say nothing unless there’s a reason for it.” Always stay in character. Be the colder one.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Gotta get paid, don’t mess up my business, don’t put up with mistreatment
YES. Truth is better than lies, action is better than inaction, the American way is better than the Chinese way.
YES. “I’m no stepping stone, that’s not who I am, the next one’s gonna show who I am.” Nobody better mess with my family. “I’m gonna pick my punches.” “I’m a boxer, not a brawler.”
YES. This’ll be easy, I need love quickly, I need Elsa. (The first two turn out to be problematic, but not the third one.)
YES. Figure it out, help others, rely on yourself.
YES. I can make this work, I am an observer, I shouldn’t be so paranoid.
Sort of: Be funny, tolerate no sentiment, I deserve a bigger spotlight
How to Train Your Dragon
NO. Not really. He’s very open to change. Just one, maybe, something like “I can build something to solve this.”
In a Lonely Place
YES. One day I’ll write something great, I won’t be insulted, I must never show my real emotions.
YES. Live well, be smarter, be cool
YES. “I don’t even want to go to school in this state anyway, I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast.”
NO. He thinks he does (he has vague notions about what it means to be a man) but in reality he gets pulled in different directions and talked out of things easily.
YES. Do more. Impress everyone. Prove I’m smarter.
YES. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.”
No, Jack’s lost and has no self-image. Danny doesn’t really either.
YES. “I AM NOT DRINKING MERLOT!” I’m too good for this (job/girl/situation), etc.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Be humble, work hard, get ahead
YES. I deserve better, I know what I’m doing, It can’t be that hard.
NO. He stands for nothing. He has no self-image.