Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?

The audience must know that this hero is the sort of person who actively pursues things. Heroes are often literally active in the first scene: jogging, swimming, bicycling, playing tennis, etc. Assure your audience as quickly as possible that the character is going to be active, both literally and figuratively. 

Sometimes the hero will begin by doing something cool or admirable, but it can also work well to have a character pursuing something active that makes him look bad. Amiable goof Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything wants to be a kickboxing champion until he unexpectedly gets a date with the girl of his dreams and changes all of his goals. Even though his kickboxing spiel sounds very loserish, it’s actually far more appealing than if he simply said, “Eh, I don’t know what I want to do yet.” We like him because he wants something, even if we think what he wants is dumb.

You might assume the audience will more easily root for a smart hero who can see all the angles and who would therefore rather do nothing than act rashly, but they actually hate heroes like that. Nobody wants to watch somebody do nothing. The audience wants to be reassured right away that heroes aren’t passive sticks-in-the-mud. Many weak heroes never take the initiative. Nothing is ever their idea, good or bad.

In a lot of stories, and especially in comedies, you have heroes who are plunged into over-the-top situations where everybody wants them to do something wild and stupid. Stupid isn’t sympathetic, right? So you show how smart your hero is by having him tell everybody else that they should be sensible, right? Nope.

For instance, Ted Mosby is the titular hero of How I Met Your Mother, but he’s by far the least likable character because he’s a scold, and audiences get irritated with scolds. We like heroes who dive in enthusiastically and then make plans on the fly.

Defiance is usually good, but one problem with Ted is that he says no to his friends’ schemes even though he has nothing more interesting to propose. He doesn’t want to play laser tag with Barney, but he wants to sit around his apartment? Playing laser tag certainly is a dumb way for grown men to spend an evening, but it’s better than nothing, so we’re always going to be on Barney’s side. The writers failed to give Ted his own alternate set of enthusiasms.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Sort of: He bicycles to work.


YES. She’s trying to figure out where they are.

An Education

YES. she’s studying hard, lugging her cello around, etc.

The Babadook

YES. She’s trying to sleep.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s laying track. 

Blue Velvet

NO. He’s aimless.

The Bourne Identity

YES.  Follow the information on the implant to find out who he is.


YES. having sex, then working out in the park. 


NO. He seems half-awake.  Of course, we gradually realize that he doing a tense and skillful juggling act any time his club is open.


YES. He’s in a meeting with a client

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he’s trying to get in good with Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

YES. He’s counting his money.

The Farewell

YES. Sort of, she’s walking through the streets talking on the cell phone with her grandma. 

The Fighter

YES. He’s paving and sparring.


YES. She’s waking up her sister and then playing in the snow. We know Anna is the hero because it’s her waking Elsa up and not vice versa.  

The Fugitive

NO. He’s very passive for as long as possible.  He refuses to engage 

Get Out

YES. Sort of: He’s shaving. 

Groundhog Day

Somewhat. He’s on his feet doing the weather report. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. he’s running around trying to join a dragon fight. 

In a Lonely Place

YES. he’s on his way to meeting about a job.

Iron Man

YES. Yeah, he gives a great presentation.

Lady Bird

YES. She jumps out of a car. 

Raising Arizona

YES. he’s pursuing Ed as much as he can during their brief encounters.


YES. He’s head of a dozen clubs.  He producing his play.


YES. Just slightly active: He’s trying to tie an ascot.  

The Shining

YES. Jack: yes, trying to get the job.  Danny: no.


NO. He shows up late. He’s a lazy guy.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She’s literally running, jumping and climbing trees!

Star Wars

YES. He’s always angling to get off the planet.  Even getting and fixing the droids is part of his plan to replace himself so he can leave. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he’s trying to keep his car.


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