Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the hero generally resourceful?

You can’t tell the audience who the hero is; you need to show them. The audience chooses the hero, not the other way around. The audience will choose the character who is trying the hardest to get what he wants.

But just because we've has chosen a hero doesn’t mean we trust that hero. You can do everything else right but still lose us if you don’t give us what we crave: a moment where your hero does something clever that makes us say, “Okay, this hero is resourceful enough to care about!”

Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity is an example of a character who doesn’t really get a “moment of humanity,” simply because he has just woken up with amnesia and, as a result, has no real personality when the movie begins. So why do we bond with him? Because of the one aspect of his mind that he held onto: his extreme resourcefulness.

This goes way beyond being good in a fight. The moment where we really fall in love with him is when he’s trying to escape from an embassy and rips a fire evacuation plan off the wall so he’ll have a map of the place. We love loves to see something like that.

But you might protest: “Not every hero has to be Jason Bourne! Maybe my hero isn’t clever. Maybe he’s not even a hero. Maybe he’s just a fool. Can’t I tell a story about a fool?” The answer is yes, of course you can. But he has to be a resourceful fool.

How does that work? As my brother likes to point out, “It’s hard to make things foolproof because fools can be so clever.” If you think about this, it’s absolutely true. Nothing in this world is foolproof because resourceful fools always figure out some way to screw it up. If you’re going to write about a fool, that’s the kind of fool you want to write about.

As filmmakers go, you don’t get more admirably artsy than the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, who make beautifully observed but grueling portraits of pitiful figures who somehow manage to spiral even further down. Why are these movies so compelling, despite their painful subject matter? It’s because of the brothers’ ability to create great heroes. Of course, no one thinks of their characters as heroic, and certainly not clever, but in their own way, they are.

Bruno in The Child is an aimless junkie who discovers that his ex-girlfriend has just had his baby, so he immediately sells the child on the black market to get money for drugs. Later, he is truly shocked to see how upset she is, and he tries to get the baby back.

At one point in this process, Bruno is forced to wait in a back alley before the person inside will speak with him. There’s just one problem: Bruno can never wait around for anything. He can’t sit still for a second—that’s his entire problem. But he doesn’t whine about this problem. Instead he finds clever ways to solve it.

When he is told he must wait five minutes, we instantly sense that this is like a prison sentence to him. We share Bruno’s anxiety as he looks around desperately for something to do. Then he spots it: a mud puddle by a white wall. He goes over, soaks his boots in mud, then leaps up against the wall repeatedly, putting black boot prints all over the wall. This happily occupies him until they come to get him. Problem solved. Fools can be so clever.
We previous looked at another character with extreme resourcefulness: Jason Bourne. Bourne is a nice guy, but because of his memory problems, he doesn’t have enough of a personality to be fully likeable, so the filmmakers made up for it by having him be extra resourceful. We admire the resourcefulness so much that we don’t mind the lack of personality.

Jake Gittes, on the other hand, has lots of personality, it’s just not very likeable. Not only is he surly and cynical, his fatalism borders on passivity (he believes in caring “as little as possible”), which is never an appealing quality in a character. Once again, the filmmakers overcome these barriers to empathy by having the character be delightfully resourceful:
  • Jake gets tired of waiting for Hollis Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he has a bunch of cheap pocketwatches. He lays one behind one of Hollis’s tires and goes home. In the morning, he has one of his operatives fetch the smashed watch, which shows him which time Hollis left.
  • When Jake visits the new water commissioner Yelburton, he asks for his card. Later, Jakes wants to get past a police cordon into a reservoir, so he takes out the card and tells the officer that he’s Yelburton. The officer apologetically ushers him through.
  • Jake isn’t allowed to check out a book showing land sales, so he asks for a ruler instead, holds it against the page and coughs while he tears the page out of the book.
  • Jake wants to see the list of residents at the rest home, so he pretends that he wants to look it over to make sure no Jews are there. When that fails, he makes an excuse to wander around until he sees an activities board with the names on it.
  • Jake wants to follow Evelyn’s car easily at night, so he rushes out first and breaks one of her taillights.
  • He tells the police that he’s leading them to Evelyn at her maid’s house, but he instead leads them to Curly’s house, where he sneaks out the back.
  • He wants to confirm that the glasses are Cross’s, so he asks Cross to read something in bad light, forcing Cross to take out another pair of reading glasses, which match.
Audiences go crazy for this sort of this sort of clever tradecraft. As I said in that piece, many of these things feel like “news we can use”: cool things we can mimic ourselves to be cooler, more successful people. They don’t so much build identification with the hero, but they turn the hero into someone we aspire to be, which is almost as good.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not really.


YES, she does some clever things.

An Education

YES. She can always finagle what she wants.

The Babadook

NO. Not really.  Samuel is, though.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so.

Blue Velvet

YES. Very much so.   He figure out how to break in, how to trick Frank at the end, etc.

The Bourne Identity

YES. very much so: taking the walkie off the guard he knocks out, taking the floorplan off the wall, etc.  


YES. She sneaks out of bed in the morning to freshen up, then pretends to wake up looking great. Climbs over gate.


YES. Very much so. 


YES. Very much so.  The trick with the watch is great. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  bluffs on fugazi, makes up Japan story, many more examples. 

Do the Right Thing

NO. His resourcefulness never really gets tested, because he never accepts a large challenge.  Like Jake when he walked a beat in Chinatown, he’s doing as little as possible.

The Farewell

NO. Not really, but when she finally chooses to act, to fake the medical report, she does manage to summon the resources to do it. 

The Fighter

NO. He has to be prodded into everything and shown how to do it.  


NO. Not tremendously, but she recruits allies that have the skills she needs. 

The Fugitive

YES. He’s very good at figuring out how to live on the run. 

Get Out

YES. Not really at first, but in the end he is. 

Groundhog Day

YES. He comes up with a lot of clever solutions to his problems. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He invents and builds elaborate devices.

In a Lonely Place

NO. Others have to take care of him.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so.

Lady Bird

YES. she rehearses for the audition, schemes her way into the world of the cool kids. 

Raising Arizona



YES. Very much so.


YES. He’s always gaming the situation to his advantage, and using his army in various ways.

The Shining

No for Jack, yes for Danny, as seen by his walking backwards through the footsteps.  


YES. He steals money, manipulates people, steals extra wine, etc.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Uses her car jack to get into the garage, etc.

Star Wars

YES. He comes up with clever plans throughout.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he cleverly avoids the repo men.

No comments: