This is another problem with cat saving: It’s generic, not specific. A hero who is likable in one situation might be entirely unlikable if placed in a different story. Every crisis situation has something lacking, a vacuum that’s just begging for a certain personality type to come in and fill it. Sometimes the situation calls out for a hero who will speak truth to power, but other times, it just needs someone to come in and start a keg party. The writer must find the right vacuum for every hero and the right hero for every vacuum.
In the book, movie, and TV show M*A*S*H, we’re happy to have a martini-swilling, ultracynical hero like Hawkeye Pierce dropped into an uptight military base, where he can puncture all the gasbags and bring a breath of fresh air. In contrast, nobody is rooting for the Grinch to bring his cynicism to Whoville. Hawkeye is a hero because he’s just the right interloper to fill the vacuum he finds himself in. The Grinch is a villain because he’s the wrong interloper at the wrong time.
Heroes can’t be generically heroic. Writers are always trying to search for a universally applicable key to heroism. After all, when we seek ways to make our heroes more likable, we secretly hope we’re also gaining life skills for ourselves. Perhaps once we’ve discovered what makes Jimmy Stewart so likable, we can become just as appealing in our own lives!
But the truth isn’t as encouraging. It turns out the secret to creating a hero is often to simply make everybody around the hero look awful. As Rodney Dangerfield says in Back to School: “You want to look thin? Hang around fat people!” That’s not a solution writers will want to transfer to their real lives.
This seems, on first blush, like a very cynical and manipulative way to write. You’re tricking your audience into liking your heroes simply by placing them into an extreme world. You’re not playing fair. You’re stacking the deck!
But this actually makes good sense. In fiction, as in life, nobody gets any credit for doing what everybody else is doing. Most stories aren’t about morals, which are universal; they’re about ethics, and ethics are entirely relative. In the same way that actions are only heroic if they’re hard to do, personality traits are only admirable if you have to go against the grain to act that way.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, the other characters all seem sleazy by comparison. Even Trish is much coarser than he.
YES, no one else respects quarantine. Everyone else loses it at some point.
YES. At first. All of her friends, family, and teachers seem dull. Then she subsumes herself to the crooks, unwilling to outshine them, though she could if she tried.
YES. Nobody else understands or loves her son. (Although she also fails at both to a certain extent.)
YES. His fellow track layers lack his self-confidence, his townsfolk lack his smarts.
YES. nobody else would have noticed the ear or other things he spots. No one but he would have discovered the cop was a crook.
The Bourne Identity
YES. all of the other spies are less moral than he, all of the other civilians lack his talents.
YES. She’s got more perspective about life, more self-awareness. It’s like no one else can hear themselves talk.
YES. they’re all lowlife schemers who lack his sophistication, (until Ilsa and Victor come in, who lack his sketchy connections).
YES. Even his assistants lack his resourcefulness and eye for detail.
YES. no one else, in the feds or the mob, has his self-control and discipline.
Do the Right Thing
YES. No one else is willing to bridge the two worlds.
YES. No one around her wants to tell the truth.
YES. Everybody, even Charlene, is loud but he’s quiet. Nobody else has his earning potential.
YES. Everyone else (except Olaf) is far more cynical, and lacks the pure love that will save the day.
YES. no one around him has his empathy. When he tries to help the guard, the other guard the other convict both have total contempt for him. (Cop: “The hell with you.” Criminal: “Kiss my ass.”)
YES. Rod lacks his chill, but Rod is totally proven right. Rose lacks his racial awareness.
YES. His co-worker and the townspeople all seem especially dippy, which makes us side with him at first.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. The others are all meatheads.
In a Lonely Place
YES. only he is kind to the drunk, only he speaks his mind.
YES. Nobody is as laid back as him. They’re all somewhat uptight, even Pepper and Rhodey.
YES. Her best friend lacks her confidence. Her family lacks her ambition.
YES. Most lack his inclination to fly right (even Ed and her sister and brother-in-law). He’s the ex-con, but everybody has a little larceny in their heart (although, like him, everybody is won over by Nathan Jr.)
YES. SNCC lacks his organizing prowess. Johnson lacks his moral clarity, etc.
YES. Jack has no best quality. Danny: Yes.
YES. They all seem dopey in contrast to his cynicism.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Everybody else is far more proud and arrogant.
YES. Only he is pure enough to tap into the force and self-taught enough to make the shot.
YES. everyone else (Norma, Max, Betty) is still enamored of the glamour of Hollywood. Only he sees through it.