Monday, August 07, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does each character, including the hero, have a limited perspective?

To write dialogue, you must attempt to understand every character with a speaking part in the little universe you’ve created and genuinely feel her wants and needs. To do that, you must understand what each character can and can’t see about her world. 

As you write, you will always be aware of the wider perspective only you can see, but as you craft each character’s dialogue, you must deny yourself that wider view to adopt the limited perspective of that character.

And as you do so, you can’t resent or belittle that limited perspective: Characters only know what they know, and that’s fine. You don’t need to educate or enlighten them to turn them into good people. A limited perspective should make each character more sympathetic, not less.

We all want our heroes to be relatable and their actions to be logical, but you can’t take that too far. A character who's too logical becomes generic. Rather than make her overly logical, you should give her the freedom to do things only she would do.

This is the danger of overmotivation. It’s easy to get a character to act “believably” if she has ten different reasons compelling her to do everything she does. But audiences lose interest in such heroes. The trick is to allow your hero to have reactions that are surprising but still understandable.

If we understand how circumstances have limited the hero’s perspective, then it is possible to intensely empathize with her, even if we know that we would react differently.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, the superintelligent ape, becomes deeply sympathetic to the audience, even when he declares war on the humans, because the audience can relate to him. In some scenes, they relate to him because he’s clever and makes the decisions they would make, but in other scenes, they relate even more because they see that he has a limited perspective and makes poor decisions as a result.

At first, Caesar is raised as a human, but as he gets older, he instinctively becomes more violent. Eventually, his kindly owner (James Franco) has no choice but to put him in an ape sanctuary. The writers could have had Caesar expelled from his human home as a result of a false accusation or an irrational prejudice, but no: He genuinely freaked out and acted overly violent. He sees his exile as unjust, but the audience doesn’t. And once he’s there, the filmmakers make it clear that, though one of his human keepers is cruel, it’s really not an evil institution, just a much colder place than what he’s used to.

Since Caesar’s banishment is his own fault—Franco did everything in his power to forestall it—and the keepers aren’t overly evil, Caesar’s exaggerated feeling of betrayal is all the more tragic. And because it’s tragic, it’s universal.

Though Caesar has a genius IQ, it doesn’t stop him from feeling a child’s illogical sense of betrayal when he discovers the outside world is harsher than his childhood home and not everyone will treat him as well as those who raised him. We identify with this because we’ve all felt that illogical sense of betrayal. If Caesar had been truly, totally betrayed—if, for instance, the nice playroom the keepers had shown Franco was just a bait and switch, and Caesar had never been allowed to play there—then he would have more motivation to lead a revolt, but we would identify with him less.

We can see Caesar’s sense of betrayal by Franco is unfounded, but we understand his limited perspective (and remember feeling the same way as children), so we intensely sympathize, far more than if Caesar had suffered a more exaggerated betrayal.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.


YES, it takes her a while to catch on.

An Education

YES.  Very much so. The amazing thing is that we come to share her limited perspective, to a certain extent, despite the fact that this story and its outcome are so familiar.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

YES. The hero thinks he sees all, but he learns to see more. 

Blue Velvet


The Bourne Identity

YES. Very much so.  Nobody, good or bad, is ever exactly sure what’s going on.  


YES. Very much so.


YES. until the very end, when Rick finally learns to reallysee all the angles.


YES. Very much so. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  We see how much Joe’s wife suffers (shoveling the walk, etc.) but he can’t imagine it.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  Only the camera sees the riot coming. 

The Farewell

YES. very much.  Both Nai Nai and Billi have a very limited perspective, in different ways. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.


YES. Kristoff has more perspective than Anna.

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  Kimble is baffled until late in the movie.  Gerard refuses to consider

Get Out

YES. Sure.

Groundhog Day

YES. Less so with Rita, but yes, even her.

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. Very much so.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. Even Pepper has moral blind spots, and everybody else has tons.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so.  The dad is the wisest, but even he has his blind spots.   

Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so.  Hi’s humble voiceover is more about what he doesn’t know than what he does know.  


YES. Very much so.


YES. To a certain extent.  King sees almost everything, but not quite.  Coretta sees the value of Malcolm X more than he does. 

The Shining



YES. Very much so. The audience understands everybody much better than they do themselves.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so. 

Star Wars

YES. One could argue that Obi Wan has an unlimited perspective, but he is wisely killed off, leaving lots of people who are unsure of themselves.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. very much so.  He thinks he sees all the angles, but we see how deluded he really is. 

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