Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies distinct from the hero’s?

To review, chapter four establishes three key elements for giving your hero a distinct voice: 
  • Metaphor family: the aspect of your characters’ lives that determines which metaphors, curses, and exclamations they use. The source of this is usually their job, their home region, or their psychological state. More rarely, it’s their career ambition or a hidden proclivity. 
  • Default personality trait: Characters grow and change throughout a story, and their moods can fluctuate wildly, even within each scene, but whether they’re happy or sad or regressed or enlightened, some aspects of their personalities will never change. 
  • Default argument tactic: Characters should also have hardwired approaches to problem solving that they keep going back to, no matter how much smarter they get over the course of solving this problem. 
This brings us to a tough question: How many members of your ensemble will have this level of definition? Just the top five characters? The top ten? The answer is, as many as you need to make it all seem real.

Even your minor characters need to have distinctive voices, or at least voices that are distinct from each other. In one episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Detective Logan shows up at the scene of a bombing. A street cop tells him that the victim had a controversial past: “He was blackmailing a local newscaster.” Logan nods sagely and asks, “Gay sex?” The cop responds, “Nope, call girl. Think Spitzer, not McGreevy.”

Then, just two scenes later: Logan is in the lab talking to an explosives expert who points out that a bomb was both old-fashioned and cutting edge. The expert sums up by saying, “Think Tony Bennett, not Steve and Eydie.”

These are two completely different characters in different places, using the same turn of phrase! That was a pretty ridiculous example, and somebody should have caught it and cut it (the show runner? the editor? the composer, even?). But it’s actually very easy for writers to make this mistake. If you don’t have time to give all of your characters their own personalities, then they’re all going to have your personality. You should constantly reread your work and police for this.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Metaphor families: Jay: Street “Listen, you don’t want no baby-mama-drama.”  Cal and David, not so much.  One problem with the improvised dialogue is that these friends just talk like they do in real life, and sound very similar. Personality traits: Cal: laid back, David: friendly, lovelorn, Jay: salacious, oversharing, Argument strategies: Cal: defers but rolls his eyes and speaks up later, David: self-deprecating honest, Jay: Gets philosophical and emphatic (You’re putting the pussy on a pedestal) doesn’t take no for an answer.


YES. Metaphor Family: Not really, the voices are all fairly similar and bland, which contributes to the atmosphere of coldness. Personality Traits: Ash: bland faux-deference, Parker: fiery, etc. Argument Strategies: Dallas: let’s you talk, then tells you his previous decision.  Ash: creates flimsy lies, Parker: artlessly segues into his complaints.

An Education

YES. Metaphor Family: David: Childhood: “You’re my Minnie-Mouse and I’m your Bubbalub.” About her breasts: “May I have a look? Just a peek?”. Personality Trait: The dad: embarrassed, obsequious, indignant. David: blithe, blank, seductive.. Argument Strategies: The dad: focusing on tiny potential obstacles. David: self-deprecating flattery.

The Babadook

Yes and no: Metaphor family: No, this is a movie with fairly generic dialogue, in order to de-emphasize its country of origin., Default personality trait: Sam: intense, Claire: snobby, Robbie: genial, Mrs. Roach: compassionate, Argument strategy: Sam: screams the truth as he sees it, Claire: insinuates, Robbie: cajoles, Mrs. Roach: makes tenative suggestions

Blazing Saddles

YES. Metaphor family: Waco Kid: Western movie (“but most folks call me…”) Hedly: Law, Default Personality Traits: Waco Kid: bemused, Hedly: agitated, Taggart: angry/dimwitted, The Governor: horny, Lili: sultry., Default Argument Strategies: Waco Kid: shrugs and talks sense, Hedly: ignores objections / appeals to vanity.

Blue Velvet

YES. Metaphor familes: Dorothy has the language of a sexual submissive and lapses into schizophrenia at times, and Frank is both a top/bottom: “Mommy, baby wants to fuck!”  Frank also has the language of film noir: “I’m gonna send you a love letter.  Straight from my heart, fucker.  You know what a love letter is?  It’s a bullet.  Straight from my gun, fucker!” Personality traits: Dorothy: crazy.  Frank: sadist.  Sandy: optimism mixed with an urge to misbehave. Argument strategies: Frank traps you with your own words. Dorothy ignores your objections and uses her body to influence you

The Bourne Identity

YES. Metaphor family: Marie: childhood (“ten gazillion dollars”, etc.), Conklin: Military bureaucrat (“You are a malfunctioning piece of equipment”), Default personality trait: Marie: self-deprecating, blunt, treats serious things as jokes, Conklin: Pissing contest, contempt, Argument strategy: Marie: creates awkward silence, gets you to fill it.  Conklin: Similar, actually, makes it clear he’s not going to say the thing you want him to say, forces you to either say it or go away.


YES. Metaphor family: Megan: macho man, Helen: wealth, etc., Default personality trait: Lillian: Brittle, Megan: boisterous, Rita: weary, negative, etc., Argument strategy: Lillian: Shutting you down with fact from past, Helen: passive aggressive, etc.


Yes and no: Metaphor family: not really, Default personality trait: , Argument strategy:


YES. Evelyn MF: Snooty wife (“Certainly not!”) DPT: Cool, DAS: Lie, Noah Cross MF: Patriarchal, DPT: Affable but vicious, DAS: Blunt accusation, admit all 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Metaphor familes are all fairly similar: He imitating them seamlessly and they’re all sort of the same, Default personality trait: Lefty: self-loathing, chiseling.  , Argument strategy: Lefty: cites made-up facts, tries to confuse the other person.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Metaphor family: Sal: Italian-American “The both of youse” “this is a respectable business.” And subtle racism “You paying now or on layaway?” Pino: open racism “How come you niggers are so stupid?  Da Mayor: old-fashioned “Good morning, gentlemen” “Clean as the Board of Health”, Default personality trait: Sal: magnanimous, Pino: angry, Vito: sweet, Buggin’: agitated, Raheem: very agitated, Argument strategy: Sal: increasingly irritated reminders, Pino: muttered asides, Buggin’: appeal to (his own) logic.

The Farewell

YES. Nai Nai: Metaphor family: chirpy-but-hectoring grandma, personality trait: wants things her way but also wants to keep things pleasant, argument strategy: tell white lies to get what she wants. 

The Fighter

YES. Metaphor family: Alice: Lowell, Dicky: boxing, Charlene: bar, Default personality trait: Alice: vain, manipulative. Dicky: gregarious, hyper, sketchy. Charlene: blunt, sexual, honest.  , Argument strategy: Alice: Guilt trip, false promises. Dicky: lies, appeal to old times. Charlene: hits you where it hurts.


YES. MF: Elsa: Parent “Be the good girl you always have to be”, Kristoff: Mountain man “We leave at dawn”, Olaf: Childhood PT: Elsa: Cold, Kristoff: Unimpressed, Olaf: Open-hearted, AS: Elsa: Brook no opposition, Kristoff: Quiz you to expose the flaws in your argument (What’s his last name?), Olaf: Help you figure it out for yourself.

The Fugitive

YES. Metaphor family: Gerard: Southern comedy: “We’ve got a gofer,” “every henhouse, outhouse” etc., Default personality trait: Gerard: Harsh, unforgiving, determined but funny. Cosmo: Sarcastic. Newman: insecure., Argument strategy: Gerard: Lets you hang yourself, then smothers you in contempt and dismisses you. Cosmo: Dangles leading questions, get Gerard to fill in the rest.

Get Out

YES. Rod, for example: MF: TSA, DPT: Paranoid, DAS: Claiming that his job grants him more authority than he actually has. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Metaphor family: Rita: childhood, Default personality trait: Rita: optimistic. Larry: weasely. Mayor: booster., Argument strategy: Rita: listens to your concerns, then shuts them down sweetly.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Metaphor family: Fishlegs: role-playing-gamer, Trainer: old fisherman, Default personality trait: Dad: macho-stern, Astrid, macho-annoyed, each of the kids has their own., Argument strategy: Dad: brooks no opposition. Astrid: nails your hypocrisy.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Metaphor family: Cop friend: the war, hat check girl: faux-Variety-speak., Default personality trait: Laurel: cool, sexy and flinty, his cop friend: affable, agent: conciliatory, falsely positive, Argument strategy: The police chief: lets you hang yourself.  Laurel, lets you talk then calmly restates her original opinion.

Iron Man

YES. Metaphor family: Rhodey: military, Pepper: a gently scolding mom, Stane: CEO Boosterism, Default personality trait: Pepper is professional. Stane is phony concern (“He left part of himself back in that cave. Breaks my heart.” “I wish you had left Pepper out of this. I would have liked to let her live”), Argument strategy: Pepper: nail you with one surgical question that will shut down your argument. (“What’s your social security number?”)

Lady Bird

YES.  Metaphor families: Mom: mom, Dad: dad, Danny: theater, Kyle: left-wing politics, Personality traits: Mom: Critical, guilt-inducing, Dad: pitiful, loving, Julie: chipper, Danny: friendly, Kyle: Cool, Default argument tactics: Mom: Gut-punching, Kyle: Diminishing the personal in favor of the political

Raising Arizona

YES. Metaphor family: Gale: reform, Evelle: pop-psychology, Glen: jokes, Default personality trait: Glen: bigotry , Argument strategy: Ed: asking a long line of pointed questions


YES. Metaphor family: Blume: Working class / vet, Cross: England/Harvard, Default personality trait: Blume: depressed, Cross: cool and wise, Argument strategy: Blume: Gives up, Cross: Calls our your real agenda


YES. Johnson: Metaphor family: Texas, Default personality trait: Folksy but intimidating , Argument strategy: Flatter, make vague promises, then change the subject.  

The Shining

YES. Metaphor Family: Boss: boosterism (“all the best people”),  Grady: sinister servility. Default personality traits: Halloran: folksy, Wendy: meek, etc. Default argument strategies: Wendy: passive aggressive asking everything except what she needs to YES. Grady: leading questions


YES. Metaphor family: Jack: frat, Steph: sex, Default personality trait: Jack: optimism, sociopathy, Argument strategy: Jack: not listening to objections, hiding unpleasant info until the last second.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Metaphor family: Lecter: posh (a nice Chianti), Default personality trait: Lecter: sang froid, witty, gentle Chilton: sleazy, thin-skinned, Argument strategy: Lecter: memorizing everything you said, identifying discrepancies, flattery, then using that to hold you a higher strategy. Crawford, remain silent, force you to talk.

Star Wars

YES. Metaphor family: Han: Pirate / Hawksian tough-guy “She’s fast enough for you, old man” “It’s going to cost you something extra”, Leia: Veneer of diplomacy, revealing royal-born contempt “I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board”, Obi Wan: Jolly old elf on the surface “since, oh, before you were born”, revealing General (“Quickly, son, they’re on the move.” “Sand People always ride single file to hide there numbers.) (Even when discussing the force, he can sound like a general: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”), Threepio: British pessimist (the accent is twit, but the language is lower-class) “we’ll be smashed into who knows what!” “It’s our lot in life” “And don't let me catch you following me begging for help, because you won't get it.”, Default personality trait: Han: Cocky, selfish, smug, Leia: brave, spunky, smug, Obi Wan: wise, tough, Threepio: worrywart , Argument strategy: Han: wisecracks, ridicule, shoots first, Leia: superior knowledge and cynicism, Obi Wan: Either does his Jedi mind trick or says something wise then goes silent and leaves it up to you, Threepio: Constant hectoring, cites odds, lists everything that could go wrong.

Sunset Boulevard

No and yes and yes.  They pretty much all have the same metaphor family: Hollywood, Default personality trait: Norma: Delusional, Max: officious, Betty: idealistic but ambitious, Argument strategy: Max: ignores all protests, lets silence speak volumes.  Norma: emotional blackmail.

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