Tuesday, August 08, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants rather than the wants of others?

Anybody who has done any work in sales, community organizing, or political campaigning has heard the same piece of advice: “The only way to motivate people is to appeal to their self-interest.” This is universally true for both “good people” and “bad people,” and if you create a story in which this isn’t true, it will ring false. You need to motivate your villains and your heroes around their own self-interest. 

Good characters must not be motivated by benevolence, and bad characters must not be motivated by malevolence. Characters, just like real people, only want what they want. In a story, it works like this:
  • Good: A self-interested goal we empathize and sympathize with. 
  • Evil: A self-interested goal we empathize with but don’t sympathize with. 
The audience should empathize with the desires that drive every character. The difference is, while we merely feel for your villain, we feel and root for your hero.

So why do we root for your heroes? Because we think they’re the right people at the right time in the right place to bring about our desired outcome for this story, even if they’re doing this for entirely selfish reasons, which is fine. The fact is that, good or bad, people only want what they want.

Each episode of Mad Men on DVD has a fantastic commentary, usually featuring creator Matt Weiner, and they’re all worth listening to. In one early episode, weaselly advertising executive Pete is stewing in his office, as usual, and boundary-breaking copywriter Peggy comes in to discuss a project. In his commentary, Weiner points out (paraphrasing here): “This is the point on most shows where she would ask, ‘What’s wrong?,’ as if people go around trying to solve each other’s problems all the time.”

But this isn’t that sort of show. Peggy doesn’t notice what’s bothering Pete, even though she’s probably the most sympathetic character on the show (and occasionally in love with him). People only want what they want, and that doesn’t make them bad people. Unless your character is a parent or spouse (okay, let’s get more specific, an exceptionally caring parent or spouse), she shouldn’t become selflessly concerned with the emotional state of another character. Peggy isn’t going to ask Pete what’s wrong unless she has to act that way to get what she wants.

People only want what they want. That may sound terrible, but it’s how life works—and it’s probably for the best.

You, as the writer, know what every character’s problem is, and so you want them to know it, too. The easiest way to do that is to have someone come into the room, size up the situation, and say, “Do you know what your problem is? Well, let me tell you. …” But in real life, such conversations are not only uncommon, they’re unwelcome.

On those rare occasions I do get armchair diagnoses from friends, they tend to be benign but unhelpful, because their friendship keeps them from perceiving my true faults. Ironically, the few times people have spontaneously told me what my problem was and actually got it right, they were people who hated my guts and never wanted to see me again. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy to hear it, and I bit back each time. Only later did I sheepishly realize they had actually told me something I very much needed to hear.

Weiner’s comment has ruined a lot of movies and TV shows for me. Every time someone walks into a room and helps the hero get to the heart of his problem, it now sets my teeth on edge. The ghostly voice of Weiner wafts up from the ether, providing a running commentary to everything I watch: “People only want what they want!”

This is true even in close relationships. Writers are often afraid to embrace this rule for fear that entirely self-interested characters will be unappealing, but the opposite is true. Crazy Stupid Love is a very appealing and good-natured romantic comedy, even though the characters could not be more self-motivated. The story centers on a divorcing couple, Cal and Tracy, but it’s not just them: Their kids, their babysitter, their kids' teachers, everybody keeps getting walloped by their own unrequited, irrational desires, which they are helpless to ignore. Cal and Tracy have entire beautifully written conversations where each one literally doesn’t listen to anything that the other says.
  • Cal: Once I’m settled, I’ll get the kids so they can see the place. 
  • Tracy: I think I’m having a midlife crisis maybe. Can women have midlife crises? 
  • Cal: Make sure the lawn gets enough water. 
  • Tracy: In the movies it’s always men having them and buying ridiculous yellow Porsches, but I’m not a man and I really don’t want a yellow Porsche— 
  • Cal: You have to fertilize once a month. Not twice a month, not once every two months. 
  • Tracy: We got married so young, Cal. And I’m forty-one. And that’s so much older than I thought I’d be. 
  • Cal: The sprinklers turn off behind you. 
  • Tracy: And I got really upset with an umpire at Molly’s T-ball game last month. … 
Tellingly, there are times when characters try to give each other selfless advice (such as the advice a local lothario gives Cal), but every time, it’s hopelessly tainted by the advice giver’s own frustrated desires and limited perspective.

For better or worse, the rule that “people only want what they want” applies even to friendships and relationships. If you and I are friends, it doesn’t mean we want the same things from each other. I like you for certain reasons, and you like me for your own reasons. Sometimes our interests will actually be the same (we both love karaoke), but sometimes our interests will merely be symbiotic, and that can work, too. Maybe I like to talk and you like to listen, or I like to take and you like to give. Maybe I want a hunting buddy and you just want a drinking buddy. Or maybe we both expect things from each other the other won’t give, and the friendship is ultimately doomed.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.  Each man’s advice is hopelessly tainted by his own failings.


YES. Very much so.

An Education

YES.  Very much so. All except the teacher, but even she wants to live vicariously through Jenny’s academic success (as opposed to everyone else, who all live vicariously through her transgression.)

The Babadook

YES. this is a movie about the myth of selflessness.

Blazing Saddles

YES. everyone.  Even when Bart goes back to help his people, it serves his own goal of saving his neck.

Blue Velvet

YES. Jeffrey seems to be investigating selflessly, but it’s clearly just for his own kicks.  He and Frank have a lot in common, including kinkiness, compulsion, and bouts of crying.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. Very much so.  This is a very realistic portrayal of spying, they’re assassinating their former assets, not fighting against evil.


YES. There are two exceptions, but they justify themselves. The cop becomes selflessly invested in cheering up Annie, but it begins with a believable urge for sex and baked goods, then blossoms into a more selfless level of concern.  Likewise when Megan selflessly reaches out to cheer up Annie near the end, it’s clearly shown to be a personal oddity that she can’t stand to have depressed acquaintances. 


YES. Everybody, even Strasser and Victor, who have strong ideologies, are beholden to (and somewhat frustrated with) their organizations and threading difficult needles.  


Yes and no.  Gittes comes off as cynical and self-interested, but if you actually try to track his motivations in the movie, he’s actually acting in the public interest most of the time, against his own self-interest or the interests of his clients. More about this later. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  All of the others only serve themselves.  The mafia code is a joke.  FBI mostly watches its own ass.  Donnie himself, though, is fairly selfless, pursuing the mob despite have little personal motivation to do so.  However, it soon becomes clear that he’s drawn to this fantasy life for neurotic reasons, and reluctant to leave even after the job is done.  

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very, very much so.  Even Buggin’ Out, the one person supposedly motivated by civic concerns, is really upset about cheese and his shoes. 

The Farewell

YES. It’s about learning to tell the difference. 

The Fighter

YES. Well, Mickey’s whole problem is that he fails to do this, but he learns the value of prioritizing his own wants, so that counts.


YES. Anna is fairly selfless in her concern for her sister, but their needs coincide enough that it’s not a problem.

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  That’s all anybody does, right up to the end.

Get Out

YES. Well, Chris just wants to fit in, so he’s a people-pleaser, but ultimately he’s doing this in order to get love for himself, not out of a selfless love of anybody else.

Groundhog Day

NO. All except Rita, who is fairly selfless, but at least everybody notices how weird that is, so we believe it.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Astrid helps him not because she’s dedicated to soothing him, but because she demands to know how he stole her thunder.

In a Lonely Place

YES. For the most part.  Laurel decides to save Dix, but in a believable way: she never sacrifices her own wants and needs to his.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. Everyone’s motivation tracks.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so.  

Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so.


YES. Max and Blume genuinely try to be friends but neither is willing to check his outrageous selfishness.  


YES. Well that’s tricky.  Our hero is pretty saintly, but of course there is the issue of his adultery.  

The Shining

Yes and no.  Wendy doesn’t, but that’s clearly her flaw, not a strength, so that’s okay.  One could argue that Halloran literally serves some sort of “good spirit”, but you could also see it as him merely protecting his own kind.  Kubrick does a good job at keeping him from being a 2-dimensional “magical black man.” (the nude photo on his wall, the call he makes about the caretaker being “a real asshole.”)


Mostly. Maya is a little too dedicated to reaching out to this unattractive and unappealing guy, but at least she maintains her wariness and self-respect the whole time.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Nobody ever says “This is about the victim, dammit!” Lecter and Bill pursue their own pleasure, not “evil” or Satan or “darkness”.

Star Wars

YES. Luke and Han are both just trying to solve short-term problems until near the end. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Very much so.  The love interests are both cheating on others. 


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