Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are the non-three-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart, and gut?

I’ve already had a lot to say about the pros and cons of polarization here, but let’s look at one final case study to see how you can use polarization without sacrificing realistic elements. 

The book (and later movie) Deliverance is based on a real canoe trip the author James Dickey took with three other businessmen from Atlanta, with one big difference: In real life, the mountain folks who found the lost canoeists just gave them a nice meal and a lift back to town. (No good deed goes unpunished!) I know the true story because one of the men involved was a family friend. His name was Lewis, and he was the basis for the character Lew, played in the movie by Burt Reynolds.

In the first scene of the movie, Lew finds out that Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance agent and snaps, “I've never been insured in my life. I don't believe in insurance. There's no risk!” When the real Lewis passed away recently, it turned out this was actually true: He owned a lot of property, but he had no insurance on any of it, to the chagrin of his family, who had to scramble to insure it all.

Anyone who knew the real Lewis and watches the movie can see that Dickey copied his friend’s persona very faithfully. But the actor Ronnie Cox, who played the character Drew, had this to say about Dickey:
  • We used to joke about it, because the four characters are all these four aspects of Jim Dickey. There’s a lot about him as that sort of “outdoors macho-man challenging everybody, and everything’s a competition” in Burt’s character. And there’s the thoughtful, almost timid advertising man, the everyman that was Jon Voight’s character at the beginning of the film. And then there’s the buffoonish, klutzy Bobby. But then Jim Dickey was also a poet and a guitar player who loved to play music, and all of his artistic aspects were in Drew. 
So which is it? Is Lew based on the real Lewis or on Dickey himself? There’s no contradiction: It’s both. It’s always a good idea to base a character on someone you know, but that character must also be based on yourself, because you can look much deeper into your own heart. Lewis had the sort of larger-than-life personality that writers love to appropriate, but Dickey could not have written him well without finding part of Lewis in himself.

Deliverance has a classic, four-part polarization: head (Ed, played in the movie by Jon Voight), heart (Drew), stomach (Bobby), and cockiness (Lew). When you add them up, you get a complete human being, as Cox observed, but each character is also a believable human being in his own right, partially because each is also based on a real person.

The final product works as both an interpersonal drama, creating a harrowing conflict between four believable characters, and an intrapersonal drama, dramatizing the internal debate a person goes through when faced with a traumatic situation. To do so, Dickey combined specific details from the lives of his friends (such as the real-life Lewis’s adversity to buying insurance) with the polarized aspects of his own personality.

The results are tremendously powerful: We utterly believe in the reality of this situation, and yet we also feel the work has invaded our psyche and exposed our innermost fears and insecurities.

Rulebook Casefile: Head-Heart-Gut in “The Good Place”
It’s been a while since we talked about head-heart-gut polarization. To review, in some stories every character is three-dimensional, and that can work well, but it’s not the only way to tell a great, sophisticated story. Just as often, if not more often, the three main characters are polarized so that one is all-head, one is all-heart, and one is all-gut. (Sometimes this only applies to the three sidekicks and the main character is three dimensional.) In other stories, with bigger casts, some of these body parts are split up further. Sometimes, if you have three gut characters, they can be dived into spleen, stomach and groin.

The “Good Place” pilot has only three main characters and it’s a great example of classic head-heart-gut polarization. Eleanor is all gut: Hungry, horny, raunchy, selfish, insulting, etc. Chidi is all-head: An ethics professor, he overexplains and overthinks everything. Michael is (or seems to be at this point in the show) all-heart: a glowing, angelic, open-hearted lover of life and the world, bestowing care and affection wherever he goes.

This creates classic comedy and significant meaning as well. We see ourselves in all three, and different parts of our own 3-dimensional personalities identify humorously and painfully with each of the three in turn, thinking “Yes, I can go to that extreme sometimes and it’s so embarrassing when I do!”

Any polarized story is ultimately about how we need to integrate ourselves to evolve, and each of these three end up going on (or seeming to go on) a season-long quest to discover their missing elements. Eleanor tries to learn to be a smarter, more compassionate person. Chidi tries to learn to trust his gut and fall in love. (It’s telling that dealing with Eleanor gives Chidi a stomachache, as she reminds him of his missing organ.) Michael explores what it means to be human, especially in dealing with Eleanor, the first non-angelic human he’s had to deal with.

This show will soon expand to become a six-member ensemble, and it’s interesting to see where the new ones end up:

  • Janet is clearly a second head: an actual repository of all knowledge, unable to understand human emotion. Why isn’t she too similar to Chidi? Because her serenity is so different from his neurosis.
  • When Jason is revealed, he will clearly be a second gut. He will become stomach/groin, and Eleanor will become more spleen/groin. He’ll have some heart to him, too, though.
  • But where does that leave Tahani? Her main character note is “snooty”, which usually lines up with head (Think Fraiser or Winchester), but she’s not a therapist, doctor, or intellectual. She’s sort of a fake-heart, as her background is revealed to be an effective but smugly-self-satisfied philanthropist. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit well into this dynamic. What do you think? Where would you put Tahani?

“The Good Place” is a deep and sophisticated show. Like “Star Trek”, it’s a journey into inner space (and inner conflict) as much as to other worlds. By embodying our three-part personalities in three extremes, each episode re-creates our inner debate as we deal with ethical dilemmas in our own lives.

Rulebook Casefile: Assembling Gut, Heart, and Head in The 40 Year Old Virgin
Like Dorothy Gale, Carrie, Dr. House and Hannah Horvath, Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin is a three-dimensional character with one-dimensional advisors who roughly correspond to Gut, Heart, and Head. In this case:
  • Jay (Romany Malco) is a classic Gut character, advising Andy to be animalistic, “All you doing is using your instinct. That's it. Tackle the gazelle.”
  • David (Paul Rudd) is all-Heart, still hung up on an old relationship and constantly imploring Andy to pursue old-fashioned romance.
  • Cal (Seth Rogen) as Head is the least obvious of these three, but, like many Head characters, he is both a would-be novelist (this is more clear in the extended version) and the Jewish member of the group. His advice is all about head-games, employing a strategic “ask questions” method.
This movie’s unique premise sends Andy on a coming-of-age journey at 40 years old, belatedly going from a proto-person to a fully-realized adult, so we get to see him build his adult persona from the ground up, first trying Jay’s method (picking up Leslie Mann), then David’s (Attempting and failing to call Trish), then Cal’s (hitting on the bookstore girl).

It’s only after he’s tried each version on its own and found each one wanting that he realizes that he has to integrate them into one method, and thereby integrate himself into a whole three-dimensional person, surpassing each of his former mentors.

In the commentary, Apatow cheerily points out that, though he and Carrel are the only credited writers, almost every scene in the finished movie was not in the original script, and instead came from jokes pitched by various actors in the movie, and even by some who aren’t in the movie. For instance, he keeps crediting gags to, of all people, Garry Shandling, One of Shandling’s suggestion was, “Once the virgin has sex, it has to be better than all the other guys’ sex”: This led to the wonderful finale in which Andy can only describe his deflowering by leading a jubilant performance of “Age of Aquarius”. 
  Shandling’s point, it seems to me, is that Andy has combined his friends’ incomplete parts into one whole, and achieved a level of fully-human experience that is denied to them.

Rulebook Casefile: Real Life Head-Heart-Gut Trios in “Humans of New York”
I found this gratifying: more than once on the site, Brandon discovers genuine polarized ensembles wandering the streets of New York!  Even when advocating such trios, I usually stress that they’re more common in fiction than they are in real life, but it turns out that they’re more common than I thought.

First we get a Heart / Gut / Head (in that he’s risk-averse)

And a Heart (in that his goal is more childlike) / Head / Gut (with an extra gut tagging along...)

It’s simple enough to differentiate characters by giving them different responses to a question, but an even better way to establish their personality is to have each one interpret that question in a fundamentally different way, showing us that their brains are hard-wired differently, and so they’re inevitably going to create conflict.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Cal: head (he’s a novelist), David: heart, Jay: Gut


YES. Ripley and Ash are both head (good head and bad head), Kane and Dallas are both (slightly) heart, Parker and Brett are gut.

An Education

All characters are 3-dimensional.

The Babadook

YES. Everyone is three-dimensional

Blazing Saddles

YES. The heroes: Bart is head, Waco is heart, Mongo is gut, Lili is groin.  The villains: Hedly is head, Taggart is gut, the governor is groin.  

Blue Velvet

Hmm…I guess you could say Jeffrey is head (a Hamlet-like character, called home from college and still living in his head, acting without realizing that his actions affect the world) Sandy and Dorothy are two very different types of heart, and Frank is gut?  That seems like a stretch though.

The Bourne Identity

All characters are three-dimensional


YES. Annie and Helen are competing heads. Heart: Lillian and Becca. Gut: Megan. Crotch: Rita. 


YES. Everybody’s three-dimensional.


YES. They’re all three-dimensional (or no-dimensional, we never get to know his assistants at all, for instance)

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Characters are all three dimensional.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Senor Love Daddy: head/heart. Sal: Heart. Pino, Raheem and Buggin’: spleen. Mookie: gut.

The Farewell

YES. They’re all three-dimensional.  To a certain extent, the mom is head, the father is gut and Billi is heart, but they’re ultimately more complex than that. 

The Fighter

YES. Despite the fact that the personalities are extreme, everyone is 3-dimensional.  You could say that Dicky and Micky are 2-way polarized: silent vs. prattling, slow-burn vs. flame-out, etc.  Dicky’s constant advice to Micky: “Head-Body-Head-Body!”, speaks to the fact that a champion must be both a boxer (head) and a brawler (gut.)


YES. Partial polarization: Olaf: Heart/Gut, Kristoff: Head/Gut, Anna: Heart 

The Fugitive

YES. Partial polarization: Gerard has head and gut but lacks heart, Kimble has head and heart but lacks gut.  They each become more complete humans over the course of the movie.

Get Out

Hmm, I guess maybe the dad is heart, the mom is head, the brother is gut?  

Groundhog Day

YES. Phil = gut, Rita = heart, Larry = head (He’s dumb, but he’s the one who says things like, “we need to get going”, which is a classic head line.)

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. When with the group, Hiccup is heart, Fishlegs is head (he cites statistics), and the other four kids are all gut.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Everybody’s 3-dimentionsal.

Iron Man

YES. Partial polarization: Tony is head and gut, no heart. Pepper is head and heart, no gut. Jarvis is all-head, obviously.

Lady Bird

YES. All characters are 3-dimensional, even the teachers.

Raising Arizona

NO. Even though they have elements of caricature, they’re all actually fairly well-rounded, with elements of head, heart and gut. (Exceptions: Evelle has no head, Smalls has no heart)


YES. Everybody is 3-dimensional.


YES. They’re all three-dimensional.

The Shining

NO.  The characters are three dimensional.


YES. Jack and Miles are 2-way polarized: careful pessimism vs. reckless optimism.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The characters are all 3D.

Star Wars

YES. Four way polarization: Luke: heart, Leia (and Threepio): head, Han: gut, Obi Wan: spirit. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Joe and Betty have two-way polarization: bitter cynicism vs. fresh-faced idealism.  Norma, despite her extremity, is 3-dimensional.  

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