Hero Personality Profiles

Hero Personality Profiles: The Archive

This is another section that only got cut from the book at the last moment.  Really valuable stuff. 

Hero Personality Profiles, Conclusion: Match The Hero to the Vacuum

So what can we conclude from this breakdown? Is it useful to know the personality types of your heroes before you write them? I think a list like this is useful for a few reasons:
  1. As we saw, several heroes were members of several groups, but nobody was a member of all of them. Simply because these are all admirable types doesn’t mean that a hero can be a shapeless agglomeration of traits. Likeable heroes come in many different shapes. You have to give heroes a certain set of heroic traits and stick to those, even if it means that they’re distinctly lacking in others. That way, when a producer says, “A hero wouldn’t do that”, you can respond, “This type of hero would”.
  2. Even though I initially found it cynical and depressing, I now see why it’s important to surround heroes with characters that lack their qualities. The point, I think, is that nobody gets any credit for doing what everybody else is doing. This ties into another recent idea: movies aren’t about morals, 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 it you have to go against the grain when you act that way.
  3. Another reason why context is important: A hero who is likeable in one situation might be entirely unlikable if you put them in a different movie. Each situation has something lacking: a vacuum that needs to be filled, and 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 they just need someone to come in and start a keg party. Find the right vacuum for every hero, and the right hero for every vacuum.
  4. Indeed, even in real life, every hero is determined solely by his context: Compared to most people, Churchill was a white supremacist genocidal maniac, but compared to Hitler, he wasn’t so bad, and in fact he turned out to be just the right hero at just the right time. (Of course, as soon as the war ended, he had to be whisked back out to the curb post haste)

Hero Personality Profiles, Part 5: Fun Lovers

The Fifth and Final Group: Fun Lovers. Obviously this is a type most associated with comedies, but they can also be surprisingly effectively in dramas: after all, there’s nothing that angers some people more than positivity, so there’s lot of room for serious conflict, as movies like Prick Up Your Ears and Happy Go Lucky show.
Subtype #1: The party-starter, surrounded by duds.
  • Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns
  • Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude
  • Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears
  • Vince Vaughn in Swingers
  • Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and just about everything else he’s done
Subtype #2: The easygoing one, surrounded by agitated people. As I pointed out before, this is somewhat similar to “drolly sarcastic, surrounded by the gung ho”, the difference here is that these heroes are more at peace with themselves.
Subtype #3: The irrepressible optimist surrounded by cynics.
  • Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky
  • Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids
  • Zooey Deschanel on “The New Girl”
So what do you say, people? Are there any types I missed? Can you think of likeable heroes who don’t fall into any of these categories? Do you think I’ve miscategorized anybody? Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up and I’ll draw some conclusions...

Hero Personality Profiles, Part 4: Sensitive Types

Group C: Sensitive Types. These are some of the hardest characters to make sympathetic. Americans are hard-wired to hate losers. Of course, if you think about it, that’s somewhat weird… If I were to ask you, “who’s more sympathetic, a homeless guy or a CEO?”, most people would say the homeless guy. The problem, I think, is that moviegoers aren’t looking at snapshots, we’re living with someone. We’re not being asked to judge them, we’re being asked to identify with them, to share their lives, and if you asked people which of those two they’d rather share their lives with, you’d probably get a different answer.

Subtype #1: Sensitive failure, surrounded by insensitive winners: It takes a filmmaker of extraordinary sensitivity and generosity to make us sympathize with unsuccessful people, but it can certainly be done, and I wish more filmmakers would try.
  • Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and most everything else.
  • Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (again, only partially: but Potter, Sam Wainwright, even his brother all qualify)
  • The Rabbit in Salesman
  • Albert Brooks in Lost in America and Defending Your Life
  • Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross
  • Michael Scott on “The Office” is an interesting case: Careerwise, he’s an insensitive winner surrounded by sensitive strugglers, but in terms of social skills he’s certainly a sensitive failure, surrounded by insensitive winners.
Subtype #2: Sensitive poor, surrounded by insensitive rich: Price and Hopkins use their class resentment to justify horrible actions. Redford, Clements and Aniston merely use it as an excuse to hold back and judge, although they come to realize they’re only hurting themselves.
Tomorrow: the fifth and final group!

Hero Personality Profiles, Part 3: The Deserving Winners

If yesterday was about the underappreciated, that would make today’s group the justly-appreciated. It’s hard to write sympathetic bosses: Everyone, after all, hates their own, but by that same token we long for the boss of our dreams: either one that’s just one of the guys, or simply one that’s super-competent.

Group C: Deserving Winners

Subtype #1: In on the joke despite high status: Audience love to meet an intimidating boss and then be surprised when the boss joins in the jokes at his expense. (Of course, most of these also belong in the next group, too, just for good measure.)
  • Both Tiny Fey and Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock”
  • William Peterson on “CSI”
  • Hugh Laurie on “House”
  • Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive
Subtype #2: The smarter one who can see the nature of the situation: If a boss won’t pal around with his underlings, then we want some proof that he deserves his job. He’s got to be ten steps ahead of everybody. But this category includes not just bosses but also rogue cops like Popeye Doyle and John McClain, ambitious underlings such as Jack Ryan, and those who rise to take control of a group of equals, such as Michael Corleone.
  • James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos”
  • Jon Hamm on “Mad Men”
  • Mark Harmon on “NCIS”
  • Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima
  • And Also:
  • Gene Hackman in The French Connection
  • Al Pacino in The Godfather
  • Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies.
  • Alec Baldwin in Hunt for Red October
But where does this leave a character like Michael Scott on “The Office”? He’s the boss from hell, but he’s still sympathetic, in his own way. I wouldn’t put him here, though, because it’s not his qualities as a boss that make him sympathetic (quite the opposite). Instead he’s sympathetic because he falls into the trickiest group of all, which we’ll get to next time...

Hero Personality Profiles, Part 2: The Underappreciated

Group B in our survey: The Underappreciated
Subtype #1: The unrewarded but talented worker surrounded by users:This is the most common type of hero (so broad that it includes both the Man with No Name and C.C. Baxter!), because this is one of the most common emotions in the world. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the world who does not feel that they deserve more credit for what they do.

This is also a great way to draw sympathy to someone who is otherwise a terrible human being. For both Tony Soprano and Walter White (of “Breaking Bad”) we eventually come to find their wives to be more sympathetic than them, but that’s not true in the pilots, where both wives come off as contemptuous users: In the “Sopranos” pilot, Carmela tells Tony that he’s going to hell as he’s sucked into a CAT scan, and in the “Breaking Bad” pilot, Sky gives Walt the world’s most contemptuous handjob for his birthday.

First they have to get us on the hero’s side, so they exaggerate the negative qualities of the people around the hero. Only after we’re committed to the show do they start to allow us to sympathize with people other than the hero.
  • Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter in The Apartment
  • Clint Eastwood in the “Man with no Name” trilogy
  • Zero Mostel in The Producers
  • Robert Redford as Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer
  • Dennis Christopher as Dave in Breaking Away
  • Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon (also showed up in “drolly sarcastic, surrounded by the gung ho)
  • Mark Wahlberg as Mickey Ward in The Fighter
  • Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” (when he was a high school teacher)
  • Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (will show up again)
  • Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (will show up again)
  • James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos” (will show up again)
  • Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” (will show up again)
  • Steve Carrell as Andy in 40 Year Old Virgin (will show up again)
  • Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids (will show up again)
Subtype #2: The ethical one, surrounded by cheaters: If everybody is following the rules, then there’s nothing heroic about it, but there’s something quixotically noble about following a set of rules even though no one else is.
  • Robert Blake in Electra Glide in Blue
  • Randolph Scott in Ride Lonesome
  • Steve Wiebe in King of Kong
  • Jon Favreau in Swingers
  • Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (But this is an interesting case, because he’s not really surrounded by cheaters. There are really just a few cheaters and a lot of people who won’t stand up to them. This character also showed up in the “drolly sarcastic” category and will show a third time.)
Subtype #3: The innocent surrounded by cynics: This one is similar to a category we’ll see later: The Optimist Surrounded by Duds. The only difference, really, is in the the nature of the opposition they face.
  • Jean Arthur in Easy Living
  • Sandro Panseri in Il Posto
  • Beau Bridges in The Landlord
  • Gene Wilder in The Producers
  • Steve Carrell in 40 Year Old Virgin
  • Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids (could go in the above category as well)
Subtype #5: The Innovator, surrounded by regressive thinkers:
Come back for Group C...

Hero Personality Profiles, Part 1: The Defiant Ones

I’ve broken down heroes by type before on this blog. Specifically, I sorted them out by job type into nine (and then eleven) possible categories, from “The Pro at Work” to “The Worst Possible Pick”. But there are lots of other ways to classify heroes, so let’s spend some days breaking them down by personality type.

Over the course of The 15 Minutes Project, I came to a few conclusions. First, I began to notice recurring personality types that audiences like, and jotting them down. I ended up with five general categories, broken down into fourteen sub-categories (but a lot of heroes show up in two or three different categories, as you’ll see)

Second, I came to a rather depressing conclusion: The degree to which we like a hero has less to do with how likeable the hero is and more to do with how dislikable the people around the hero are.

Unfortunately, this seems to me, on first blush, like a very cynical and manipulative way to write. After all, when I was just focused on making heroes more likable, it was doubly enlightening, because I felt that I was also gaining life-skills for myself. Perhaps, once I discovered what made Jimmy Stewart so likable, maybe I could become just as appealing myself. But if the secret is simply to make everybody around the hero look awful, then that’s not a skill that I want to transfer over to real life.

Nevertheless: the evidence is pretty undeniable. See if you agree with me as we look at our first category and first three sub-categories.

Group A: The Defiant Ones
Subtype 1: Bracingly honest, surrounded by liars or dissemblers: This is a classic example of a personality type that is only sympathetic in a certain environment. If you put a bracingly honest guy into Bedford Falls or Who-Ville to puncture everyone’s bubble, then we’d hate that character, because those people don’t have it coming. Only in a rotten town is it heroic to confront everyone with the truth.
Subtype #2: The iconoclast, surrounded by suck-ups: Usually, people hate characters who just say no, but the exception is when things are so rotten that mere defiance becomes heroic.
Subtype #3: Drolly sarcastic, surrounded by the gung ho: This is somewhat similar to a category we’ll see in group five, “The easygoing one, surrounded by agitated people”, but the difference here is that these characters are far more barbed in their criticism.
  • Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (though George Bailey will show up again in other categories)
  • Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, almost everything he’s done.
  • Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies and almost everything else (will also show up again)
  • Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon (will show up again)
  • Kat Denning in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Thor, 2 Broke Girls, and just about everything
Tomorrow: Group B!