Sunday, April 28, 2013

The "Taking on the Mantle" Story Type, Part II: The Crisis of Character

Related articles: The 20 Common Patterns of Plot Progression; The "Taking on the Mantle" Story Type, Part I: The Crisis of Conscience

This month’s article took much longer to put together than I expected.

Last month, we broke down the second subtype of the Taking on the Mantle story type, the Crisis of Conscience. (See the article on the 20 Common Patterns of Plot if you have not already. Otherwise, this article will be pretty difficult to understand.) This month, we double back and analyze the first subtype, the Crisis of Character. Despite how common the Crisis of Character subtype first appeared to be when I began my research, its patterns proved quite difficult to spot and nail down. I found that a true Crisis of Character story pattern was not as common as I believed. A number of films I thought to be a Crisis of Character actually belong to its sister type, the Crisis of Conscience (Schindler’s List, Thank-you for Smoking). Some films appeared to fit the subtype upon first glance, but closer analysis revealed details that proved they do not to belong to the Taking on the Mantle category at all (For instance, two John Hughes comedies, Uncle Buck and Home Alone.) However, despite the difficulties, I am proud to say I have cracked the code, and rather than horde this hard-won knowledge, I am going to share it with all of you.

Our study films for this article:
As Good as it Gets
Liar, Liar

First, let’s review. A film with the Taking on the Mantle story type contains a plot in which:
The protagonist starts as an antihero – someone who is capable of being a hero, yet is unwilling due to selfishness or some other personal flaw. Events invade the protagonist's life to force him or her to take on the role of a hero. Though the protagonist may face a large threat from a force of antagonism, the protagonist's biggest obstacle is his or her own resistance to personal change. Development occurs when story events force the protagonist to change his or her behavior bit by bit from self-centered to heroic in order to reach the main story goal.

The Taking on the Mantle story type can be divided into two distinct sub-types: The Crisis of Character, and the Crisis of Conscience.

As covered last month, in a Crisis of Conscience (Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Michael Clayton), the Protagonist is a person of latent morality who begins the story aligned with an immoral or ethically dubious Force of Darkness. Events invade the Protagonist’s life that cause him or her to question his or her loyalty to this Force. The Protagonist eventually turns on the Force of Darkness, and defeats it.

The Crisis of Character subtype is quite different. Its Protagonist is a person who begins the story with a deeply-flawed personality. This flaw causes him or her to behave in an antisocial or socially irresponsible manner. Events invade the Protagonist’s life that cause him or her to realize the damage this behavior causes him/herself, and more importantly, others. Eventually, the Protagonist must decide to change the very nature of his or her being for the sake of forging stronger, healthier connections with his or her fellow human beings.


The Crisis of Character subtype revolves around the relationships between three essential characters: a Flawed Protagonist, a Character of Attraction, and a Character of Disapproval.

The Flawed Protagonist

Though the Protagonist may be a person of various attractive traits, his behavior is dominated by a major personality flaw. In fact, this flaw has become so pervasive it has come to be the essence of his being. (Since all four protagonists of our study films are male, I will refer to the Protagonist as “he” for the rest of the article for the sake of simpler grammar.) This flaw has built a wall around the Protagonist, socially isolating him from all meaningful contact with other human beings. Though this wall may serve to protect the Protagonist from the outside world and preserve his self-image, it prevents the fulfillment of any emotional needs. Though there may be characters who wish to get closer to the Protagonist, they choose not to, since dealing with the Protagonist’s flawed, self-indulgent personality gives them far more grief than they wish to put up with.

In our study films: Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) of Rushmore is about as impressive a young man as you might find. However, he is narcissistic and a borderline-sociopath, making him psychologically incapable of forming any true friendships. Shrek is an antisocial grump who would rather live in total isolation than put up with the difficulties that come from dealing with other persons. Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) of As Good as it Gets is an extremely talented author, but he is also a total misanthrope. He protects his obsessive-compulsive lifestyle by gleefully pushing every person away with rude and offensive behavior. Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) in Liar, Liar has had great success in his law career, but only because he has zero compulsion against manipulating everyone he meets with dishonesty.

The Character of Attraction

The Character of Attraction is a person with whom the Protagonist, for one reason or another, desires to have a closer, more intimate relationship. This is Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) in Rushmore, Princess Fiona in Shrek, Carol the waitress (Helen Hunt) in As Good as it Gets, and Fletcher’s son Max (that freakin’ kid) in Liar, Liar. Though this character may share the Protagonist’s feelings of attraction to one degree or another, he or she is hip to the Protagonist’s bullshit. The Character of Attraction
does not wish to get closer to the Protagonist because he or she knows the Protagonist’s flaw makes him too difficult or unpleasant to deal with. Even Fletcher’s son Max, though he may love his father with all his heart, is reluctant to trust Fletcher because he knows his father will constantly let him down. A majority of the story’s focus follows the Protagonist’s attempts to “win over” the Character of Attraction. Thus, this character’s story function is to provide the Protagonist with a tangible motivation to change as a person.

The Character of Disapproval

The Protagonist’s second essential relationship comes from a character loosely linked to the Protagonist through family (Fletcher’s ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) in Liar), duty (see upcoming bonus article on Iron Man), proximity (Simon (Greg Kinnear) in As Good), or a tenuous friendship (Donkey in Shrek and Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) in Rushmore). Though the Character of Disapproval may admire the Protagonist for his
positive traits (if he has any) and hope for a healthy relationship between the two of them, this character openly disapproves of the Protagonist’s flawed behavior and is not afraid to say so. However, unlike the Character of Attraction, the Protagonist does not really give half a damn what the Character of Disapproval thinks. The Character of Disapproval is someone the Protagonist could really take or leave. Throughout the story, the relationship between these characters wavers from friendly to openly antagonistic. The function of the Character of Disapproval is to provide the Protagonist with the constant criticism necessary to slowly him towards change.

The Antagonist, or Lack Thereof

Though Crisis of Character stories may contain characters who are openly antagonistic or threaten the Protagonist (such as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, or Fletcher’s boss Miranda in Liar), these characters are not the stories’ real antagonists. In a true Crisis of Character, protagonist and antagonist are one and the same person. Rather than being undermined by an outside force, the Protagonist is his own worst enemy. The Protagonist’s personality seems to have two sides: a side that enjoys being flawed and antisocial, and wishes to remain that way; and a side that wishes to abandon the flaw and reach out to other persons. This splits the Protagonist like a Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. Every time the Protagonist’s good side tries to make progress, the bad side pops up to sabotage everything. For instance, whenever Melvin Udall manages to make any progress with Carol, he is then stupid enough to give into his old ways and say something offensive. Whenever Shrek gets closer to another person, he feels the compulsion to once again push them away. Just as most films feature a Protagonist and Antagonist who openly wish to destroy one another, so does a Crisis of Character – only this battle takes place completely within the main character’s self.


Shrek is supposed to be a fairy tale. And as most fairy tales are good at, it provides a simple allegory to understand much more complicated stories of its same type. Shrek is an ogre. So are Max Fisher, Melvin Udall, and Fletcher Reede (figuratively, of course). Ogres are crude, disagreeable beasts who have no place in polite society. However, Shrek enjoys being an ogre. His disagreeable nature has given him a comfortable, albeit isolated, life. Unfortunately, this self-insulated life is invaded by an event that turns everything upside down. In order to get life back to how he knew it, Shrek is forced to journey outside his life of habit, interact with other persons, and perform tasks for others that he would never do under normal circumstances. 

Only then, something changes in Shrek. In performing these tasks, Shrek comes to realize there is something that feels good about interacting with people, even better than the insulating comfort he felt in isolation. Only this new impulse runs counter to Shrek’s orgeous nature, prompting an internal conflict. Shrek succumbs to his old ways, but only misery comes with it. In the end, Shrek abandons his former ogreous nature for a new one that is willing to embrace others with open arms. By achieving true relationships with others, Shrek finds happiness.

The Setup: A Comfortable Niche
The Protagonist begins the story living within a comfortable self-created little world. The Protagonist is happy in this world. In fact, he thrives in it – not despite of his flaw, but because of the flaw. Max Fisher’s narcissism has made a private little universe out of Rushmore Academy, a universe where he is king. Melvin Udall’s rejection of humanity has allowed him to insulate himself in a private world where he can embrace his obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than deal with its effects on others. Fletcher Reede’s compulsion to lie has given him a successful law career. In fact, he is one big case away from becoming a partner. Because this niche is so comfortable, the Protagonist believes his flaw to be a good thing. He sees no need to change, no matter what others may tell him. Only one thing is missing: genuine relationships with other people.

The Inciting Incident to the End of the 1st Act: Uprooting the Niche
As with any inciting incident, the Protagonist’s life is invaded by an event that disrupts the status quo. But unlike most inciting incidents, the Protagonist is not simply confronted by a threat or a challenge, but by something or a combination of things that completely tear up his comfortable niche by the roots. Max Fisher is expelled from Rushmore Academy. Shrek’s swamp is invaded when it is turned into a ghetto for banished fairy tale creatures. This uprooting may happen all at once at the inciting incident, or it may happen through a combination of events: one at the inciting incident and another at the end of the first act, with a number of minor disruptions in between. Fletcher Reede’s niche is first disrupted when Max’s birthday wish makes him unable to do his job as he always has. The disruption of Fletcher’s status quo is made total when Audrey tells Fletcher she is moving away and taking Max with her. Melvin’s uprooting begins small when he is forced to take care of Simon’s dog – that is, care for another living creature and have regular contact with the gay neighbor the homophobic Melvin wants nothing to do with. This is already a lot to handle for someone as OCD-ridden as Melvin. But Melvin’s precious life of habit is further torn apart when Carol, the only person in the world whose company Melvin enjoys, is no longer available to wait on him on his daily visit to the cafe. Melvin feels as if his universe is crashing down around him. By the end of the first act, the Protagonist feels lost, confused, and angry as everything he seemed to enjoy in the past has been destroyed.

Act 2A
The Protagonist desperately wants his comfortable niche back again. But to do this, the Protagonist must do the unthinkable: reach out to other human beings. The Protagonist asks the Character of Attraction and/or the Character of Disapproval for assistance. Melvin visits to Carol’s home to demand that she come back to work. Fletcher begs Audrey to change her mind. Max Fisher recruits Mr. Blume to help him speak to Miss Cross. Unfortunately, these other characters do not trust the Protagonist. After all, the Protagonist’s motives remain selfish, and the wall created by the Protagonist’s flaw remains as strong as ever. This failed interaction causes the Protagonist to, possibly for the first time, realize the effects his flawed behavior has on other people. Words alone are not going to reverse the Protagonist’s situation. He needs to take action.

So, the Protagonist takes an action or begins a course of actions in relation to the Character of Attraction he would never have even considered previously in an attempt to restore the status quo. As a side effect, this action forges a stronger bond between the characters. Melvin pays for a private doctor to take care of Carol’s son so Carol will not have to miss work. Max Fisher tries to make an honest go at his new public school with the help of Mr. Blume and Miss Cross as his tutor. Fletcher reaches out to his son in the hopes that his son will reverse his birthday wish. Though some of these actions, such as Melvin’s, may seem altruistic on their surface, they remain selfishly-motivated. All Melvin cares about is getting Carol to wait on him at the restaurant again.

Unfortunately, though these actions may yield a short-term benefit, things do not turn out exactly as the Protagonist expects. This is because the Protagonist’s flaw has kept him from understanding or predicting how the other characters may react. Carol wants to reject Melvin’s gift because she believes Melvin wants something sexual out of the deal. Fletcher fails at his attempt to reverse his son’s wish because Max does not want his father to lie again. Max Fisher finds that, instead of drawing Miss Cross closer to him, he has actually driven her into the arms of Mr. Blume.

The Protagonist feels rejected. To his surprise, his stone heart breaks. Through the pain of this emotion, the Protagonist realizes there may be something better in life than his selfish little niche. The Character of Attraction’s rejection causes the Protagonist to realize just how important the Character of Attraction is to him. The Protagonist then changes gears. He realizes that his only course to happiness will come by winning over the Character of Attraction and creating a permanent and satisfying relationship between to two of them.

The Protagonist then launches a new mission to do just that. However, this mission is still ill-conceived, since the Protagonist still relies on his flawed behavior to get him through it. Melvin agrees to take Simon on a road trip in the hopes that Carol will join them so he can grow closer to her. Only Melvin does himself no favors by how he talks to Simon and Carol on the trip. In Liar, Audrey gives Fletcher an ultimatum he must meet to so he will not lose Max. But to achieve this ultimatum, Fletcher must first get through his court case on time, something he struggles with to do due to his continued impulse to manipulate the situation through dishonesty. Max Fisher’s mission is the most ill-conceived of all. Max plans to “win Miss Cross back” through a narcissistic urge to destroy anything that stands in the way of what he sees as their love. This of course only pushes Miss Cross further away.

Sooner or later, the Protagonist realizes that the only way to succeed at this mission is by fighting against his flaw, and embracing its opposite. The only way happiness will come is by trying to become a better person. These new efforts have success. Fletcher wins his court case through honest means. Max Fisher and Melvin both find their way to a first kiss with Miss Cross and Carol.

Only this success is short-lived. Immediately after the victory, the Protagonist sabotages himself with an action that seems to ruin any future chance of the Protagonist and Character of Attraction sealing their relationship. Melvin says something so stupid and offensive that Carol never wants to see him again. Miss Cross discovers the duplicity that set up her intimate moment with Max and throws him out of her house. Fletcher is put in jail for contempt of court, making him unable to stop Audrey from taking Max away. It seems the Protagonist has failed.

Act 3
With the Character of Attraction seemingly out of the picture, the Protagonist has no one else to turn to but the Character of Disapproval. The two reconcile their differences and become honest friends. The Character of Disapproval then encourages the Protagonist to do whatever it takes, no matter how crazy, to win the Character of Attraction back. (Note that in Liar, Liar it is illogical from a story perspective that Fletcher reconcile with the Character of Disapproval at this point. Since Audrey is the one taking Max away to Boston, if they reconcile here, there would be no more third act. To get around this, the film achieves this plot point by way of a proxy character: Fletcher’s secretary Greta, a lesser supporting character who performs many story functions similar to the Character of Disapproval.)

The Protagonist takes one giant final action to prove to the Character of Attraction, and the world in general, how much he or she really means to him. This action must show the lengths the Protagonist is willing to go in order to be worthy of the Character of Attraction’s love. Melvin appears on Carol’s doorstep in the middle of the night to confess his love. Fletcher stops Max and Audrey’s plane from taking off just so he can see Max again. Shrek disrupts Princess Fiona’s wedding to Lord Farquaad. Max stages a big event that atones for not only his wrongs to Miss Cross, but everyone who has been the victim of his narcissism in the past.

By proving himself in such a dramatic fashion, the Protagonist fully and finally abandons the protective wall he has built around himself through his flaw. He is now willing to be vulnerable and emotionally available to the people around him. With such a show, the Character of Attraction has no choice but to give – maybe not in the way the Protagonist originally wanted – but one that suggests the Protagonist has achieved happiness and satisfaction, and will continue to do so in the future. This was only possible through a full and total change in character. The Protagonist has abandoned the clothing of a flawed ogre and taken on the mantle of a hero.

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