Many characters follow codes of conduct laid down by others, be they the Ten Commandments, the rules of medieval chivalry, the tenets of Bushido, rules that a policeman father instills in his adopted, serial-killer son, or hosts of others. But it takes special kinds of characters to come up with their own personal code to live by: self-derived, idiosyncratic, either ethical or practical, and not always entirely sane. (It’s also sadly telling that the vast majority of characters granted this kind of moral agency, whether ludicrous or noble, are male.) For instance, take Bud, the veteran car repossessor in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Played with weary weirdness by Harry Dean Stanton, Bud takes his young apprentice Emilio Estevez under his wing and shows him the repo ropes—and in doing so, reveals his so-called “Repo Code,” a practical and ethical system of conduct he follows while repossessing cars, a job not necessarily known for its ethics. A sample rule: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm.” It’s a nod toward Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics—appropriate, considering Repo Man’s gonzo sci-fi bent—but it’s entirely a dictate of Bud’s feverish brain.
“I survive because I play it safe and follow the rules. My rules.” So vows Columbus, the young protagonist of Zombieland. In the zombiepocalypse dystopia in which the film is set, the stereotypical mindless, undead hordes have risen to plague the tattered remains of human civilization. Zombieland plays it with a lighter tone, though, even as it pours on the gore—and much of that lightness comes from Columbus’ list of “The Rules,” a running catalog of dictums that amounts to a veritable constitution of zombie-avoiding and zombie-killing. The movie’s cool, catchphrase-ready horror is best summed up in rule two: “Double tap.” In other words, never assume you’ve actually finished off a zombie with the first blow.
By the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show’s producers surely knew how many fans felt about Wesley Crusher, the boy wonder who was the vessel for some of TNG’s most grating dialogue. So when he returned for the episode “The Game,” the writers apparently schemed to create an even more annoying character who might make Wesley seem cool by comparison. That character was Robin Lefler, an engineering specialist who shares with Wesley her code of 102 personal “laws” (only five of which, mercifully, are heard in the episode). It’s bad enough that Lefler’s personal ethos is a pile of clichés like “always watch your back” and “you gotta go with what works.” Worse yet, she’s sloppy. Does she really need both law one, “You can only count on yourself,” and law 17, “When all else fails, do it yourself”? Star Trek would later extend this insipid rule-making to an entire culture with the commerce-minded Ferengi Rules Of Acquisition, which debuted later in TNG’s fifth season and proliferated on Deep Space Nine.
The words of Baltimore’s most feared stick-up artist are known in Charm City as well as the Seven Kingdoms: “A man got to have a code.” The shotgun-packing, Honey Nut Cheerios-loving antihero played by Michael K. Williams lives these words to the fullest, targeting only drug dealers and leaving civilians out of his rip-and-run operations. A bogeyman strolling in and out of the shadows of The Wire’s five seasons, Omar works alone (with the exception of the occasional lover-turned-accomplice) and works for himself, all the better to manipulate the city’s criminal organizations into tearing themselves apart. These rigid standards—outdone only by the self-discipline of his deadly, gang-associated rival, Brother Mouzone—are Omar’s method of finding justice in an unjust world. He knows how the system works, and his lone-wolf morality works that system to his advantage. Called out in court for this perceived opportunism, Omar spins the accusations of a mob lawyer right back around: “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?”
“Passion is the enemy of precision,” explains Daryl Zero, and as the self-described greatest private investigator in the world, he may be on to something. A shut-in who’s turned his basic fear and mistrust of humanity into a personal code of detachment, Daryl lives a life of self-enforced detachment. He has a variety of tactics when it comes to following people, looking for things, and solving crimes, but his most fundamental belief is in holding himself separate from the regular run of humanity. It’s this code which both enables him to remain objective in observation but renders him a complete mess as a human being.
Consummate womanizer Barney Stinson could not pull off his feats of flirtatious fancy with such grace without a playbook to guide him along the way. Enter The Bro Code, the product of an argument over a woman between Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. It made its first appearance in season three’s “The Goat” after Barney sleeps with Robin. Rules include simple affirmations such as “A bro that calls dibs first, has dibs,” to the more complex Hot/Crazy Scale (beware the Vicky Mendoza Diagonal). Stinson acolytes, of course, can find The Bro Code at bookstores near them.
Parks And Recreation protagonist Leslie Knope has a definite ethos: a belief in good government, and what she once described as “Hoes before bros. Uteruses before duderuses.” But fiercely libertarian boss Ron Swanson has a code. That code is outlined, in chart form, in the season-three premiere “Go Big Or Go Home.” The Internet-meme-ready Ron Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness includes stoic, manly credos like “Friends: One to three is sufficient,” “Crying: Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon,” And “Skim Milk: That’s right, it’s on here twice. Avoid it.”
Seeing as how he’s an ex-Marine, it should come as no surprise that NCIS’ Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives life according to a strict set of rules. Gibbs’ rules are numerous and varied—number 45 is “clean up your messes,” while rule number 22 is “never, ever bother Gibbs in interrogation”—but pretty much all have something to do with doing good and getting the job done. Number 15 is “always work as a team,” number two is “always wear gloves at a crime scene,” and number four is “never be unreachable.” The rules trickled down to Gibbs’ NCIS team, who adhere to the 50 tenets fairly strictly, albeit—given the number of slaps to the back of the head Tony DiNozzo has received—not quite as strictly as Gibbs might like.
Throughout the centuries, the time-traveling Doctor is supposed to uphold the Laws Of Time, but he’s generally more concerned with his own rules, which are meant to guide his actions and those of the people he takes traveling in the TARDIS. Back in 1978, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor offered three rules to a new companion—“Do exactly what I say,” “Stick close to me,” and “Let me do all the talking”—but it’s the new series’ Doctors who devised their own massive personal code. There’s rule eight: “Never ignore a coincidence, unless you’re busy, then always ignore a coincidence.” There’s rule 408: “Time is not the boss of you.” But all pale next to rule one, alternately given as “Don’t wander off” and “The Doctor lies.”
They call Frank Martin “The Transporter” because, well, he’s really good at transporting stuff. More specifically, he’ll transport anything or anyone anywhere, no questions asked, and does so while following three rules to the letter: Never change the deal, no names, and never open the package. Inevitably, things descend into chaos for Frank when he ends up breaking one of his rules, a moment which hardly comes as a surprise, given the film’s trailer pointedly features one of Frank’s clients snapping, “You broke the rules!” (It’s also worth noting that the trailer’s narration prominently includes the one-liner, “Rules are made to be broken!”) All told, however, following the rules still seems to work well for Frank; despite breaking them on occasion, he’s still gone on to earn two cinematic sequels and a TV series.
As Michael J. Fox’s Scott Howard struggles to balance life as a werewolf and a star high school basketball player, he occasionally turns to Coach Bobby Finstock for guidance. The coach is generally too busy with his own problems to be much help—the IRS is coming down on him like it’s some personal vendetta—but he does share this legendary code of ethics: “There’s three rules that I live by: Never get less than 12 hours sleep, never play cards with a guy who’s got the same first name as a city, and never go near a lady who’s got a tattoo of a dagger on her body. Now you stick with that, and everything else is cream cheese.” Michael J. Fox is about as comforted by this as one might expect.
Pretty Woman is an unlikely film to find a personal code—it’s a romantic comedy directed by Garry Marshall that makes liberal use of the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype, after all. But Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian Ward, comes into the film with rules she lives by: One, never kiss on the mouth. Two, always use protection. (She has a fun array of condoms for her johns to choose from.) The code is one of the few vestiges of the bleaker movie Pretty Woman was intended to be—a film about the dark side of Hollywood’s glamour, offering a view of prostitutes addicted to drugs and occasionally ending up dead. Vivian’s code reveals a character who is less looking for love and more just trying to survive. “You just stay numb, you don’t get involved,” she says in the original screenplay. “When I’m with a guy, I’m like a robot. I just do it.” Of course, Vivian’s code gets broken, because of emotional intimacy and other gushy stuff. It’s interesting, though: Of all the characters on this list, most are men—and of the two women, only Vivian occupies a world meant to be our own.