This is the second installment of a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories; however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
Pixar movies will remain in my heart forever, but even if somehow my mind workers dumped all the plots, twists, and tears of every film into the memory dump, one thing I would always remember: the characters.
How could I ever forget Woody and the snake in his boot? That Kevin is a girl? Or Edna and her prejudice against capes? From the least to the greatest, every character is unique. They don’t blend in with the crowd—instead they are characters you could recognize from a mile away!
Why Children Need Memorable Characters
Adult books tend to pull readers in with an intriguing plot and emotional appeal rather than an eccentric personage. The characters may be far from boring but still lack that special zing of Pixar characters. We still enjoy the company of such characters, but we just want to tackle Pixar characters in a hug and never let go!
I’m not suggesting that every non-villainous character should be that lovable or even lovable at all, especially for novels aimed at older audiences (since teenagers are much too mature to hug people, or so they like to appear). But children need such characters. Children tend to be imitative, and we should give them characters who they not only should mimic but want to mimic.
More than that, we need to give them someone they can relate to—someone they can be friends with. Children, like adults, can feel lonely, and sometimes a fictional character helps fill that void—but only if it’s the right kind of character.
The wrong kind of character can turn readers off, and a boring character will cause readers to turn the light off and go to sleep. I remember reading dozens of books as a child, but only a few of the characters I actually remember. That’s because they weren’t particularly interesting or deep, and my memories of them were not worth cluttering up my brain space. But the memorable characters have stayed with me up until now and are like best friends I’ve known since kindergarten. That’s the kind of characters we need in children’s lit.
Creating such a character is harder than constructing a ten foot castle out of building blocks, but Pixar can show you how to stack them in a way no one will ever forget!
Except for people like Dory, of course.
Block #1: Personableness
No character should be perfect, but no matter how flawed, your characters (particularly your protagonist) should have likable qualities. A certain air about them that makes readers say, like Dug, “I just met you, and I love you—SQUIRREL!”
However, you’ll need much more than a positive trait. In real life, people have lots of good qualities about them. Maybe they’re creative, hopeful, and kind. Or maybe they’re hardworking, confident, and smart. Make a list of all your protagonist’s strengths in order of prominence. Don’t simply give them those traits for no reason though. Why does that character have that quality? Woody was confident because he was Andy’s favorite toy and had been successfully leading the toys for years. Carl was adventurous because he admired Charles Muntz. Dory was positive because she couldn’t remember anything negative. Let your characters’ positive qualities match their personality—just like their flaws.
After you’ve pinpointed your characters’ positive qualities, you’ll want to show them off—and preferably shortly after introducing them. Whenever you first meet someone, you always put your best foot forward, right? The same works with your characters. You want readers to like them. In many ways, a character/reader relationship is much like a friendship. They become acquainted with the character’s good side, and by the time you’ve shown them the character’s crazy/stupid side, it’s too late—they’re hooked!
For example, in Finding Nemo, Marlin is eagerly awaiting the birth of his children. He recounts how he met his wife, Coral, in a crazy manner and acted in a way similar to Dory. Fans saw Marlin had the potential for being adventurous, spontaneous, and even downright obnoxious—all before they saw his overprotectiveness and worry. In The Incredibles, fans cheer Bob on as he saves a man from committing suicide, stops a bomb from exploding, and rescues a cat from a tree before noting his obsession with being a hero, which caused him to be late to his own wedding.
By displaying their strengths initially, you will show readers that this character has the ability to overcome their lie in the end. That doesn’t mean we should hide a character’s flaws in the beginning—in fact, a character’s negative side needs to be evident yet subtle. Oftentimes you can hint at their weaknesses by disguising them to look like a strength. In Inside Out, Joy is being controlling (her weakness) by trying to get Sadness’s hands off the panel to make Riley happy (her strength). Fans thought Joy was doing a good thing even though Joy’s over-assertiveness is what later causes Riley to run away and all her islands to shut down.
One thing to note is that showing characters’ positive sides isn’t a do or die rule, just a guideline—and sometimes we should show readers a character’s weaknesses first. But even then, we can still make them a memorable being who readers will love just as much. One way to do this is by keeping that weakness relatable and/or humorous (I’ll cover this in more detail in next month’s article).
A few ways to determine how to represent your character in his introduction is by asking yourself these questions:
- What is the most defining part of that character?
- What is the first thing you want readers to think when they meet him?
- What emotion do you want readers to feel whenever they see this character (joy, resentment, love, etc.)?
- Does his introduction provide readers with a solid idea of how he will act for the rest of the story?
Block #2: Uniqueness
Few people want boring friends, but even less want to read about boring people (which explains why Pixar strategically chooses to make most of their characters anything but human). Your characters need to be as entertaining as they are lovable. Children adore bright colors, and they adore characters with vibrant personalities.
The most common way to showcase a character’s originality is through his personality—how he views the world, how he acts, what he likes and dislikes. However, Pixar doesn’t stop at that, and neither should you. Here are a few of the areas Pixar paints a colorful character:
Name. With the exception of Bob (which everyone forgets is Mr. Incredible’s non-superhero name), all the Pixar protagonists have an unforgettable name, which is partially due to the characters themselves being so memorable. But it’s much more than that. Their names manifest their personalities—Flik sounds like a peppy dreamer, Sulley sounds like a large and friendly fellow, Woody sounds like a person you’d want for a best bud. Spend some time thinking about who your character is, what he does, how he looks, and where he lives. Does his name give off the same vibe as his character? Pick out a few names that fit and ask your friends and family what images come to mind when they think of that name.
Furthermore, Pixar character names are unique. Although editors and publishers may advise using more common names (beneficial at times—even Pixar uses such names occasionally), a fun name will make that character stand out in readers’ minds. However, the characters’ names aren’t hard to spell (except for Linguini), nor are the names so unique that one would have to learn alien before being able to pronounce it. So we don’t have to give characters bizarre names to make children’s tongues tingle in delight.
Keep in mind that not every character can (or should have) an equally unique name. The unusualness of a name will depend on how distinct the character is and what size part they play. Sally from Cars wasn’t kooky like Mater, nor was she a vitally important character, so it wouldn’t have made sense for her to have a name like Winnifred or Sue-Bell.
Appearance. Children often associate colors and shapes with real-life objects, so you’ll want them to be able to picture your character just by seeing certain combinations of various things. For example, a bright green ball instantly brings to mind Mike Wazowski, orange and white stripes are undoubtedly Nemo, and red, yellow, and black is either Mr. Incredible or a gothic McDonald’s.
I remember I used to complain how unrealistic it was when kiddie shows dressed characters in the same outfit every single episode. Later, I realized that may not have been laziness on the animators’ part—they purposely drew the characters that way to create a solid image of them in children’s minds. You needn’t go to the extreme of having your characters wear the same outfit all the time, but you can still create a standard wardrobe. Does he wear a cowboy hat and a yellow striped shirt? Or maybe he always wears a brownish suit, a bow tie and dark glasses. Whatever it is, keep it consistent so if your readers happen to see someone else wearing those colors, they’ll instantly be reminded of your character!
However, like the positive traits in block #1, they need a reason why they dress/look that way. For example, in my WIP, the sidekick always wears a Hawaiian shirt. This is his distinguishing mark, but it also hints at his past. As a child, he lived in an arctic place and always dreamed of being with his mother, who was traveling in the tropics. Every year at Christmas, she’d send him a Hawaiian shirt. Other times a character dresses a particular way simply because of his profession—e.g., he’s a superhero, so obviously he’s gonna wear a super suit (if he can only find it). But whether the reason is deep or shallow, don’t dress characters in a clown suit just because it’s colorful.
Voice. Unfortunately, writers can’t hire actors to voice their characters like Pixar can, and that’s why it’s crucial that we develop a distinct voice in written form. How would the character say something differently from you and others? Is he more optimistic or pessimistic? How can you convey that through his words and thoughts? How does he express his emotions and when? Try making a list of some of his favorite words and sentence structures. Also, you could make up colorful phrases/expressions that meshes well with the story world and his personality (Kachow, just keep swimming, hey howdy hey, etc.).
Species. Humans aren’t the only option for compelling characters—and children’s books are the perfect place to turn your characters into anything you want! Does your story have to be told from the perspective of a human? Or can it be told from the viewpoint of a toy, a rat, or an elephant that’s part elephant, part cat, and part dolphin?
Sometimes stories must be told from a human’s viewpoint, but many times you can personify an inanimate object or creature and offer readers a different perspective. As I’ve already said before, but I think it’s worth saying again—the themes/plot of Pixar’s movies could have been told in more common format. They didn’t have to be about monsters or fish or cars. By choosing unusual creatures for their characters, they showed people truths about themselves and the world in a way that viewers may have never thought of otherwise.
Block #3: Imperfection
A character who is all sunshine will blind readers and make them see those annoying little blue/purple dots for the rest of the day. Children’s authors must be careful to create characters who are lovable and relatable. Have you ever felt like it’s harder to make friends with someone who seems to have everything together 24/7 than someone who trips over their own shoelaces and laughs about it? Likewise, readers will bond easier with a character who has flaws than one who doesn’t.
Since crafting realistic character flaws is a subject of its own, I’ve decided to write a whole article about it next month and delve into this further.
Block #4: Depth
Many children’s novels have crafted interesting, lovable, flawed characters, and we adore them—but have you ever come back from reading about them and felt empty? You know they never cease to entertain you, but that’s all they seem to do. A truly memorable character should resonate with something inside of you and give you more than a laugh.
Children’s stories should be somewhat simple—but that simplicity allows us to explore the depths of character complexity. Buzz was more than a child’s plaything. He was a bold, brave, caring toy who wanted to be all that Andy thought of him, not realizing that a child’s happiness was as important as defeating Zurg and exploring space. Mike was more than a one-eyed monster. He was a dreamer who was determined to be a top scarer despite his size handicap. Violet was more than a superhero’s daughter. She was an insecure girl who wanted to be herself without feeling ashamed.
What Pixar teachers about characters is that there’s more to them than meets the eye. They have their pasts, their dreams, their failures—and all those weave together to create a beautiful tapestry of the characters’ charms. While you’re creating your main characters, try fleshing them out. What makes them who they are? What parts of their past/present have shaped them? What effect does their dream have on them?
Take time to develop their backstories. Pixar is known for their heart-wrenching prologues. Carl’s introduction to Ellie, Riley’s growing up, Dory’s life with her parents—all those helped us to understand the characters. Prologues are normally frowned upon, and rightly so because most are simply sad, strange little info dumps that deserve our pity. But even info dumps can be useful—you may never show a character’s backstory to readers, but developing it can help you understand your character and make him compelling. For example, in my WIP, I wrote a 2,000+ word prologue for my protagonists. Most of it was scrapped, but writing it enabled me to deepen my character’s personality.
You’ve Got a Character in Me
Your character deserves an epic story, but more than that, your story deserves an epic character. Who wouldn’t want to create a character every child wants to dress up as, own a toy for, and grow up to buy all the graphic T-shirts with that character’s picture on it (because I totally do that)? Childhood is short, so why not give them a character who will help them remember the wonder of youth long after they’ve grown up?
I hoped you enjoyed this second post in our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about creating realistic character flaws.
To read the introduction to this series, please click here.