Storytelling According to Pixar Part 3: Giving Your Protagonist Flaws that Children (and Adults) Can Empathize With

This is the third 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!

One of Pixar’s twenty-two rules of storytelling is: you admire a character more for trying than succeeding. Think about all of your favorite novels. I bet your books that you like the protagonists because of their weaknesses, not in spite of them. Do you like Nemo because he was a perfect son, or because he was a crippled fish wanting to break free from his father’s reins? Do you admire Flick because he was a successful inventor, or because most of his inventions flopped? Do you like Woody because he was a rootin’, tootin’ cowboy, or because he was a sad, strange little man?

Last month I talked about making characters memorable. One way to do that is by giving your characters flaws. Readers crave characters who will remind them that they aren’t the only ones who struggle with fear, failure, and locking themselves out of their cars. In fact, flaws are more important than strengths, because weaknesses are ultimately what connects readers to characters. But a flaw that’s added merely as an afterthought will incur readers’ pity for your writing skills. Even though children can’t assess good writing, they will grow into adults who can—which is why we need to create flaws that children and adults can relate to.

Identify the Real Problem Behind Your Protagonist’s Flaws

The trouble with most children’s books is that the protagonist’s weakness is merely outward. Stinky has a habit of lying. Berfurd plays mean tricks. Aberdeen tends to exaggerate. While all these are fine flaws, they lack depth. Why does Stinky lie? Why does Berfurd play mean tricks? Why does Aberdeen exaggerate?

Woody had many outward weaknesses. Throughout the film, he attempts to sabotage Buzz and even lies to his fellow toys. No matter what he did, the crimes weren’t the root of the problem. The reason he did those things was because he was jealous, angry, bitter, and downright stubborn. His feelings were the true culprit of his deeds. In Cars, Lightning McQueen destroys the road in Radiator Springs and tries to escape the consequences. Why? Because of his selfishness.

Let’s take it one step further and ask why our protagonist feels this way. Why was Woody jealous? Because he was afraid of losing Andy’s affection. Why was Lightning McQueen selfish? Because he believed life was only about winning. Our hidden motives cause us to sin visibly. Characters need a reason why they’re acting the way they are. Maybe it’s something from their past. A fear. A want. A need. People, even children, rarely struggle with something simply because it’s a habit. Maybe Stinky lies because he’s afraid of the smelly truth about himself. Maybe Berfurd plays tricks because someone once played a nasty trick on him. Maybe Aberdeen exaggerates because he secretly hates me and wants to defame my name. By supplying reasons behind our protagonist’s sins, we offer children a more complex view of the world and help them to examine the motives behind their own actions.

Give Your Protagonist Deep, Real Flaws

Children are the most innocent of all humankind. They haven’t yet experienced the horrors or hazards of too much caffeine. They can’t understand the feelings of hate, jealousy, or rebellion. Hence the shortcomings of children’s characters should be limited to little white lies or forgetfulness.

Or should they?

Children struggle with the same emotions and desires as adults—and even the ones that don’t witness grownups fighting those battles day in and day out. The same faults that adults have, children have too. The difference is how those flaws are expressed. For example, a child may want to be rich like the kid across the street, so he makes up lies to impress others. An adult, on the other hand, might embezzle his company’s funds to obtain the wealth that will finally give him credibility in the sight of others. Each one had the same desire but manifested it in a different way because of their maturity.

Likewise, children’s characters need to have the same imperfections as characters for mature audiences—only the characters will communicate that fault differently. Usually it’s exhibited in a less violent, yet more colorful (and sometimes amusing) way. Woody’s jealousy often displayed itself in snide remarks about Buzz and foolhardy attempts to demote him. In an adult film, such resent might be shown in hateful words, thoughts, or actions rather than comical insults. However, in both cases, the characters have identical motives and feelings. The selfishness that makes McQueen seek the piston cup at all costs is the same as the man who steps on people so he can become president of the company.

Children lie, cheat, and pick their noses just like adults (yes, as disgusting as it is, some adults do pick their noses)—and their feelings are just as deep. They don’t need more protagonists who shrug off their flaws as if they’re no big deal. Children need characters who wrestle with their feelings to prepare them to fight the weaknesses they’ll face tomorrow as adults.

Making Your Protagonist’s Flaws Memorable for Adults & Kids Alike

You’ve supplied your protagonist with meaningful faults. Is that enough? Maybe for an adult novel, but children like weaknesses that are displayed vividly (it helps them remember the lesson better that way too). So here are a few tips to make your protagonist’s vices unforgettable:

Make it relatable. When I advise making your protagonist’s flaws relatable, I don’t mean they must only struggle with typical, everyday scenarios. If that were the case, only a handful of rotten people could empathize with the problems of a rat. However, almost anyone can sympathize with being an outcast. Likewise, many of the themes in Pixar films are something most people can readily identify with. Everyone knows how it feels to grieve the loss of a loved one as in Up. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel replaced as in Toy Story. And almost everyone knows the aggravation of not being able to find their super suit.

The reason Pixar movies are so massively popular is because they pick ideas that are universal and aren’t restricted to any certain age group, gender, or ethnicity. We should do the same with our protagonist’s struggles. Ask yourself how you can make your protagonist’s faults relatable to everyone. Would you be able to relate to it as a child? How about now as an adult?

Make it funny. Let’s face it, the best character weaknesses are the ones that we can relate to and laugh at. I guess it’s kinda like giggling at yourself for running into the door. Now, the flaw itself isn’t (and shouldn’t be) funny. Because no matter how you slice it or dice it, selfishness, jealousy, fear, etc. are never a laughing matter. But the way a character acts because of their imperfections is a different matter. For example, no one would laugh because Marlin was so fearful for his son’s life. However, the way he had Nemo brush the anemone a gazillion times and follow other unnecessary “precautions” did indeed turn up anyone’s lips.

Another way to humorize it is by the consequences of the fault. For example, Lightning McQueen’s lust for glory stranded him in no-car’s land with a rusty truck who was determined to annoy him to his wheel’s end. Then, when he was determined to show off his talents, he landed in a patch of razor-sharp cactuses. Go ahead and let your protagonist do what they want, then let them have exactly the opposite of what they want. Maybe Stinky wants to deodorize himself, but he doesn’t have the money for perfume, so he steals it. Later he dumps the whole bottle on himself and nearly faints from the fumes—the perfume smells so bad that he can’t even stand it! This is called “poetic justice.” If you use poetic justice humorously, readers learn to laugh at themselves, realizing how foolish and stupid we humans can be sometimes.

Rub your protagonist’s flaw against other characters’ flaws. You know how your siblings’ faults can rub against each other and create friction, often resulting in even bigger messes. Try creating that same electricity with your characters. Besides being entertaining, this will highlight your protagonist’s flaw and help readers to see it clearly. In Toy Story, Buzz’s delusion of being a real space ranger constantly aggravated Woody. That irritation gave viewers an opportunity to see Woody’s animosity full-force; he was so angry that he couldn’t use the words he was looking for because preschool toys were present.

Your Protagonist’s Got Troubles, Readers Got Them Too

Children can’t assess good writing, so writers are urged to create lame weaknesses for protagonists in children’s books, which promotes organizational skills in teenagers. When they grow up, they’ll have no trouble decluttering their rooms—they’ll simply throw the books away.

But if you’re rebellious and don’t want to follow recommendations, craft characters that readers old and young can empathize with. Even though some protagonists may be a little smarter, bigger, and stronger than yours, none of your readers will ever love them the way they do yours.

I hoped you enjoyed this third 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 formable children’s villains without making them scary.

Other posts in this series:

Writing Impactful Children’s Stories

Creating Unforgettable Children’s Characters

13 thoughts on “Storytelling According to Pixar Part 3: Giving Your Protagonist Flaws that Children (and Adults) Can Empathize With

  1. I just love these posts! I’ve had my whole family laughing today about liking Woody for being a sad strange little man.
    *pictures 4 year-old Kassie crying at Sid*…looking forward to next month’s post!
    Aberdeen, what is really your motivation??

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks! 😊 Hahaha! I’m glad you found my article entertaining as well as useful. 😉

      I believe Aberdeen’s motivation is to annoy me to death so he can take over my office and eat all my books. Isn’t that so, Aberdeen? 😏


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