Storytelling According to Pixar Part 6: 3 Ways to Craft Character Friendships That Will Last to Infinity & Beyond!

This is the sixth installment in 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!

I think Pixar has enough friendship quotes that they could engrave them all on the Grand Canyon and still have some to spare. Almost every movie has a friendship theme. Friendship is a theme anyone can relate to, which is why I think their movies are massively popular. Not everyone has a romantic interest. Not all have children. Not all writers have a dinosaur assistant. But all people, at some point in their life, have had a friend.

But that’s not what connects us to Pixar films and makes us lasting fans. Rather, it’s how they depict those friendships between the characters that makes us want to snatch them in hug and make them our squishy.

1. Give the Relationship Flaws

One of the things I’m annoyed by in some children’s literature is that the friendships are much too perfect. Some go a little deeper and throw in argument or two, but usually it’s over something stupid like the proper way to peel a banana. Stupid augments are fine, funny, and even realistic since real life relationships have lots of inane augments.

But relationships should have serious arguments to balance out the stupid ones. We are imperfect creatures, and putting two imperfect beings together doesn’t make perfection anymore than two cracked legs can make an even table. We forget togetherness doesn’t mean friends are together on everything—each person (or fish, car, or monster) will have different views, goals, and opinions.

For example, let’s observe some of the differing goals of the friends in many of the Pixar movies:

• Mike wanted to send Boo back; Sulley wanted to keep her.

• Dory wanted to help Marlin; Marlin simply wanted her to stop pestering him.

• McQueen wanted to win the Piston cup; Mater wanted to go tractor tipping.

• Woody wanted to return to Andy; Buzz wanted to stay at Sunnyside.

• Joy wanted to keep Sadness away from the core memories; Sadness wanted to touch the memories.

All these friends wanted the opposite of what the other friend desired, and that caused friction. However, sometimes friends do share the same goals/opinions and pursue it together. But how they go about it can wreak havoc. For example, Joy and Sadness wanted the best for Riley. But Joy was trying to make Riley happy, whereas Sadness was content to let Riley sort through her emotions as needed. In Up, Carl and Russell hungered for adventure. But Carl wanted to go to Paradise Falls, whereas Russell wanted to save the bird. Give your characters different ways of dealing with the problem. That will put them at odds with each, but it will help them to discover the correct way of dealing with the issue. For example, Joy would never have learned the benefits of sorrow had Sadness never intervened, nor would she have learned to let go and stop being so controlling. Likewise, Russell’s dedication to Kevin’s protection showed Carl the true spirit of adventure doesn’t lie in what we do, but who we’re with.

Differing goals and opinions aren’t the only way to introduce flaws into a friendship though—each character brings along a set of bad habits. Try asking yourself: How does the other friend deal with it? Do they respond to their friend’s annoying song about swimming by shouting “stop!” or do they ignore it? Do they continually try to push their friend aside when they’re at the control panel?

Friction in a friendship is much more than two characters arguing with each other. Sometimes they don’t even argue at all. And an argument isn’t as important as all the actions that caused the fight in first place—sometimes it can’t even be addressed in an argument. Sometimes the problem is much deeper than a vivid discourse and comes out through other ways such as ignoring the person, belittling their advice, nagging them, minimal excitement over their triumphs, etc.

However, in midst of giving your friendship flaws, remember to give it some high points (unless, of course, the other friend is a cheat). Despite their differences, all the Pixar pals were brought back together. Ultimately, their flaws were what helped the characters see themselves in a better light and brought them closer together.

2. Give the Friendship a Purpose

The second most annoying thing about friends in children’s books is that they hold no real purpose other than to give the character a pep talk now and then. A real friend does so much more than that—they help shape our lives—and our protagonists’ friends should help flesh out their arc.

Dory’s positivity helped Marlin to stop worrying and start living. Linguini’s awkwardness showed Remi how to accept himself for who he was instead of being someone he’s not. Buzz’s obstinacy helped Woody to see his own. You need to make your character’s friends so that they wouldn’t be the same person without them. What would happen if they weren’t friends? Would the plot fall apart? Would the protagonist be the same?

The other factor to consider is how does their friendship relate to the story’s theme? Although most of the Pixar friends are prominent, some are more minor. Take Frozone for example. He probably has the smallest part out of all the Pixar besties, only making an appearance at the beginning and end of the movie. Why didn’t Pixar have him go with Bob to the island and help him defeat the omnidroids? Because Frozone wasn’t necessary to bring out the storyline. Rather, he would’ve distracted the audience from the theme since the plot was focusing on Bob’s relationship to his family, not his friends. In cases like that, it’s best to have the friends play a more minor role. On the other hand, Buzz, Mike, Sadness, and Russell were all key elements in bringing about the theme, therefore needing a prominent part.

3. Make the Friendship Unique

Even identical twins have their differences, and our character’s friends shouldn’t be exactly alike. However, they shouldn’t be polar opposites either. You’ve probably heard the expression that opposites attract, but I’ve never found that to be one hundred percent true. People need something to tie them together, and it’s that one little something that brings them together despite their differences.

Try to identify what is that special something that keeps your characters together. Is it something in their past? A value or belief? Is it a common pursuit of a certain dream? Woody and Buzz stuck together because they knew the importance of making a child happy. McQueen and Mater stayed together because they appreciated the peacefulness of the slow lane. Mike and Sulley remained together because each of them was weak where the other one was strong, and that made them a perfect team. Your characters must need each other for some reason. Try asking yourself these questions to discover their similarities and differences:

What is one thing one thing one character loves that the other hates?

What is one positive and negative trait they share? What is one they do not?

How does one character see the world versus the other? If the same or different, why or why not?

What values/beliefs do they cherish?

Do they share the same or similar dreams? If not, do their dreams compliment each other?

Also, you can make the friendship unique by making their relationship and how they interact with the other unique. Don’t model them after a typical friend relationship—give them a love language all their own. Do they joke a lot? What kind of jokes? Corny? Sarcastic? Puns? What activities do they like to do together? In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz showed their love in many ways. They were always by the other’s side, Woody correcting Buzz’s mispronunciations and sch’moes (Sorry, I could resist)! In Monsters, Inc., Sulley would calm down Mike when he was overreacting and Mike would come up with a bunch of stupid plans to help him.

In addition, ask what kind of role the characters play in the relationship. Are they a supporting friend? An adviser? A cheerleader? Someone who makes them laugh? How did they meet? Try writing some scenes with them interacting and doing stuff together (even if you don’t use it in the book). This may help you refine their relationship and give you a better understanding of their character.

Who’s Your Friend who Likes to Write?

Some fictional friendships are soon forgotten. We grow out of the juvenile, simplistic relationship and our mind workers throw all memories of them into the dump. In real life, friends come and go. The true ones will stay by our side forever, and so will a story that portrays such a friendship.

And believe me, a great friendship will take readers to the moon for you.

I hoped you enjoyed this sixth post to 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 crafting realistic parents in children’s stories.

For the rest of the posts in this series:

Writing Impactful Children’s Stories.

Creating Unforgettable Children’s Characters.

Giving Your Protagonist Flaws Children (and Adults) Can Empathize With.

Creating Formidable Villains for Children Without Making Them Scary.

Writing Compelling Stories Without Villains.

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