Storytelling According to Pixar Part 7: Developing Realistic Parents Children Can Understand, Relate, & Love

This is the seventh 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’ve noticed three things about parents in stories. They’re either perfect, abusive, or dead. Perfect parents have their place, abusive parents have their place, and dead parents have their place in Disney princess movies—but they shouldn’t be the norm. After all, the average child will have living parents who are neither perfect nor tyrants.

Perhaps one of the reasons parents are represented this way is because storytellers see them as unnecessary—an extra character who is simply there because the character has to come from someone after all. Might as well be a parent, right? But parents usually play an important role in a child’s growing up—they are the ones who taught us and formed us into who we are today.

Pixar has already shown us how to craft realistic villains, protagonists, and friends, so it’s not surprising they rock at parent portrayal too. If someone told you a child would adore a story about a parent, you’d probably think I was telling you a tall tale. Yet Pixar has created two original films with the parents as the protagonist, and children loved them!

That’s because they let the children see the inside of the parent’s soul.

Show the Parent’s Side

“You don’t understand!” Violet flings her suit against the wall and storms off. How many times have children felt this way? How many times did you feel that way when you were growing up? Even if you have great parents like me, you still probably felt that way at least once in your life. But how many times did we stop to think that we didn’t understand how our parents felt. They must deal with a temperamental child (without getting angry themselves) in midst of caring for a screaming baby and worrying about whether they’ll keep their job.

Parents aren’t simply parents—they are human beings. Even though most fiction typically casts parents as mentors, this isn’t always true. True, parents give wonderful advice, but don’t be afraid to show that they need advice too—like any other character. Maybe they won’t cry if someone bullies them at work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t battling self-doubt and depression on the inside. Maybe they won’t pretend they are slaying dragons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t imagine. They may not be learning their ABCs, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing a new concept every day.

If you only show how the child is feeling, you’ll have a one-sided story. If you let readers see how the adult is feeling, you’ll build a window in which the child can peep into the lives of parents and see that they’re not all that different.

But first, you’ll need three tools to construct that window.

1. Emotions

Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear operated the control panel in Riley’s mind—and her parents. They both had emotions running deep (and sometimes wreaking havoc). Parents aren’t beings who only respond with love and understanding. They might be frustrated or annoyed—even nervous and afraid. Mr. Incredible was confused and enraged that math was not math. Marlin was so worried he couldn’t tell a decent joke even though he was a clownfish. Riley’s dad was puzzled why his wife was glaring at him at the dinner table.

However, feelings aren’t enough. We must shed the light beyond their emotions to why they feel that way. In Finding Nemo, Marlin was often worried about Nemo’s safety (like any parent). But that wasn’t just parental instinct—Marlin was terrified of losing him because of the tragic accident with his wife and children.

Likewise, in The Incredibles, Helen and Bob were often angry with each other—but not because parents like to fight about things. Bob was vexed about working at an office job instead of being able to do what he wanted, which manifested itself in his family interactions. Meanwhile, Helen dealt with the strain of Dash’s misbehavior and Violet’s melancholy while Bob didn’t seem to be helping.

When you show the reason behind parents’ emotions, you help kids connect with their parents. A child may not worry about their offspring’s safety as Marlin did, but they can understand the fear behind losing someone or something you cherish. A child may not have to work at an office job, but they can understand being caged and not being where you want to be.

2. Problems

Kids got troubles, but parents got ‘em too. Sometimes children forget that and think adults have it easy. Adults make the rules and can do whatever they want, right? But you know as well as I do that we can’t do anything the way we want, how we want, and we try to fix it all by drowning ourselves in coffee.

Marlin encountered bombs, sharks, jellyfish, and a fish her couldn’t remember her own name while Nemo tackled a fish murdering Darla. Bob battled omnidroids while Violet and Dash escaped from attacking jets. Both the children and the parents met with external tension, which increases the overall pressure for both sides. The parents worry about the kids, and the kids fear for their parents. But that isn’t all it does. When you layer troubles upon the parents, you show kids that no one outgrows life struggles. We win sometimes, but we lose too. We are strong, but also weak. Their parents aren’t superheroes, and even when they are, they still have aching backs and supersuits they can’t find.

Ask yourself what does your character’s parents struggle with and why? What are their weaknesses emotionally, mentally, and physically? How does this affect their relationship with their children? How does your character feel and how do they view their parents? How can you tie in the parents problems with the children’s? In Finding Nemo, Nemo and Marlin sought to find each other. Bob, Helen, Dash, and Violet all fought Syndrone. The parents problems were the children’s and vice versa. By giving the parents and children common struggles and goals, you help young readers sympathize with adults and realize we’re all fighting the same battles.

3. Personality

Mothers are warm, kind, good at cooking, and finding things you’ve lost. Dads are strong and hardworking, and can fix anything. But what about the mothers who nearly burn down the house at supper time? What about the fathers who can’t tell the difference between a screw driver and a hammer?

Depicting mothers as warm and excellent chefs or fathers as strong and mechanical isn’t inaccurate. Many moms and dads fit that image, but not all, and even the ones that do have their own little quirks that make them unique. Bob was undeniably big and strong like any dad (or rather, unlike any dad), but he had a habit of breaking things and not being able to fix them. Marlin was neither big nor strong and fretted like a mom rather than a dad.

When you create parental characters, first think about who they were before they had children. This will help you to create living, breathing people rather than motherly/fatherly caricatures.

You could even go a step further and think about how they acted as children and how that relates to their current demeanor. A spunky, irresponsible girl isn’t going to be a calm, responsible mom. Instead she’d become a mom who can’t keep house and takes her children on adventures. A quiet, book-loving boy won’t become a joking, sport addicted dad. Instead, he’ll grow into a serious, philosophical dad who corrects his son’s grammar.

Done Properly, Parenting is a Heroic Act.

When we’re young, we act as if our parents were never kids, and that they couldn’t possibly remember if they had been. But as adult writers, we can show children something about adults they didn’t know about. Adults still love fairytales, licking ice cream cones, and splashing in the ocean. They still feel left out, disappointed, and forgotten. They cry, they laugh, they learn—and if your story makes kids realize this truth, maybe they’ll stop to think a moment before they whine to their mom. Maybe they won’t question their dad when he tells them they can’t go out alone at night.

Maybe, they’ll understand their parents feelings, and that will bring them together forever.

I hoped you enjoyed this seventh 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 romance in children’s fiction.

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.

Crafting Lasting Character Friendships

10 thoughts on “Storytelling According to Pixar Part 7: Developing Realistic Parents Children Can Understand, Relate, & Love

  1. “They’re either perfect, abusive, or dead.” So accurate! 😀 I’m glad you touched on this subject because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about after reading 100 Cupboards and seeing the way N.D. Wilson handled having so many parents and adults in his stories. I love it when a parent (or a parent figure…like in The Mysterious Benedict Society, which uses a parent figure SO well in the form of Mr. Benedict) is relevant to the plot and not just, well, dead…or simply a seemingly necessary bother that feels pasted on and worthless.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve heard a lot of good things about 100 Cupboards and The Mysterious Benedict Society, but I have yet to read them…along with a hundred other wonderful books I need to read. 😂 But after hearing what you said, I wanna read them even more! 😍

      Liked by 1 person

    1. *briefly googles why Disney parents always die*

      Google says Walt Disney’s mom died from an accident and he always blamed himself.

      *sobs*

      I was not prepared for that! 😭😭😭

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are always so good!! And wow, also a neat reminder of how my mind worked as a little kid…maybe that portrayal of kids and their parents is part of the reason I love Pixar so much!! I don’t always think I write the most functional families—i mean, one MC’s, yeah, but the premise of my WIP is that the other MC’s parents kept a pretty big secret from her for years?—so every time someone compliments the strong functional families in my stories I wonder what they’re used to reading… 😂

    Liked by 2 people

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