This is the eighth 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!
Romance and spinach have two things in common. Most sane kids don’t like them. According to that definition, I must still be a child because romance makes me wrinkle my nose like any common 8-year-old. Give me an adventure story any day.
I typically skip writing romance in any shape or form since I dislike it, and I write children’s books exclusively. But a few of my stories called for a romantic element, so how would I do that without making my face turn green while I’m writing?
As you probably already know, Pixar is my go-to in children’s storytelling. I adore their movies and proudly wear t-shirts with their characters plastered on them. But almost all of their films contain romance in some form—and I even like it despite my convictions.
The 3 Types of Romance
Many forms of love exist, but Pixar typically uses one of these three. I’ve labeled them for clarity, memory, and because I like naming things.
The Crush. This type is the most common and welcomed form of romance in children’s lit. As the 2016 Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market says, “romance, if any, is limited to a crush or a first kiss.” This love is usually fluttery and may or may not last depending on the story and characters. This type generally isn’t prominent in the story and doesn’t add much to the plot line. In Pixar movies, this love is usually involving sidekicks or side characters. A few of the Pixar couples that would fall under this category are: Violet and Tony, Mike and Celia, and Buzz and Jessie.
The Cute. This one is similar to the crush, except it’s a little more serious and (usually) more prominent in the story. The love is often sweet and adorable, giving people warm fuzzies. Unlike the above, this one is typically felt by protagonists (for Pixar at least). Examples of this include: Woody and Bo Peep, Flick and Etta, Linguini and Colette, and Lightning McQueen and Sally.
The Concrete. Although this is the least common, I find it the most intriguing since it’s difficult to master in children’s fiction. The relationship is a deep, long-lasting love that’s essential to the plot. Some of the couples that exhibit this are: Carl and Ellie, Wall-E and Eve, and Bob and Helen Parr.
The concrete is the romance I’ll be focusing on throughout the article since it’s the hardest and most important of the three. If you execute it well, you can teach children the depth of true love without them squirming in their seats. But you’ll want avoid three pitfalls.
1. Physical Embrace
I’ve seen lots of people kissing each other in public—in the movies. Normal people don’t go around hugging and kissing each other all the time; not even newlyweds. Kissing and physical embrace shouldn’t be labeled as taboo since it’s a part of life, and many children have seen their parents do so. But too much is like pouring powdered sugar on a cake that has seven layers of icing.
Instead, display love in different ways than physical touch. Have your characters embark on adventures—show them building a house side by side, painting mailboxes. Show them protecting each other from lightning and storms, following each other into space when necessary. Show them crying when they think their wife and children have been killed in a plane crash.
And isn’t that what true love really is? Love is doing things together, staying near during rough times, and kissing is just the surface of love. By doing this, you’re showing kids the right kind of love. Not the hallmark-y, fairy-tale romance that ends in a wedding and everyone lives (mostly) happily ever after. You are showing them the love that lasts beyond the honeymoon—the love endures through disagreements, jealousy, poverty, and grows stronger with each new wrinkle.
And if you ditch all the kissing and hugging stuff, you have a chance to be creative with your romance. What other ways can your characters express love? How can you make it unique to their particular relationship and story?
Overdoing romance might seem like the above advice of kissing and hugging. But even though that’s included, I’m not talking about that here. What I’m saying is giving romance too much scene time in your story.
Most of the Pixar movies feature romance, but the whole story doesn’t revolve around it. Many are minor enough not even to be considered as a subplot.
Who did we see more together in Toy Story? Bo Peep and Woody, or Woody and Buzz? Rather, the romance/crush added an extra zing to the plot. Other Pixar couples such as Wall-E and Eve have much more screen time, but that still isn’t the main theme. Neither is it in Up or in The Incredibles. Wall-E is about living instead of simply surviving.* Up is about discovering adventure in every day. The Incredibles is about remembering that people stand stronger together. Romance is a part of life, but not life itself—life is much bigger than that. It’s love, hate, truth, lies, courage, cowardice, and much more than one could fit into a hundred novels. Instead of making true love your story’s theme, try picking something children can relate to now. Let the romance become a subplot or use it to illustrate another theme like being true to yourself or carrying on when life knocks you over.
Also, avoid having too many love circles. Pixar usually only showcases one romance per movie. When Mike had a girlfriend, Sulley did not. When Carl had a wife, Russell had a talking dog. When Buzz had Jessie, Bo Peep got deleted from the plot (at least for Toy Story 3). Determine which character needs a romantic interest and leave it at that. After all, this is a children’s book, not When Calls the Heart.
Prince Charming makes boys roll their eyes and girls dream of nonexistent men. Glass slippers, first kisses, and even love-hate relationships have become cliche—and children can read the first signs of it ten pages away and would’ve stop reading if their mom hadn’t forced them to finish it.
But what if the romance is funny, unique, and interesting? The poor kids won’t notice it until it’s too late; and by that time they’ve fallen in love with the characters.
What makes your two love birds’ relationship different? As I mentioned in a previous article about friends, you need to give them their own special love language and this definitely applies here. Why are they attracted to each other? How did they meet? Why did they fall in love with each other instead of someone else? What is the very first thing that captured their attention about the other person?
Try putting unlikely characters together and see what happens. What about a boy who doesn’t talk much and a girl who talks too much? Or a sentimental garbage collector and an emotionless inspector? Or even do the unlikely thing and put two people who are similar together (because no one ever does that anymore). Make their interactions fun and imaginative, even funny. Kids won’t notice a hilarious romance because they’re laughing too hard to grimace. Have the lover speak to their girl in Spanish and dance the tango. Or maybe they tell their future hubby about the place that’s like America, but south. Or maybe they are so busy saving a cat from a tree that they arrive late to their wedding.
Sometimes I’m so Romantic I Think I Should Marry Myself
As much as I hate to admit it, I wouldn’t eliminate Pixar’s romances for the world. They make me smile and wish for my own Carl Fredrickson. The love adds a bit of sweetness that isn’t sickening and works great to balance all the adventure and humor. But the best part is that it teaches us that love isn’t sappy or sickening—rather something that is wonderful and enriching.
Unless of course, you’re a volcano singing about having somebody to lava and the tune gets stuck in your head…
I hoped you enjoyed this eighth 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 building fascinating worlds.
For the rest of the posts in this series:
*Writer blooper reel. I originally wrote: “Wall-E is about living instead of simply surfing.” I’m glad that living is about more than surfing. XD