No Film School has published some of Pixar’s tips for creating memorable characters.
From Woody to Nemo, Pixar’s characters have a unique way of sticking with you, whether it’s due to their hilarious banter or heartbreaking humanity. But what is it that makes them so memorable? StudioBinder offers up an explanation in this interesting video:
The video mentions 4 rules but personally, I would sum it up in 3:
- They all have a clear want,
- They all have an unconscious need, and
- They all have character arcs.
They all have a clear want
Woody wants to be Andy’s favorite toy. Bob Parr wants to be Mr. Incredible again. Joy wants to make Riley happy. These are all examples of a character’s external “want“, and all characters have them. It’s what drives them to do what they do throughout the movie.
Or so it seems. Because they also have an unconscious “need.”
They all have an unconscious need
Pixar characters are flawed individuals that require growth in order to address said flaws. The thing that is required for this growth to occur is the character’s “need.”
Crucially, their true internal goals are in direct opposition to their wants. Example: Marlin’s internal goal is to prevent harm, but his external want, to keep Nemo safe and alive, is actually the very thing harming him and keeping him from truly living. He needs to let go and allow Nemo to be in harm’s way in order to give him a life worth living.
This tension between want and need is what drives the character and fuels the character arc.
They all have character arcs
This is the structure that brings it all together: the wants and the needs.
What our story does is put characters through trials and tests, most of which they fail, in order to teach them the lesson they’ve needed to solve their problem. In the process, they grow. At the end of the movie, we find our characters in a very different place. Marlin has learned to let go. In doing so, he has also regained his confidence, which had been shattered when he had lost Coral and the eggs.
Not everyone is so lucky, of course. Whether the character learns the lesson and grows and solves their problem is another story. Villains, for example, rarely let themselves grow – and that’s usually what makes them villains in the first place.
StoryBinder provides a nice rubric in case you want to study this a little further:
- Super Happy Ending: Bob Parr learns teamwork (need) and gets to be a superhero again (want). (The Incredibles)
- Bittersweet Ending (Hero): Carl doesn’t get to live in his house forever (want), but he learns he can create new memories with new friends (need). (Up)
- Bittersweet Ending (Villain): Buddy gets to be a superhero (want) but doesn’t learn to value human (or super) life (need). (The Incredibles)
- Super Sad Ending: Charles Muntz doesn’t let go of his bitterness toward the National Explorer’s Society (need), and his murderous pride keeps him from capturing Kevin (want). (Up)
Developing memorable characters is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do as a writer. Hopefully, this will help. Happy writing!
Read the full post on No Film School.