Pixar Rules of Story #1 – Characters you Admire
You admire a character for trying more than for their successes
Pixar’s first rule explores what it is about a character that makes us want to spend a couple of hours in their company; and it isn’t as simple as making them likeable. I “like” the lady who helps my kids cross the road to school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to spend the day with her. Blake Snyder talks about “Saving the Cat” – giving your characters (usually the protag) something to do that is positive, to illicit sympathy from the audience. You can do that, there is nothing wrong with it, but is “likeable” the same as “interesting” – does it make us “admire” those characters?
For me empathy is what this rule suggests we should be shooting for. Why should we want to spend time with these characters? Likeability only takes us so far – we need to empathise with the character and their plight. We need some sort of emotional connection with them and their situation – something that makes them interesting.
And that is where “trying” comes into it. A character doesn’t have to succeed to be interesting, but they have to try, and we want to watch them struggle and strive against something. We all struggle in everyday life to different degrees and for different reasons and this gives us the ability to be empathetic to characters we see on screen. When they struggle, we see ourselves and our own lives reflected in their struggle. We “understand” what they are going through. Depending on the character, we may even want them to succeed.
George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, is plenty likeable. However, if he had achieved everything he wanted without a struggle, one of the greatest films ever made would have been, quite possibly, one of the most boring. George fights throughout the movie to get away from Bedford Falls, to follow his dreams and escape. But he is thwarted at every turn and his struggle just gets harder and harder throughout the film to the point of ultimate despair; and we are right there with him. We know what he is going through and we understand his plight. When he is at his lowest ebb, we empathise completely with him, we share his frustration and despair vicariously. We fully understand why he might make that awful decision.
This doesn’t just have to work for the Protagonist either, it can apply to any character to a greater or lesser extent. Because we are talking about empathy and understanding we can find Nemesis or “evil” characters interesting because we can still find empathy in, and connection to, their struggle. We may not like them, but we can understand them.
General Zod in Man of Steel proves this point. He is a shouty, knee-jerk kind of soldier, but he is simply trying to save his planet and his people. He may do bad things but he is struggling against extinction. So, while we might not agree with his actions, we can understand them and empathise with his desire to survive. If there was nothing to empathise with, would we give a damn whether he succeeded or failed? Because he has a reason to act the way he does (rather than just because he is angry) we find ourselves interested – we have a stake in the story.
So ultimately, we are aiming NOT (necessarily) for likeable characters, but interesting characters that are going to be great to spend some time with.
Obviously there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, and Stephan discusses this further in his eBook. If you haven’t read it yet, have a look at Rule#1 and see what you make of the discussion and issues at hand.
How do you ensure your characters are interesting?
Who are the empathetic “evil” characters you love?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #2 – Know your Audience
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)