Pixar Rules of Story #15 – Know your Characters (part 1)
If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
At first glance, Rule #15 may appear to be asking the question, “what would you do in this situation?” But it goes a bit further than that. The audience doesn’t really want to know what YOU would do in a given situation, they want to know what your character would do. You have to put your own world-view aside and get into the mind of your character to understand and instinctively know what THEY would do in a given situation.
To do this you have to know your character, their needs and wants, their outlook on the world you are creating and their relationship with the theme of the story. All of those things will influence the way they react when faced with a question, threat, antagonist or decision.
Some people may do this by writing extensive biographies from birth to just before the story starts, so that they know every little bit of their character’s psyche and how they will react. Others may use questionnaires or interviews with their characters to get to know them. Ultimately, you need to use the tools that work for you to get to know your characters inside out, so they come alive on paper and make the right decisions at the appropriate point in the story.
We want to know what your protagonist will do when on her knees and facing the barrel of a gun, NOT what you would do. You know yourself really well, so spend some time with your characters.
Other Pixar Rules have implored us to experiment – to try something other than the obvious and to not always go with the first thing we think of and the same goes for deciding how your character reacts. Their behaviour can appear bizarre or outlandish, as long as it fits with what the audience has come to expect of them and the world in which the story takes place. This is where the bit about honesty comes in. Be honest with your characters and your audience and they will accept everything you throw at them. Build the world you want your character to live in, make it believable and credible within its own rules. You can then make any decisions you want, sending your characters in any direction, as long as the world is built carefully and with honesty. If you do this well, the audience will willingly suspend disbelief.
Sci-Fi worlds in films like Star Trek, Pacific Rim and Looper are carefully set up by the writer so we are not surprised by the actions of the characters that inhabit them – as long as they are made within the confines of that story world. The writers are honest with their worlds and characters so we have no problem believing them.
If Superman solved his latest dilemma by suddenly travelling through time when this had not been previously set-up through his character development or the world building around him, it is unlikely we would buy it as an honest solution. But if the writer knows his character and goes into that situation understanding what Superman can and would do, we get an honest, acceptable and believable outcome that doesn’t take us out of the story – regardless of how outlandish or fanciful that action might be.
So, in short, build convincing worlds and understand your characters inside out. That way, when your character faces a decision, you know exactly what they would and could do in that situation and will be able to give the audience an honest, credible reaction that they will accept without question regardless of how outlandish it might be in the “real world”.
More proof that stories are characters driven.
How do you get to know your characters?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #16 – Raise the Stakes!
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!