Pixar Rules of Story #21: Know your Characters (part 2)

You gotta identify with your situation/characters, you can’t just write “cool”. What would make you act in that way?

Rule #20 is pretty much a bed-fellow for Rule #15: Know your Characters (part 1) which explores how we should be careful not to think in terms of “what would I do” in that situation, but what would our characters do in that situation. To be able to do that convincingly and effectively we really need to know and understand our characters inside out.

Rule #20 has the same potential pitfall in asking you, “what would you do?” when, in fact, we don’t necessarily want to know what the author would do. While there are always going to be elements of our own psyche in the characters we write, they are also (hopefully) fully-formed people in their own right, and we need to have them reacting in ways that match emotionally and psychologically.

Another step towards this (as well as knowing how they would react in any given situation) is to develop situations around them that reflect the story theme and their emotional development. Develop situations that we can see them getting into. These may be outlandish and even absurd (depending on the plot) but also perfectly acceptable if written honestly. As Rule #15 also showed us, honesty provides credibility. If we build worlds and develop characters carefully, we can throw them into any situation as long as it “fits” with that world and character.

So a Nun winning a kick-boxing competition may seem like a ridiculous idea in the first instance, but suppose the nuns need to raise money for homeless kids, and one of the nuns shows a propensity for martial arts, we can develop a world in which this wouldn’t seem that crazy… although probably a comedy world, not a serious biopic! (Unless anyone knows any differently?)

To do that convincingly, we need to know our characters, understand their world and develop situations in which they can act believeably within the world we have set-up.

The rule also goes on to dissuade us from simply writing “cool” to come up with interesting characters. We can have cool characters, but they can go wrong easily, being cool for cool’s sake, rather than being emotionally empathetic and honest characters that audiences can relate to. They just become thin characters and stereotypes that we have seen time after time.

So, along with Rule #15, rule #20 should have us thinking about the characters we develop and the worlds we build for them. If we develop emotionally honest characters and put them in honest situations, which relate to the world in which they exist, then we will be writing believable stories regardless of how outlandish the wider premise might be.

Do you identify with your characters?

Or do you find that they are strangers when you start writing them?

And if you really want to dig into characters, go and check out Go Into the Story, Scott is all about Character!

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for the last Rule #22 – Pare it down and Build it up!

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)


Posted on July 29, 2015, in Character, Learning, Writing, Writing Rules and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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