Apr 12, 2006

On Story: True Characters

Fred Moore's Lampwick, from "Pinochio". A likeable bad guy.

A long time ago at a studio a few miles away, there once was a script that I and a half dozen others storyboarded. The main character was a little guy, meant to be cute, who was also presented as a tremendous pain in the ass. Really. That was intentional; the entire plot demanded that he hate everything about his warm, comfortable, upper-class life and want to go out and "see the world". He wasn't micromanaged like the famous clownfish Nemo, he only had the most basic kinds of parental attention and discipline to deal with--but for the purposes of the story he just plain hated...everything.

Now, I had a few problems with this.

First, I didn't see any reason given why this adolescent animal character would have developed a distaste for the things I see my pets crave: affection, interaction with their pals (both animal and human), warmth, shelter, and especially food. It still might have been possible to make a better case for wanderlust, if it had been shown rather than stated: "I want adventure!".
But the main problem was a very obvious and basic one: the character as presented in the story was unlikeable. He was selfish, rude--and selfishly rude, and a dozen other tiresome variations on selfish and rude. Apparently it was more important to the writers that we follow the adventures of a truly unpleasant character, supposedly identifying with him for 80 minutes, just so his story arc could have him redeemed at the end.

I don't know about you, but when I watch an animated film, especially one with rich potential for fun and high spirits and comedy, I don't want to be forced to either sit through a therapy session with a mediocre analyst, nor do I want to spend most of that time with a jerk. That doesn't mean that a character has to be perfect, or perfectly happy, or have no troubles. But there's been a trend in all types of film to insist that the character can't just face a conflict, he or she has to be terribly flawed and conflicted himself. It used to denote depth in a character. It's become a formula and it's an approach that needs to be handled with incredible finesse to work. Think that happens regularly?

It can work: "The Incredibles" is filled with scenes that usually make me check my watch or wish I had brought a penlight and a book, or earplugs: a screaming family argument at the dinner table; a brother and sister snarking and screaming at each other; more nagging and/or arguing between the parents...everyone knows those scenes. Millions of people, in fact. The difference--and it's crucial--is that the characters were introduced with great delicacy, with humor, with humanity. We liked them--a lot. So that by the time they begin to break down, instead of a turn off, the drama is really that--dramatic. I, who hate typical movie argument scenes, happened to turn on HBO the other night; "Incredibles" was on, in the middle of the "total chaos" dinner scene. Instead of turning it off(and even though I've seen it numerous times)I found myself sitting down and enjoying it again--for the timing, the performances, the master juggling act of the director/writer, animators and art direction, the story--the whole enchilada. Great and honest filmmaking, with real characters. All animated. You can't look away!

Another film where the use of sometimes unpleasant characters works, almost invisibly, is "Lilo & Stitch". There we really have what might be described as a disturbed kid. A disturbed, unhappy, occasionally downright bratty animated kid--usually the kind of thing that spells nails on a blackboard for me. But though it sometimes seems like it might tip over, it never does descend into the Land Of No Return for Lilo. I think it's because that while she acts up, throws tantrums, is just terribly awful to her poor sister(who really is trying), she also clearly doesn't want to be a brat. She loves life, is filled with energy and imagination and is always trying to invent her own better world--which makes for the entertainment, the pathos and the comedy of her Elvis adoration, her photograph collection, her always-hatching plans for Stitch, whether he agrees or not. She's an inexorable, contradictory force of nature--in other words, a bit of a real little girl. A rare thing to find in the last 15 years of animation, unfortunately.

Show the audience "real" in some form and you will win their sympathy(and it won't matter a damn how extreme the characters look, either; they could be as designy as a MOMA exhibit, so to speak). Construct characters whose actions are dictated by plot demands and neuroses that presumably give them something to "change" from or shuck off unconvincingly in Act 3 and the unreality tells.
Story artists get very close to their characters. As I've written before, whatever the situation, when we have a scene we've got to work out, depending upon the amount of freedom in the scene to add or improvise, it's almost impossible not to become the characters and once you've taken them on, to find that they surprise you with bits of business or a new idea that you didn't have when you started. That's a good thing. If, however, you start with a character who's motivation is indecipherable or who you just plain don't like... The scene has to be done in any case, but where feeling is lacking--through no fault of the artist--it shows. In the best of times those scenes get tossed out; it becomes evident that there's a lack of sympathy there and your audience at work is expected to be frank. But often these roadblocks could be avoided if the essence of the character--if his "character"--weren't forced into an off-putting attitude at the story's conception. These are really important things to consider. It may seem a fine line between a character who has a problem and one who is a problem, but the line is there and once crossed it results in a disconnect that takes a hell of a lot of work to fix.

Starting out with good, likeable protagonists isn't hard; we make our own casting decisions every day--and art imitates life. Who would you rather have lunch with: the person who sits down already griping and irritable, totally self-absorbed and uninterested in you, or the one who smiles, is glad to see you, maybe cracks a joke and asks how you're doing before settling down to griping about the lousy job the mechanic did on his car yesterday? That second guy will have you with him all the way, won't he? The first one? You'd be checked out by the time he gets around to telling you why he's so dissatisfied with his life. Characters can have struggles and problems and hey--quirks! But leaven them with the things we respond to in our friends, in the person that attacts us on the train with their smiling face or the bizarre choice in reading material they're holding that suggests a totally different inner life. Whatever. It is possible to come up with layered characters for animation. In fact, it's easier to do than to struggle with guys who have something they have to "do" but no real reason why the audience should be watching them do it.

Just so you know we do think about these things.


Dave Pimentel said...

This post is exceptional! I completely agree with you. Awesome insight that many don't notice becuase we're too busy boarding the first guy. Great, Great, Great!

Anonymous said...

What an insightful commentary. And what a pleasure it would have been to work with someone so knowledgeable about story and character.

Every now and then -- and it's not often -- I'm lucky enough to work with someone who truly "gets it." I think Walt Disney would have been pleased to have you as one of his "story guys." It might have changed his ideas about women.

Rocco said...

I think what you've said here goes hand in hand with the type of smart-alecky put-down dialogue that passes for "humor" these days. It's generally not character driven situations that are mined for their comedic potential, but schoolyard insults and excremental references that seem as if they are written BY 3rd graders, not FOR 3rd graders, (which is a whole other topic; writing down to the audience and the whole lowest common denominator thing). It's pretty difficult to feel any empathy for characters like that.

That's not to say that a character that is supposed to be antagonistic shouldn't insult other characters or exhibit other dispicable traits, because it's in his/her nature to do so. But there should be more to the character than that, there should be a reason for their actions. The reason is what gives you empathy even for your villains.

If the creator doesn't care enough about the lead character to show those moments of humanity that make the character one the audience can identify with, then why should they care about anything else in the story?

Anonymous said...

Clearly you think about them. Very astute indeed.

warren said...

You called it! Sometimes I wonder what it'll take for some people to break beyond McKee when it comes to developing a story. It's so frustrating. All the jergon and graphs in the world won't help a jerk in a feature film.

Ronnie Del Carmen's advice (from the Banff summit last year) comes to mind: tell the film's story like it was something that happened to you on the weekend.

Now(assuming you aren't a boring jerk) your actions should be understandably motivated. With any luck, folks will gladly follow your thread. Try doing that with some feature scripts.

Having said that, a jerk CAN be fun to watch...but the art of being a lovable jerk is largely lost, however. Think Carrol O'Conner in 'All in the Family' or Walter Matthau. Jerks, but utterly human.

You're like a tuning fork, Jenny. Ringing true and clear. Keep going!

Robiscus said...

am i the only one here who believes that the people who dream up these selfish jerk characters are themselves....
selfish jerks?
its just a personal belief of mine.
you know how artists often draw characters that look like themselves(Frazetta, Kirby, Gorey, etc.).
sometimes i'm left to think nothing but that the people who concoct these irritable spiteful characters are projecting a lot of whats inside them.....

Clay Kaytis said...

Wonderful post, article, clarion call! It's a truth that everyone knows, but very few remember. Thanks for the reminder.

John S. said...

Your post really resonated with me, Jenny. We are currently wrestling with the problem of character on a fledgling project at work right now, and to read your words really reminded me of what our mission should be as storytellers and filmmakers.
You will be interested to know and sadly, not suprised that Chris had major battles with management over Lilo and how he saw her. It is gratifying to hear that the battles that he and Dean fought were not in vain.
Thanks for such a wonderful post!

OV! said...



Anonymous said...

Bob McKee's writing seminar could be blamed to some degree for the popularity of the 'flaw that drives everything' theory; when I took it sixteen years ago, the entire Paramount development department was in the audience, soaking it all up like one collective, grossly overcompensated sponge. But McKee's story structure has almost nothing to say about comedy, other than the narrow, dated Blake Edwards approach. McKee, near the 3/4 point in his seminar actually stated: "When it comes to comedy, everything I've said up to now gets reversed." (What?) Visual animation storytelling of the sort you describe isn't even on the man's radar because he's never touched it. But McKee's approach IS a stellar pack of rules should one want to write sixty minute "Columbo" episodes for the rest of one's natural life. Follow them for animation production and you get what Disney TV Animation got in the 90's - reels and reels of talking heads. Management bought that approach lock, stock and barrel because it's all they could get their little, nonvisual minds around.

David Germain said...

Things go wrong the other way too. Sometimes artists try too hard to make a character likable with the result being that the character instead rattles our nerves. I think JarJar Binks had this problem.

But yeah, many many people in the industry today need to knwo the importance of a strong , well-developed character. Without at least one of those in the story, you've got nothng.

Anonymous said...

Jenny, this is a superb post. I wholly agree. In a recent edition of The Animation Podcast, Milt Kahl can be heard addressing Brad Bird (among others) about the lack of integrity in the Disney characters he so beautifully animated. He said that the actors and directors just went nuts, forgetting everything that makes villians scary and... well, villianous. Brad Bird is one guy who really gets it. You care about Hogarth, about Dash, and even about Syndrome and Kent Mansley.
Disney, too, has had some recent sucess. You mentioned Lilo, and also there was Kuzco from Emperor's New Groove, a truly odious character voiced by an actor who, frankly, has usually made me rethink gun control. But in this case, it works beautifully.
I am cheered that we have had The Simpsons to show that it's possible to have both gags aplenty and static, buffoonish characters who neither learn nor grow but are still likeable.
Thanks again for a great post, and I look forward to reading further thoughts on this and other subjects.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!

That's one of the biggest problems with moviemaking of any kind these days, not just animated features (but the fact that we're supposed empathize with these lifeless 3D dolls does have a lot to do with it too).

Characters are just too superficial. They are annoying from the beginning- full of smart-ass, offensive comments and often exhibiting abrasive, annoying characteristics, and for some strange reason we're supposed to like them. Many of them get into some perilous predicament somewhere in the movie, screeching at the top of their voice actors' lungs, and I find myself actually rooting for their demise just so they will shut up and the movie will be over.

...And then I'm tormented by that Act 3 unbelievable switch in personality accompanied by the sympathetic and manipulative "sad-eyed" face and base violin as some lame attempt to arouse my feelings for the character, and I feel like shouting out loud, "Oh Brother..."

You're absolutely right, Jenny- Personally, I avoided the Incredibles until I almost had no choice but to watch it, and guess what... it was actually entertaining. And you were right about the characters- I found myself feeling good for Violet when she managed to pull up a little self-esteem; I was rooting for Dash as he ran away form the flying 'saucers'; and when Mr. and Mrs. Incredible were having the 'infidelity' arguement, I actually cared to see that they resolved it. The characters had depth- which developed through the picture. They showed us that they weren't some paper-thin fabrications- and there was an actual story!

One reason the International market's movies are so entertaining is because I find they know how to engage the viewer in an interesting story.... especially the Japanese. It's not easy to predict the endings or storyline, unlike our homegrown fodder. And as a result, the characters are allowed to grow and develop.

Great Post, Jenny... hopefully some aspiring moviemaker will read your post and get a clue.

Tom Dougherty said...

What you just posted should be hanging on the wall of every animation artist and writer. But it's not, so thank you for putting it up here.

Randeep Katari said...


long time no speak - thank you for posting it - this will be plastered up all over my work area this year (all 2 weeks of it) and all of next year when I'm making a film. I owe ya one :)


Richard said...


What a fantastic post. As now an ex-Disney Animator from the Australian studio, I and my colleagues have had to work on far too many of these flat, one dimensional and annoying characters that seem to only serve the whims of "creative executives" who want to provide input to a film.

On far too many of these Disney sequels do we see not only the same formulaic story, but also characters who have been diluted from their original spark that made them so appealing in the original. They have become whimpy and annoying - a kind of noncommittal safeness designed not to offend anyone and therefore appealing to none. These are issues we have constantly butted our heads against, but to no avail. So many stories were changed for the worse (not that they were necessarily great ideas to start with - Oh, the concepts that were proposed), for what purpose we don't know, but the decisions were made by people who were in the postions to know. Often, the changes would go off on such a tangent, it would completely lose the story point that was trying to be made. It seems that the marketing department and test audiences have more control than the creator. The other possibility is that the "writers" see animation as live actions second cousin and almost view it with contempt.

Hooray for story people like you Jenny. As an industry we need to see more of this character driven storytelling that is far to often lauded by us, but ignored by the people who make the decisions. It is the reason that has made Pixar the success it is and the reason behind 2D's demise with films like "Emperor's new Groove", "Atlantis", and "Treasure Planet". No more explanatory dialodue, no more "I'm the comedy relief", and why would Mowgli choose to stay in the village with "rules, rules, rules" and not hang out with Baloo and Bagheera in the jungle.

Let's hope John Lasseter clears out the crap from the Disney attic.

Ali said...

Fantastic post! Right on the money!

I think McKee gets blamed unfairly for bad writing. The man uses simple models to illustrate how the process works. He doesn’t claim to have all the secrets – just the basics. Bad writers take his basic spring board ‘illustrations’ and mistake them for the be-all and end-all of the craft.

However, he does call animation a ‘genre’. Don’t tell Brad Bird.

Lee-Roy said...

Wow! I just discovered your blog. These are great insights! I'll be coming back and will post a link from my blog.

Chuck said...

Wow, you really have a great blog here with great insight.