Pixarian Storytelling Series: Justify Actions with Empathy
Before you start this “actions, emotions, and empathy” installment in my Pixarian series, I suggest you read the introduction post.
I do not work for, in collaboration with, or as a representative of Pixar. I am merely a fan of their stories! This post includes affiliate links that will lead you to other websites that I do not own. Read the full disclosure here.
*Scroll* *Pin, pin, pin…* *Scroll, scroll*
You can just picture my wide eyes staring at the screen of my phone as I save ideas from Pinterest. You know, that same look you’re probably making right now (or just were before you clicked this). When doing so, I came across this quote:
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
-George R. R. Martin
This George R.R. Martin sounds like “a wise man [who] once said” something I wish I had. It brings up this interesting point: when we read, we can enter the world and lives of others, doing and understanding things that we can’t, won’t, or don’t in our own lives. When thinking about it that way – this is true. However, we can live many lives another way (well, a few others because video games and movies are “literature”, but I’m talking about) writing.
When we write, our characters resemble us in some way.
Though this is natural, there are reasons why we should (not) do this:
- It’s good to do this because it can help us better know and develop our characters when we can get in their heads.
- It’s bad to do this because if they are too much like us, it seems autobiographical, and there is too much audience bias and assumption if they know anything about you.
Related Article — “4 Stories that Changed My Life Philosophy”
Nevertheless, those of us who write many stories live double the lives of our reader-only counterparts, and exponentially more than those who avoid both. I don’t know about you, but I remember being hot with green eyes, a perfect hourglass figure, and long hair meeting all those hot guys with long hair, muscular and slender builds and goatees who only had eyes for me. Even when I had guns, wings, and tails, my protective, nervous yet suave, dripping after a shower lover could never love anyone else but strong, yet mentally damsel-in-distress me. Hey, I had goals (and I’m proud to say my husband has come pretty close. Boom)!
It’s all about balance (which most of us are lacking and why we are “teetering on wisdom”. Yup, I chose that name for a reason). It’s important for your character to be an extension of you, while also representing the realities of being a living, rational creature personified with natural humility.
But, how can we do both?
Well, before I get too philosophically involved with alter egos developed through writing, let’s use this post to walk through how to live unbelievable lives in believable ways.
The Bloop Animation video below is going to examine a few more of “Pixar’s 22 Rules” to help us figure out how to create believable characters (and actions) even in the face of the most unfathomable circumstances.
“Movie = interesting characters + real emotions + justified actions”
…(or something like that) according to our narrator. I suck at math, but math as a skill is used to teach logic (ironically enough when it’s so hard to make sense of). So, when I logic my way through this “story equation” (yup, I verb nouns), I can break it down and connect it with 2 “Pixar rules” in particular.
If we start with (interesting characters + real emotions), I easily see parallels with tip number 15: you feeling like the character.
Empathy (the ability to fathom and connect with what someone else is feeling) is a mark of an emotionally stable person (generally) and a higher functioning creature when recognized in wildlife. One of the things I notice the most (and it boils my blood) is a decrease in empathy as the generations progress.
In older generations, it was commonplace for people to experience horrible things, and you just had to move on like it didn’t happen. Because of this, a person’s sense of connection with others was a double-edged sword. The experience would pierce the soul and leave that person feeling isolated at times; however, empathy with someone in a similar situation brought them together closer than ever.
Nowadays, exposure to so many things and shelter from anything negative leaves people thinking their way through situations they’ve never had to feel. Thus, audiences tend to blame the experience’s victim as having done something wrong because it never happened to him/her personally.
If it hasn’t happened to me, it’s not something the average person experiences. How wrong we are in being so dismissive.
When the status quo of your character is broken by that opposite that [calls him/her to action], you have to really consider all the possible options available on the spectrum between “why the hell?” and “that’s what I’m talking about!”. I know that can be hard when we don’t truly know how we would react.
So, let’s start with how you think you would feel.
- Take that outline about your character and opposites that you (hopefully) did from Part 1. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you do so; it will make this part a little more solid.
- Identify the conflicts and obstacles that you brainstormed and marked on the outline.
- On a separate, appropriately labeled paper, or in the margins of the outline, brainstorm how a child, teen, adult and elder would respond and feel. This forces you to think about other feelings that you may not consider with the biases you have at this point in your life.
- Based on this range of emotions, think about which your character would feel based on the backstory you gave him/her. DO NOT choose an emotion based on how you think (s)he should respond. Take into consideration the circumstances that led your character to that point. If you can’t justify his/her feeling with what you have on that outline, review the character and plot storms to see if maybe something needs to change.
If you start doing this, and you find you can’t connect with your character, it’s okay to change him/her and/or the conflict. I know it feels hard, but maybe it’s for the best. Remember: It’s not you, it’s him (or her…or both, depending on your conflict)!
Once your anxiety rests after the realization that you’ve been lying to yourself about your character, try to hold off your existential crisis about your human emotions until you ponder and regret your actions, too.
We still need to break down (real emotions + justified actions).
“Why would you do that?!”
“Could you be any dumber?!”
“I would NEVER do that!”
Well, you could; but you’ve never been in a situation to find out. Even though we all would love to believe that when a monster comes at us, we’ll just pick up a gun and shoot it, the reality is that if you are feeling true fear, you’ll start in shock, trying to process your opponent before you even remember you have a gun. By then, the creature may have already attacked. Sorry to break it to you, but most of us would die in the event of most of the movies we watch.
We have to remember: humans are animals. We are animals with the capability to do more than the average animal. Though we have the capacity to rationalize, most logic is a nurtured (not necessarily a natural) habit. So, unless you have been specially trained to respond logically, in the initial response time to a situation, we rely on our self-preserving instinct to fight or fly (typically fly until we have no choice but to fight). Considering this, it can be difficult to truly fathom why someone does something irrational unless you are in an irrational situation.
That’s the beauty of being a “reader”: art and literature expose us to situations and feelings “abnormal” to our daily lives. If well-written, it can even evoke some of those raw, dormant emotions.
As a writer, literature also lets us explore our own emotions and perceive our responses. That’s the kind of introspection you need if you want us to root for your character’s decisions–no matter how “unrealistic” it may seem.
It is only after you consider the possible emotions that you can truly think about the possible actions you would take.
Now that you have done that, we can work through applying “rule” number 21 with your outline: how you would react.
- For each age of emotions you walked through earlier, start listing what someone (in general) would do in response. For example: your character is in a fight.
- A child’s reaction: call for help
- A teen’s reaction: fight back
- An adult’s reaction: restrain
- An elder’s reaction: call the cops
- I recommend that you list skills, tools, and conditions about your character that would allow him/her to do something that someone else may not be able to do or have reason to. For example: your character is in a fight.
- An abused child’s reaction: take the beating with no question
- An academically-honors teen’s reaction: talk his/her way out of the situation
- A pregnant adult’s reaction: hide and try to call the cops
- A former military elder’s reaction: seek and destroy with his gun
- Again, make sure you describe what your character would actually do. I know we don’t want our girls to be a damsel-in-distress, but unless you developed an independent girl attitude for your character, she’ll probably be one on some level. Same thing with a guy. Even if we try not to make him a Joe Smoe or Don Juan, we typically gravitate toward that cultural stereotype.
Like I said before: it’s okay if you need to change up your character as you go through your process.
Really, it’s better to work through it and make those changes while it’s easy to specify and before you get too far in the story. And, if you are anything like me, you prefer that so you can earn back the most by putting in the least!
Check out the other posts of the series, and the introduction for more background and resources for effective storytelling “according to Pixar”. Clicky below.
So, how many of you reading this are reviewing the decisions you’ve seen in movies? Did this give you any confidence about your character development? Or, is everything you ever believed about civilization officially a lie after this?
Let me know below. And, connect to be updated through pins, tweets, posts, and the weekly wisdom newsletter.
Oh! Now you can have your existential crisis confronting your emotions. >.<