Pixarian Storytelling: Drive Conflict with Values
When your values are clear, making decisions becomes easier.
Roy E. Disney
Disney is pretty much my idol or something. It’s words like this from him that remind me why his Disneyland vision is so influential worldwide. What’s crazy is, this doesn’t only apply to people who have their lives figured out (y’know, that small percentage of the world). What is key to a strong person is understanding who (s)he is and what (s)he stands for, suggests Matt James, Ph.D. In his Psychology Today article, he gives these 4 reasons why:
- Easier decisions.
- Help through crisis.
- Focused and on track.
- Values show us how to feel pono (“the Hawaiian concept of feeling right with yourself and the world”).
Do you know where else it is essential to consider this? Yup, I’m sure you figured it out. Writing.
When it comes to writing, no matter what species your character is, they have to have values. Well, if the species resembles any kind of human psyche, you have to have that.
In my story, when I working on my characters, even my demi-demon antagonist has values that drive him to do what he does. While most of us believe that values are things like “bravery” and positive, values can be a belief in the opposite. My protagonist believes that humans can resist sin. But, my antagonist insists that humans will always sin when presented the opportunity. Based on these values, they are both posed with a conflict that drives the story with their reactions to reinforce their values.
So, what counts as a value? Like, I believe in integrity; does that count?
Paul Thagard, Ph.D says that values “combine cognitive representations such as concepts, goals, and beliefs with emotional attitudes that have positive or negative valence”. When I interpret that definition and my experiences, I understand it to mean that concepts and behaviors that elicit strong negative or positive emotions (potentially that can make it easier or harder to make decisions/progress) would count as a value. So, if you or someone else compromises “integrity” with dishonesty, and it creates mental/emotional distress for you, it will count as a true value. If you want more scientific background about it, Google is your homie!
But, in this post, we’re going to check out how to identify and develop your character’s values, of course, “according to Pixar”.
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.
This second video published by Bloop Animation looks at how strong characters are developed through their values. And, consequently, how this drives the plot conflict when they are opposed (remember those opposites from the last post?) Check it out before you move on.
Ah, Dean Heartscrabble is my professional idol. As a teacher, this is how we should hold kids accountable.
Yes, right; I know…
While she seems evil (which is key to being a scary monster), the narrator points out something key: she isn’t evil. Though an “antagonist” in the story, she is not the traditionally perceived “villain” that is trying to foil the hero. (Check out the difference between the two here). Instead, she just poses an opposition to our main characters’ values. If anything, she isn’t trying to stop them, but help them move on better than they began. Yes, the “enemy” can actually be the “savior” (y’know, like that one teacher who graded you so hard that you had to work harder to get the grade you want…). Thinking about this antagonist possibility, let’s look at the applicable tips from Emma Coats:
Pixarian writing tip 13 looks at character opinions.
You and your significant other are going out to eat and hang out, right. So, you ask: “what do you want to eat?”
“I don’t care.”
“Okay…do you have any cravings?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s your favorite thing to eat?”
“I like a lot of things.”
“Okay, how about we just have some pizza?”
“I don’t really like pizza.” o.o
You know who I’m talking about; you may even be that person! While it may seem easier to be around someone who doesn’t have any definite ideas, it’s actually not. Just like trying to figure out eating for you and a person like this, imagine trying to survive against the odds during a whole story with someone who has no ideas or opinions on what you should do. You’re responsible for both of you, your decision can have some heavy consequences. On that topic, trying to hold a conversation with someone who doesn’t “know” or “care” about anything sucks, too.
Don’t create those characters. You need to make your characters have opinions, lives, decisions, and values.
Even if your character is trying to learn his/her values, what moral conflict is (s)he facing that is making him/her decide? The original value usually surfaces clearly then.
My main character really thinks she has this whole “right and wrong” thing figured out, and it really drives how she feels about the antagonist. Being a demon, it only makes sense that she assumes he’s bad, right? Well, it’s her core beliefs and socialized opinions that leads her directly to that decision. She fights him, avoids him, hates him, has severe anxiety with any of their interactions, much to his pleasure and dismay. Ironically enough, though, by the end of the story, she finds that he’s no worse than any human she’s ever known–despite being a demon. As her opinion about “good and evil” changes, the audience gets another perspective to consider before they judge.
Notice, your character may change by the end of the story.
If they start good, they may end up flawed. If you want your character to be a better person by the end, it may be beneficial to make him/her the opposite in the beginning. These are the values your character will fight for against the antagonizing opposition. This is going to put a lot on your character and may even push him/her to question everything (s)he’s ever believed in. We call that wisdom and maturity. So, it’s good, don’t worry.
Now, if you’re still a little stuck, you can take it from a different angle that Ms. Coats suggests and Bloop Animation addresses with Pixar video 4:
Tip 16: the Stakes of the Situation.
Sometimes, we don’t realize what we want or believe until the opportunity to have it is taken away from us. We tend to take our time and/or take things for granted; so, when it’s suddenly gone, we realize how integral it is in our lives and pursuits. This may be key to drawing out your character’s values.
My protagonist always assumed that as long as she accomplished her linear goals, things would fall into place, as her mother taught her. She wanted a degree; she wanted a home filled with a family. Really, she didn’t think about anything except basic obstacles, like money. But, when temptation came, she never anticipated that there may be other sides to her that could push her off track. She wasn’t sure if she wanted any of that anymore and struggled with her identity. In the end, the temptation was withdrawn from her life and she did get all of her original goals (though it didn’t look exactly like the original picture). But, if her status quo had never been stripped away from her, and the opportunity to do it as she saw “right”, she wouldn’t have found out what was “best”.
Be it mental, emotional, physical, cultural or anything else, your character needs something (s)he prizes more than anything else; something to hang in the balance if (s)he doesn’t act. Disconnected characters–those who have numbed themselves to the world–also isolate themselves from the audience. Even if we can hate your character, you still want us to “root for your character”.
Essentially, you want us to feel like that value is worth fighting for just like the character. You don’t necessarily have to pick a value that we find valuable; you want to make the final reward something that we see so necessary to your goals and identity that we understand why you would fight for it. That sense of empathy will keep us engaged, as we want to see the character succeed as we hope we would if in the same situation.
You may notice that some of this resemble things you already thought about in the last post.
That’s perfectly fine. Hopefully, that means it’s making sense and each one is pushing you to see it from a different angle to help you think deeper.
Now you know exactly what to do to give your character an identity crisis that will either make or break him/her! It shall be glorious when his/her tears flow! And, ever more amazing when (s)he finds the strength to wipe them away and push on! Are you ready to do that to your darlings? Do these tips give you what you need to really push your character through the odds? Let me know below.
If you want to work with the others in the series, click-y the designs below!
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