The theme of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

I was recently discussing the theme of Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast on Twitter and, after disagreeing with another’s interpretation (or maybe just misunderstanding due to Twitter’s inherent limitations), was challenged to back up my claims. As pondering and analyzing stories, especially films, is one of my favorite things to do in general, I thought it would make a worthy subject for a blog post, affording me more space to elaborate.

The statement I am disagreeing with can be found in this Twitter thread, which is overall an insightful and interesting thread.

The specific statement I disagree with is this interpretation of the film’s theme or message:

(Note, I am not talking about the fairy tale or its “theme” at all, I am strictly talking about the film, and Disney’s original 1991 animated film at that.)

So what I try saying in my quote tweet is that “look beyond appearances, love can turn a beast into a prince” is not the theme / message of the animated film, nor does it at all try to be.

First, some foundational premises for my thoughts: I consider themes or morals derived from stories to be subjective. Different people will naturally interpret or infer different things from the same story. The interpretation of the theme being “the power of love to change someone” is certainly a fair and valid one. So, in and of itself, I don’t think it’s “wrong” in any objective sense. (But the original tweeter says “the message is no longer such and such”. So… you agree that it’s not the message? Because that’s my point, that it’s definitely not the message.)

Anyway, furthermore, the very idea of a “theme” or “moral” of a story can be an ambiguous concept, and it’s likely that every writer thinks about the idea of “theme” in a different way. I’ve actually been meaning to elaborate on how I understand the concept in a blog post for years now, and I don’t think I ever have, so I’ll go ahead and do that, but only after I talk about Beauty and the Beast. For now, a quick Google definition of “moral” will do fine:

a lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.

A theme that doesn’t really work, does it?

Now to the meat of this blog post. The first is why “love can turn a beast into a prince”, or some variation of that, doesn’t work as the theme of the film. Then I’ll move on to what I consider the theme of the film.

“Love can turn a beast into a prince” doesn’t work as the theme because there’s no substantial exploration of it in the film. That is, there’s no real testing of this message. Being overly judgmental based on looks happens once in the prologue, and that’s it. Belle, the protagonist, is never challenged by it. Nor is she ever challenged to fall in love; it’s not as though she’s asked to and at first refuses. The Beast doesn’t tell her anything about the curse he’s under. Her love for him comes about entirely from the Beast’s own nature, most notably when he rescues her from wolves when she tries to escape, and then we get the Something There That Wasn’t There Before montage, which shows the Beast being animatedly charming. Granted, we’re only given a few examples of the Beast’s positive side, and one could argue they’d need more examples to fall in love with such a character, but films have a limited time to tell their story, and I think most viewers accept the quick relationship development. The point is, falling in love with the Beast is never her goal. She is never told to give it a try, nor does she decide of her own volition to give him a chance. It just happens naturally through their time together. Thus, she never learns anything. So it makes no sense for the theme to be “love can change a person from a beast to a prince”. Yes, that’s what happens, so it’s conceivable that one could extract that as a theme. But if that’s the theme, as the original the tweeter noted, there’s no reason why Belle couldn’t have changed the “beast” that was Gaston by just giving him a chance. So while it’s a valid theme to infer, it doesn’t “work” in respect to what actually happens (or doesn’t happen) in the film.

Another theme makes more sense

There’s a simple theme more in line with what actually happens in the narrative, but it’s less obvious. It’s subtle, because it’s not the protagonist, Belle, that learns it. It’s the Beast. He’s the one who needs to change, and does by the film’s end. In the beginning, he is “spoiled” and “unkind” with “no love in his heart” (as the prologue points out). In post-prologue beast form, he is short-tempered, full of despair, and vain, more concerned about his likely fate of staying a hideous beast than about genuinely caring about others. But, unlike Gaston, his bad qualities are tempered with good qualities; he’s still willing to rescue Belle from wolves, to try to eat soup correctly, to have a fun snowball fight, etc.

And it’s when Belle looks through the magic mirror and sees that her father is sick or something that the Beast makes his real transformation, the one that shows that he has learned the theme: He lets Belle go, knowing full well that doing so will doom him to remain a Beast forever. Of course, his transformation doesn’t really end there, because he regresses into a depressive despair until Belle returns, but making that sacrifice of letting Belle go was the thematic lesson he needed to learn: that when you truly love someone, you’re not just thinking of yourself. His temper and vanity fall to the wayside as he puts Belle’s concerns above his own. So that’s the real theme. Or, to put another way, that theme is much more consistent with the events of the film. Belle is the protagonist, the one we follow as the audience. But thematically, it’s the Beast’s story.

In so far as all that goes, the original fairy tale really doesn’t matter. Disney just told a story based on it. They weren’t subverting anything or teaching a misguided lesson, they used the fairy tale as a foundation and built their own story on top of it, as they often do.

What’s a theme anyway?

Hopefully all the above makes sense without any more elaboration on the idea of “theme”, and will continue to make sense even if one disagrees with my further elaboration below.

(Also, I continually ponder these things, so my viewpoint may change or expand or become more nuanced years later, who knows.)

First, I think stories can have a number of small “themes”. Perhaps one could call them quasi-themes? Or themelets? These are just issues or types of conflicts that occur multiple times throughout a story. One can think of them like musical themes; they pop up again and again. For example, a character having to choose between family and work, or a character constantly trying not to reminisce about a lost love and move on. Such conflicts arise, but they’re not necessarily central to the plot’s main conflict. (In Beauty and the Beast, the dichotomy between outside appearances and inner beauty could perhaps be considered one of these types of themes.)

Then there’s the central theme or moral (most stories only have one), and here’s how I would define it: It’s the change needed in a mode of thinking to solve the story’s central conflict.

For example, in Beauty in the Beast, it’s the Beast needing to, of his own volition, put Belle first, as he does when he lets her go.

Sometimes the modes of thinking are on more of a spectrum, and a balance has to be found. For example, in Jurassic Park, the theme is respect for chaos vs enforcing order. Sometimes different characters argue for different sides of the spectrum, as in Jurassic Park’s Malcolm vs Hammond, and sometimes a character just goes too far in one direction then another, as in Bill Murray’s exploration of various “wrong” modes of being in Groundhog’s Day.

“This” vs “that”, where “this” and “that” are modes of thought, is usually a concise way to represent a thematic conflict, but sometimes it’s hard to think of concise words to fit them. For example, I’m not sure how Lord of the Rings’ theme would fit that format; almost any words you choose would feel too narrow.

That’s all I have to say for now.

Making the protagonist interesting

Haven’t updated this blog in a while! Haven’t written any significant amount of fiction in a while either, for that matter.

As I recently wrote on my other blog:

I haven’t done any significant writing in a good long while. I’ve completely plotted several stories, and I’ve written several opening chapters, but I keep getting bored and abandoning projects. One could easily chide, “You’re supposed to stick with it, even if it’s boring!” Pshaw, I say unto you! In my opinion, if writing something is boring, then it’s a good sign you shouldn’t be writing it in the first place. Being bored completely defeats the purpose of such a creative act. If you’re bored writing it, why should a reader have any interest in it?

I kept thinking my getting bored had something to do with finding the right personal balance between plotting and pantsing, but as I reflect on why writing SON OF A DARK WIZARD managed to work for me, I believe it has more to do with how interesting I find the characters. Sorren in SON OF A DARK WIZARD, who was an arrogant brat wizard, was just insanely fun to write. So with whatever I write next, I really need to focus on making the character as interesting (for me) as possible. Of course, it’s not necessarily easy to do that. It managed to fall into place quite well for Sorren, but it isn’t obvious to me how to make a more virtuous character deeper than cardboard. Anyway, it’s something I’ll have to think more about before beginning a new draft. I have several more story ideas that I’m eager to get working on, but I want to make sure the main character really comes alive for me before I dive in.

So I’ve been trying to think about what makes a character interesting, at least for me as a writer. There are probably multiple factors, but I realized that, for me, the most important factor is probably whatever it is that makes the character special. And what could that be? The three main types of character specialness that come to my mind are:

  1. Special ability – This could be a unique magical super power, or a unique talent. Examples would include almost any super hero. Talent-wise, perhaps Mozart in Amadeus or the chess prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
  2. Special social status – Perhaps the character is famous, or related to someone famous, or the leader of a lot of people, or is part of a royal family. The idea is merely that he holds some social status that is not widely shared among the rest of the population. Typically this will be a higher status, though it could be lower as well. Or it could be neither higher nor lower, just unique. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings becomes the Ringbearer, a position no one else can have. Also, I think a special status implies some sort of special ability along with it, an ability that comes from the status, such as the power to command an army in the case of a king. (And certainly the ability to make world-changing decisions in the case of Frodo.)
  3. Special circumstances – This is when it’s the circumstances surrounding the character, which aren’t in his direct control, that effectively make his decisions meaningful. For instance, Frodo’s special circumstance is his uncle Bilbo having the One Ring before he passes it on to Frodo. Had some other Hobbit in some other hole in the ground had the One Ring, Frodo would remain a nobody. Another example might be Emmet from The Lego Movie. His finding “the piece of resistance” is merely a happy accident, yet it’s what earns him his unique social status and makes his decisions matter. If Wyldstyle had managed to find it before him, he’d be a nobody. And just as a special social status often implies a special ability, special circumstances usually imply a special social status and/or a special ability that go along with it. (After all, why else would the circumstances be all that special?)

Of course, characters can be special in all three ways for a special trifecta. Take Harry Potter for instance. Special circumstances: Voldemort couldn’t kill him, and in fact inadvertently damaged himself in the process of trying. His parents also leave him a lot of money. Special social status: Because the most powerful evil wizard ever couldn’t kill him, Harry Potter becomes famous in the wizarding world. And he’s rich! Special ability: None, except flying on a broomstick and playing Quidditch, which was likely thrown in there so he’d have claim to something ability-wise.

Three things to keep in mind about implementing one or more “specialness” traits:

  1. The specialness should create unique conflicts that only this character can face. This is probably obvious. Why would being special be all that interesting if the conflicts one has to then face are not also special?
  2. The specialness should create unique suffering for the character. Although I’ve been guilty of it myself, one of my pet peeves is characters who lament that they “just want to be normal” or “just want to fit in”. I find it to be very cliche, and often not very realistic or interesting. (Who the heck wants to read a book to imagine being normal?) And something like “oh, being the king is sooo tiring!” is not likely to elicit much empathy either. Perhaps better examples would be Harry Potter having his scar hurt and missing his parents, or Frodo feeling the fire and lure of the One Ring, or the pressure of having everyone depend on you, or whatever… just as their conflicts are unique to their specialness, so is their suffering. This also makes their suffering more meaningful (assuming it fits the context of the story… Harry Potter feeling Voldemort’s toothaches, for example, probably wouldn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story).
  3. The character should know how and why he’s special, regardless of his feelings about it. Again, this is probably obvious. He will hardly be able to make interesting and important decisions if he has no comprehension of why he has a unique ability to make them in the first place. (The only counter-examples I can think of include The Man Who Knew Too Little, in which Bill Murray plays a man who gets wrapped up in some high-stakes international spy warfare or something and thinks it’s all fake the entire time; he thinks it’s all an elaborate party game. Another example might be Don Quixote, depending on how it’s interpreted, as his decisions are made in response to delusions. But even in these examples, the characters think they’re special, they’re just mistaken about how or why.)

So after thinking a bit about this issue of character specialness, I can look back on some of the stories I’ve plotted over the last year and see why have little interest in working them into novels; I haven’t given enough attention to making characters feel interesting and special to me. There’s something to be said about personality as well, but I hope thinking about specialness will at least help me get started on making some of my plot ideas come a little more alive through characters.

Character development and rooting for characters

Quick update on my writing

I haven’t written much in a long while. I’ve been composing music and programming my “symphony generator” instead. Hopefully I’ll get back to writing something soon though. I still have parts 2, 3, and 4 of Insane Fantasy plotted and ready to write. Part 1 only sold like… 2 or 3 copies so far, which is terrible, so I wasn’t all that motivated to continue right away. I was hoping to write a standalone novel between parts. But I just can’t seem to finish plotting anything. I’ve started plotting several, but I keep getting stuck. I also tried writing some stories without outlining, but that didn’t work either. So I’ll probably just go ahead and start writing part 2 of Insane Fantasy while I try to finish plotting something else…

So that’s where I am with writing. Now onward to some random thoughts on character development and audience empathy.

Random thoughts on character development and audience empathy

I was thinking about this last week because of an interesting blog post about the “pulp revolution”: “No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

In the post, the author writes:

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

I commented on the post with the following:

I read A Princess of Mars a month or so ago and, overall, really enjoyed it. (It was slow to start. Lots of pages with no dialog was boring me, but the pace eventually picked up.) One thing I really liked about it was that there were no big moral conflicts or conundrums, John Carter doesn’t have to struggle to figure out the morally right thing, so he’s able to have a pure straight-up adventure.

If John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child on Earth, for instance, that would not be a very interesting conflict to me in the moral sense because I would already have a strong attitude about what his moral obligation would be, which is that he should be faithful to his wife on Earth. Conflict solved.

Now if the character of John Carter agrees with me and is not tempted to sway, there’s no conflict (in the moral sense).

If he agrees with me, but struggles with the willpower to stay true, that inner conflict would bore me, and, if anything, make me like him less.

If he doesn’t agree with me in the first place, then his character would annoy me, and if he comes to change his mind, his “character development” would feel very forced to me.

I couldn’t help but think about the issue a bit more. I still feel the same way about John Carter; the fact that he doesn’t do much in the way of character development in the moral sense works nicely for me, because he doesn’t have to. He starts out as a good honest respectable man, so there’s not much development needed in those regards. (I’d argue there’s still character development in his relationships with other characters and his understanding of Mars’s “Barsoom” culture.) Since he’s an honest man, I can root for him the whole time, in a way I would not be able to if he had a wife he was tempted to cheat on, for example.

(Digression: This is precisely why I thought Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance was ultimately weaker than The Way of Kings; I went into the second book considering the character Kaladin to be a pretty honorable man, as the first book seemed to establish. Instead, he’s still stupidly racist (there’s eye-color racism in his world, “eye-ism” I suppose), and at one point in the story he’s tempted to assassinate a powerful figure because the ends seems to justify the means, but he snaps out of it later. These character flaws felt completely out of character, and felt very forced by the author.)

That said, there are stories that I love in which the character is faced with moral conflicts and develops through them. Examples include The Lion King, Les Miserables… um… what else? A Christmas Carol perhaps? Come to think of it, I can’t even think of that many. Usually character development deals with one or two particular flaws, and they’re usually not moral ones. They’re usually about relationships or the acceptance or understanding of something, which I wouldn’t necessarily equate with a moral conflict. Likewise, I wouldn’t equate a moral ambiguity with a moral conflict. “You can save the king from assassination, as is your duty as a guard, or your wife! Choose one! Haha!” That would certainly an interesting conflict, but not really a moral one.

In Les Miserables (the musical, I haven’t read the book), the moral development happens right at the beginning, when the priest gives Jean Valjean the silver and “buys” his freedom and his “soul for God”. Jean Valjean then swears to turn his life around in “What Have I Done?”. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go? … Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” No more moral conflicts, and we can root for him for the rest of the musical. The character development takes precisely one story beat. He doesn’t brood over it, or go back and forth, which would be agonizing for the audience. A priest treats him with kindness, and boom, his heart changes. (On a side note, I think these sorts of heart-changing beats work especially well in musicals, as you get all the energy of the music to help stir the emotions. Sometimes these sorts of moments can be difficult to write in novels and screenplays.) (Jean Valjean makes another moral decision with the song “Who Am I?”, but it’s not really much of a struggle and takes less than three minutes to decide to do the right thing.)

Similarly, in The Lion King, the “moral development” all happen in contained story beats. Simba’s never brooding in constant moral conflict. “Should I go back and claim the throne? Should I stay? I’m not really sure…” No, or at least we don’t see it. He embraces “hakuna matata” in the scope of one catchy song, and changes his mind pretty instantly when a patriarchal cloud tells him to “remember who you are!” And in the moral sense, we’re only rooting for Simba after the moment. Before that, why do we root for him? Probably because we know he’s been manipulated and lied to by his scheming uncle (injustice almost always creates empathy). Plus he’s cute furry royalty, I guess, and not really too much of a jerk.

Ultimately, even if the characters at first have some moral lesson to learn, they don’t really struggle with it. They’re either sure that they’re right, or they don’t even think about it at all. They don’t go back and forth, they’re not wishy washy or indecisive. And when they develop, it takes place within a solid story beat (or, perhaps, a pair of beats; action and reaction (scene and sequel)).

What about anti-heroes?

But why might we root for an anti-hero or a tragic figure?

Some of my favorite films are about despicable characters. In Amadeus, Salieri is hardly a model of virtue. He’s a scheming envious petty egotistical God-hating maniac. In Sweeney Tood, the title barber murders a number of innocent people in cold blood. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is a gangster.

Since these stories all end in tragedy, I wouldn’t say we’re really rooting for these characters at all, or at least not in the same sense. Our interest in their journeys lies somewhere else. They all feature some injustice, real or perceived, to which the character responds to in a clearly immoral way. In Amadeus, Salieri accuses God of being unjust, as he believes he deserves the talent given to Mozart. In Sweeney Todd, the barber was framed by an evil judge who wanted to steal away his wife while he rots in prison. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is battling even worse gangs.

In a sense, it’s not really the character we root for, but the settling of the injustice through the character. And, ultimately, often despite him, as he usually gets his comeuppance in the end. Salieri ends a mad house after a suicide attempt, Sweeney Todd dies by his own knife, and Noodles loses the love of his life and all his friends.

I suppose there are some movies in which an evil character gets away. Especially in horror films, but those films are meant to be unsettling. I can’t think of a movie in which an evil character gets everything he wanted and the audience is meant to feel good about it…

Anyway, those were just some random thoughts. It’s something I’ll probably keep thinking about…

Elements of an ending

I’ve been plotting some new stuff lately, and trying to think up some interesting endings. Endings always seem to be the most challenging part for me; you want something that will both surprise the audience, yet feel completely acceptable, and resolve the conflict satisfactorily. And it’s not just a matter of what happens (the good guy kills the villain) but how it happens. How specifically does the good guy kill the bad guy? Especially since the story preceding the climax needs to convince the reader that the hero’s task is impossible.

So I’ve been thinking about endings, and I’ve come up with three elements endings (or climaxes, at least) are typically composed of:

(Beware: since I’m talking about endings, any examples are give are by their nature spoilers.)

1. The Secret Weapon

It may not necessarily be a “secret”, but the hero utilizes a “weapon” of some sort that he was not planning on using at first, or that the audience was not expecting. This is typically employed when the climax is physical in nature, such as the hero needing to destroy someone or something.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke uses the Force rather than his ship’s auto-target system to blow up the Death Star. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, T-Rex saves the day, once by sheer luck, and once by a character’s decision.


2. The Trick

Typical in heist movies. The trick is when the hero comes up with some clever “trick” to defeat the villain or get what he wants. He may “trick” the villain into basically destroying himself. Typically if the trick works flawlessly, the audience doesn’t know about it until after it succeeds. If the audience does know about it, then it will likely fail, and the hero will have to improvise and utilize some new trick or secret weapon. Otherwise, if the audience knows about it and it works flawlessly, there’s completely no tension for the audience (even if the audience already knows the story and knows the trick).

A common example is the creation of a “diversion” … heroes pull the enemy’s attention away from something important, giving them just enough time to deliver a fatal blow.

Examples: In Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen. Well, I’m not going to explain the elaborate tricks of those endings, but of course they’re tricks. After all, they’re classic heist movies. In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Aragorn and his motley crew draw Sauron’s forces out of Mordor so that Frodo and Sam can reach the fires of the Mount Doom. “A diversion!” as Legolas so proudly acclaims for the slow audience members. Yes, thank you elf man. In Fun with Dick and Jane, Jim Carrey tricks Alec Baldwin into signing a check so that his wife can forge his signature onto some other documents (after their original “trick” is destroyed by a lawn mower). In Inception… well, that’s another heist movie, so of course the climax is the trick being successfully pulled off. “I was disappointed that you tried” and all that.


3. Rebirth (realization) and sheer force

In drama films, where the main conflict tends to be more thematic or internal, the ending may consist simply of the hero realizing something new about himself or someone he admires, which gives him the inner strength to solve the conflict through sheer force. He doesn’t need secret weapons or tricks. He just needs to face his foes head on.

Examples: In Shrek, which is basically a male-POV romantic comedy, Shrek only needs to learn that Fiona wasn’t talking about him earlier and that he loves her, and he’s off to stop her from getting married. Granted, the dragon is a sort of secret weapon as well, but Shrek’s “rebirth” and newfound strength are the main drivers of the ending, along with Fiona’s revelation that she is also an ogre. In Inception, after the successful “trick” of the heist, Leo’s character also confronts his dream-version of his dead wife and finally lets go of her. (Which is why it doesn’t matter whether or not his totem stops spinning in the film’s final shot; the point is that he doesn’t care about it anymore.) In The Truman Show, Truman tricks the cameras into thinking he was asleep, but then braves the sea through sheer force, forcing himself onward even as Ed Harris threatens to drown him. (Always a definite rebirth when characters are submerged in water at moments like that; it’s baptism!)


Of course, these examples may overlap quite a bit; an ending could include all three. A character realizes something, which gives them the strength to use a trick as a secret weapon. Sometimes one character will be utilizing a trick to get the enemy where they want him while another character deploys a secret weapon.

Also, these tricks, weapons, and realizations are often not completely new elements to the story. What makes them convincing is that they tend to be hiding in plain sight all along. The storyteller has to find a way of making them not too obvious, yet there all along. If they come out of nowhere, we risk getting a deus ex machina ending which can feel very weak and arbitrary. I particularly loathe time travel solutions in stories that are not about time travel, such as in Signs, Interstellar, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (and Hodor’s revelation in Game of Thrones, for that matter).

There was something else I wanted to say, but now I can’t remember…

Anyway, hope that’s helpful or interesting for someone out there. Are there any elements you think I may have missed?

Oh, now I remember what I wanted to say:

Endings often also include a martyr beat, a moment when the main character or a strong supporting character puts his own life itself on the line, often for the sake of someone else (a “stakes” character… saving the world means nothing if we don’t care about a specific person in it). If a supporting character gets the beat, especially an unnatural character (as in Netflix’s latest original series Stranger Things, or Hodor in Game of Thrones), the character may indeed die. The martyr beat may also be more metaphorical for dramas in which actual death is not a threat. In romantic comedies, for example, characters won’t die if they don’t get together, but they will die metaphorically, I guess? So the romantic lead throws away his business opportunities or something for the sake of stopping a wedding.

The point of the martyr beat is that idea of rebirth; by giving up fear or a piece of himself, the character is able to obtain a new self, which is capable of defeating the enemy. (A good Christian can see how stories reflect the story of the human spirit in Christ, and why the human spirit feeds on stories so much. God is a storyteller, after all, and we are the characters in his story of knowing Himself. So in Heaven will I get to meet and/or become the characters in my novel? I think I should… haha.)

OK, I think that’s all I have to say. Just writing this post gave me some new ideas for my novels ending, so I guess I will get back to plotting…

Death of the pure one

I was watching a movie last night which began with a guy meeting a bunch of other characters. One character was clearly younger than the rest. The moment he spoke, I thought to myself, “He’s gonna die.”

And he did.

By the end of the film, he died like storytelling clockwork.

How did I know he would die? Is it because I’m a genius?

Well, I’m sure that’s part of it. 😛 But it’s a trope I’ve noticed over and over again. If there is a supporting character who fulfills the “pure believer” archetype, he usually dies by the end of the film.

Who is the “pure one”? I’m still not quite sure how to define this archetype. Often, he’s the youngest of a group. Or he could be a “less-human” character, simple and closer to nature. He’s not necessarily “pure” in the sense of “innocence”; he maybe criminal or a murderer in a story about mobsters. He’s just the most “pure” out of all the hero’s supporting characters. As far as I’ve observed, he’s always a supporter of and believer in the hero, at least in the sense of supporting what the hero needs to learn. And often the main character supports him in return, perhaps being a mentor to him.

The pure one might die near the beginning of a story to serve as a catalyst for the hero’s journey. (“Noodles, I slipped.” Dominic in Once Upon a Time in America. The kid brother in Road to Perdition. Carl’s wife in Up.) If this happens, there will probably be reminders of him throughout the story to remind the hero of what he lost, such as an old photograph. The pure one might die at the midpoint or somewhere in the second half of a story to raise the stakes and remind the hero what he’s fighting for. (What Blake Snyder would call a “whiff of death”, perhaps?) Lastly, the pure one might take a martyrdom beat right before or as part of the climax. (Or right after the climax. I think that risks making the beat much weaker, but it’s been done.)

And, of course, the pure one’s death might be only symbolic in nature; actual death is too weighty for certain sorts of stories. And the pure one might be “reborn” after his brush with death to continue aiding the hero. For example, in Jurassic Park, the child Tim is resuscitate after he’s electrocuted and stops breathing. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Samwise almost drowns as he wades out to Frodo to join him on his quest to Mordor, and is saved just in time. (On a side note, it’s also a trope for these sort of rebirths, whether it’s the hero or a supporting character, to involve emerging from something, especially water; it seems to evoke something very primal, the sense of water bringing new life. Baptism, anyone?) In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is shown a potential future in which Tiny Tim dies and decreases the surplus population. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the hero is shown an alternate reality in which his children are never born. These aren’t really “deaths” in the traditional sense, but they serve the same purpose: the hero must internalize (or become, or find, or learn, or whatever) what the pure character represents for him.

As I noticed this trope of the death of the pure one, I was of course reminded of its parallel trope: the death of the mentor. When the character has an older and wiser mentor supporting and believing in him, he often bites the dust as well. Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore being some obvious examples. And there are plenty of stories in which the death of a parent or some supportive older character launches the hero on his journey. It seems like mentors and pure ones are kind of two sides of the same coin. They believe in and support the hero, but the hero needs to learn to internalize what they represent before the story’s end.

And I suppose that’s why they need to die. Because the hero has to find them in himself, as cheesy as that might sound.

As a dying pure one once said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”

Another character chemistry archetype

Years ago, I wrote a post about character chemistry archetypes in which I defined the five most prominent character relationship archetypes I could think of. I thought of another one while watching the recently released film Big Hero 6 (which was a good movie, by the way):

The Human and the Inhuman / Less-human

Examples: Baymax and Hiro, Toothless and Hiccup, Stitch and Lilo, ET and Elliott, Terminator 2 and John Connor, The Iron Giant and the kid in that movie, Groot and Peter Quill & company, Ludo and Sarah in Labyrinth

In this relationship, one character is clearly human (or at least more human-like), while the other is less human. The less-human character might be an animal, a robot, an alien, or even a human with, for example, a mental disorder that makes him more difficult to relate to. These characters usually communicate differently; they may have limited vocabularies or be completely mute. They are often closer to nature than the human character; they may have a special relationship with plants or animals (or even rocks in Ludo’s case). They may have a healer’s touch, in the case of E.T. and Baymax. Often the human character will try to teach the corresponding less-human character how to be more human, sometimes with humorous results. On the other hand, the less-human character will often teach the human character something important with his unrelenting loyalty, courage, persistence, and willingness to sacrifice himself for others. In this way, the less-human character, while he may be difficult to relate to and simple and ignorant in many regards, is also closer to the divine. In fact, in stories in which these relationships are at the center of the plot, it’s the less-human character who often gets the “martyr beat” instead of the main character. In Big Hero 6, Terminator 2, The Iron Giant, E.T., and even Guardians of the Galaxy, these less-human characters sacrifice themselves to save the main character (sometimes resurrecting, sometimes not). How to Train Your Dragon is interesting because Toothless and Hiccup actually share the martyr beat.

These human / less-human character relationships can be quite powerful when well-written. I think the reason they can work so well is that the less-human character represents something already inside the main character that the main character must learn to reconnect with. That is, the less-human characters leads the human character to a needed self-discovery.

Brandon Sanderson’s Write-a-thon

Last Friday, I watched fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s online streaming “Write-a-thon.” As he says on his blog:

Last Friday I did a live writing session to benefit the Waygate Foundation and Worldbuilders. The session was recorded and you can see it here. Thanks to everyone who donated and who gave suggestions in the chat during the recording!

At its peak, there were some seven hundred of us writers and Sanderson fans (“Fandersons” as someone quipped), so it was a very lively space.  During a Q&A portion, I did manage to get one question in there, which you can find at the 1:56:55 mark.  It went something like this:

Hannifin: Do you find it harder to write as you continue further into a project?

Sanderson: Yes. The hardest point usually is the second part of the middle. If you split a book into four chunks, chunk three is the hardest part. When I get to the ending, that usually is easier. Yeah, no matter what I do, it feels like that’s the hard part of it.

I was curious to ask this question because I know it’s certainly true for me; the “second part of the middle” is exactly where I am in The Dark Wizard, and my progress has been very slow. Of course, I haven’t worked on nearly as many projects as Sanderson. But the fact that a much more experienced and successful author finds the same difficulty is clearly a sign that I am a genius. Of course, it’s likely that this a very common experience among a lot of writers; there are just more story elements that have to be balanced carefully in the third quarter, and they must be used in a way that moves the story toward its climax.

The short story Sanderson began writing based on audience suggestions was a bit too outlandish for me to get impassioned about, but it was fascinating to see another writer working in real time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other writer do something like this. Fun stuff! Here’s the full four-hour stream:

Elements of a story ending

I’m preparing to write some short stories, and I’ve been thinking about plot structure a lot lately, and plotting endings especially.

Of course, endings are always a challenge in plotting any story, whether it be a novel or a shorter work. But novels have much more time to establish the rules of a new world, establish multi-dimensional characters, and build tension through plots and subplots. Short stories must be much more economical in their approach; their endings must resonate emotionally while being based on far less development. They don’t have time to take characters through long emotional arcs, or build up world-threatening doom.

So I pondered the art of the ending for a while. And while they may still present a creative challenge to the writer, I have noticed at least two ingredients endings tend to have. Understanding these ingredients may help a writer come up with ideas for a story’s ending more easily.

Endings tend to consist of two things: a resolution of the stakes and a thematic revelation.  (I’m not sure if these are the most precise terms for these ideas, but they’re what came to mind when I first thought of them.)

The resolution of the stakes

The resolution of the stakes is basically the climax. Whatever was at stake throughout the story is no longer at stake. The threat is vanquished. The hero saves his own life or the life of a loved one, the villain is defeated, etc. (Or the reverse of this in the case of a tragedy; the anti-hero himself is defeated or meets his doom.)

This may seem fairly obvious, but if you’re having trouble coming up with an ending, it may be because you have not defined the stakes in your story clearly enough. That is, coming up with an ending may be difficult because you’re not exactly sure what’s at stake in the first place.

So first, you need to know the stakes of your story. Typically it is the hero’s death or the death of a loved one, eternal separation of a loved one, or eternal suffering of some sort. If your hero doesn’t achieve his goal, what is the worst that could happen? (If nothing bad could happen, beware — it could mean you don’t have a very strong story. It’s hard to care about whether or not a character achieves his goal if failure holds no threat.)

Then ask yourself: What threat needs to be removed for the stakes to be resolved? How can the hero remove that threat, directly or indirectly? This is the story’s climax.

Thematic revelation

Following the climax, stories often end with a revelation of some sort, the story’s final note, the closing image. The revelation reveals some sort of new information. It could hint at what the future may hold (“and they lived happily ever after”). It could shine a new light on what has happened before (rosebud!). It could simply be a reminder of one of the story’s themes, or it could illustrate how things have changed since the beginning. Remember Dr. Grant looking out at a flock of birds at the end of Jurassic Park, with children now asleep on his shoulders.

Often, the thematic revelation mirrors something that happened near the beginning of the story, and together they “frame” the rest of the story. Since the final thematic revelation is the last thing the reader imagines, it’s the image he’s left with in his mind as he looks up from the page and thinks back about your story as a whole. He will then decide whether to catalog the story in his brain as something special, or to forget it as a silly or boring waste of time. The final revelation should not be taken for granted.

In conclusion

I have only recently come to this understanding of endings, though of course I think anyone who reads a lot of stories or watches a lot of movies understands this on an intuitive level. When endings feel flat or anti-climactic, it’s usually because something about resolving the stakes didn’t work or the final thematic revelation didn’t fit the spirit of the rest of the story.

Anyway, these realizations have already helped me come up with ideas for endings. It still takes work and creativity, but its easier to get ideas when you understand what functions those ending scenes play in the overall story.

Suffering for super powers

How can you make a character instantly relatable and sympathetic?

Make him suffer for his super powers, of course!

That is, ask yourself two questions: What makes the character special? And what makes the character suffer for it?

I could wax philosophical about why we as readers enjoy characters who suffer for their super powers. Is it because we are vain? Or is there something deeper? I leave this for you to think about as an intellectual exercise.

By “super powers” I do not necessarily mean fantastical super powers. I would consider being royalty a super power, or being exceedingly talented in some way or another. A musical genius? That’s a super power. A talented ninja? That’s a super power. A famous actor? Super power. The point is that it is something the reader would want for themselves. It’s something that makes the character special in a good way. Certainly if you read and write a lot in the fantasy genre, the super powers tend to be fantastical in nature.

But if we stopped there, we’d merely have a short daydream, not a sympathetic character who can drive a story. The key ingredient to putting this special-powered character through a story is to make him suffer, and, more importantly, to link that suffering to his super power somehow. In this way, it is that very power that makes him special that also becomes the source of his problems.  Using super powers always backfires on the hero, at least at the beginning of a story.

Some random examples:

Ender of Ender’s Game. He’s a genius. And he’s thus torn away from his family and forced to undergo extensive military training that pushes him to his psychological limits. He suffers for his powers.

Batman of, well, Batman. He’s insanely wealthy. But when he uses wealth to make himself into Batman, he’s forced to push away important relationships and hide his true self from the world.

Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. He’s insanely strong. But when he uses he strength to save a man trapped under cart, he blows his cover and is chased by the law. He suffers for his powers.

Really, almost every story features a hero suffering for his powers in some way, but the sooner and clearer you can introduce these elements to the audience, the more effectively you can get them into the hero’s shoes, and they’ll care about your character and his story.

At least, that’s my theory.

The importance of character goals

In my opinion, one of the most important things a writer needs to do is to make sure the reader understands a character’s goals. This means the character’s overall story goal, as well as each sub-goal in each scene.

At its most basic level, a story is a sequence of related events. This happened, causing this to happen, making this happen, etc. But a causal chain of events will quickly get tiring if each new event seems arbitrary. The reader still needs a way to relate to each event.

This is done with character goals. Now a story becomes a causal chain of events driven by a character in pursuit of a goal. Bob wanted X, so he did this, and this happened, then he did this, and this happened, then he did this, and he finally got what he wanted! In this way, we have a way to relate to everything Bob does and everything that happens to him. We can see that everything that happens either brings Bob closer to his goal or sets him back.

Thus, without knowing a character’s goal, everything he does and everything that happens to him is arbitrary and meaningless.

Now this doesn’t mean any old goal will necessarily do.

Make the goal concrete

Firstly, the goal must be concrete. An intangible goal is vague, and a reader will not be able to relate story events to it. For example, if the character’s goal is to be happy. Or if the characters wants to “be somebody!” Or if the character wants to stop being afraid. These are fine motivations, but they are terrible as story goals, because we have no way know when the character achieves his goal. What will make him happy? What will make him feel safe? Only the character can answer this, so we need his goal to be more specific, more concrete.

The goal must be physically defined so that readers will know without a doubt whether or not a character has achieved it. This doesn’t mean the character must want a physical object itself, simply that a character must want something that can manifest itself physically. For example, a character might want another character to live. A character might want to blow up a building. A character might want to kill another character. A character might want to stop another character from stealing a diamond. Etc, etc. The point is simply that the goal must be something concrete, something specific that has a physical manifestation.

Of course, the character may change his values by the story’s end, and thus change his goal. We’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s at stake?

Secondly, the character has to care about the goal enough to pursue it for the length of a story. This is done with stakes. What happens if the character doesn’t achieve his goal? Something terrible must happen. Otherwise, who cares? For example, Bob’s goal might be to win a prestigious singing contest. But what happens if he fails? If he goes home and life goes on as normal, who cares? So we’ve got to raise the stakes. Perhaps Bob needs the reward money to pay the medical bills for his dying wife. Perhaps Bob must stop an evil singer from winning the contest because the evil singer will enslave the human race somehow. (Hey, I’m brainstorming.) Perhaps Bob thinks winning the contest will get him a date with his old girlfriend. (A really bad romantic comedy?) Again, the point is simply that something terrible will happen if the character doesn’t achieve his goal.

On a side note, “the world will be destroyed” is generally not a very strong stake. We humans usually don’t care about the world in and of itself. It’s too big to relate to. We care about individuals in the world. We care about relationships, about people we love. This is why most stories with such big stakes will have a “stakes character.” The stakes character is a certain character that personalizes the big end-of-the-world stakes. If the world is destroyed, the stakes character will surely die. This might be the hero’s love interest. It might be a child who looks up to the hero. The stake character represents what’s at stake for the hero. If the hero does not achieve his goal, the stakes character will surely die or suffer in some way. Now the hero must achieve his goal for the sake of a loved one.


A hero’s overall goal will probably not be achievable in one easy step. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a story. The hero probably needs to achieve his goal in steps. He needs to do Y before he can do Z, and he needs to do X before he can do Y. In this way, chains of sub-goals are created. As writers, we need to make sure the reader always understands how each sub-goal relates back to the character’s over-arching story goal.

For example, perhaps our hero is Sir Tisgood, a brave knight. His goal is to defeat the evil wizard Wickedsly, and thwart his plan to take over the kingdom. If he doesn’t, Wickedsly will surely kill Sir Tisgood’s son, little seven-year-old Hillipme, whom he has kidnapped. To defeat the evil wizard, Tisgood must first find an ancient magical sword, the only thing that can kill Wickedsly. To get the sword, he’ll need to travel to the mysterious town of Foggysmoke. To get to Foggysmoke, he needs a secret map. To get his hands on the secret map, he needs to steal it from a cranky shopkeeper. To steal it, he needs to get the shopkeeper to step away from his desk for a short while. To do so, he knocks over a shelf of glass bottles.

Although that’s a rather long chain of goals and sub-goals, one can easily so how each relates to the next. So when readers are reading about Tisgood knocking over a shelf and stealing the shopkeeper’s map, they’ll hopefully care about whether or not he succeeds because they understand that his ultimate goal is to kill the evil wizard to save his son. If we began the story with Tisgood knocking over a shelf and stealing the map without understanding why he is doing these things, readers probably wouldn’t care much whether or not he succeeds.

Of course, Tisgood might not want to steal anything; that may be against his code of ethics. He may do something else to get the map. The decisions the hero makes in pursuit of his ultimate goal will define his character.

And, of course, the hero will sometimes fail at achieving a sub-goal and will have to create a new one. For example, Sir Tisgood might get caught stealing the map and be arrested. Now he needs to create a new sub-goal to get out of jail. Perhaps he’ll escape with another prisoner. Perhaps he’ll bribe a guard. Perhaps he’ll fake his own death. The point is that the story is not just composed of the hero’s goals, but also the world working against him. His own goals backfire, or other characters get in his way. In other words, the character faces conflicts, things that stop him from achieving his goals so easily. Similarly to how goals and sub-goals should relate to one another, I think it’s usually a good idea to have the hero’s conflicts somehow relate to his own actions. Being imprisoned for stealing is a logical consequence. Getting caught in a flood that comes out of nowhere is random and will come across as silly. Conflicts are often either generated by other characters with their own set of opposing goals, or by the hero making decisions that backfire on him.

Goal changing

When the stakes change, the hero’s goals must change in response. This usually happens at key points in a story. It will usually happen in Act 1, when the story begins, half-way through the story in Act 2, and sometimes one more time near the climax in Act 3.

For example, perhaps Tisgood’s goal in the beginning of his story is something very simple: to teach his son swordfighting. They get in a fight and his son runs away. Now Tisgood’s goal is to find his son and give him a gift to make him feel better. But then Wickedsly appears and kidnaps his son along with other village children. This is the “catalyst”, the life-changing event that sets the story in motion. Now Tisgood sets out to defeat Wickedsly; it is in Act 1 that his over-arching story goal is established.

Sometimes at the half-way point (but not always), something big will change that will make a clear division between the first half and the second half of the story. Usually the hero’s over-arching goal or a major sub-goal will change. For example, in the movie Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs begin escaping at the half-way mark. Dr. Grant’s goal goes from simply touring the park to surviving it (and keeping the stakes children safe). In the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it is at the half-way mark that Frodo proclaims: “I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor!” His goal goes from simply keeping the ring safe for Gandalf to taking it all the way to Mordor. The half-way mark often sees a raising of the stakes and the character adjusting his goals accordingly.

With our Tisgood, his stakes are already pretty high, but perhaps we can raise them further by introducing a time limit. Perhaps Tisgood will finally gain the mystical sword, but learns that Wickedsly will kill the children in seven nights, when the moons will align or something. Now Tisgood has to hurry. The clock is ticking. In this way, though his overall goal is the same, his sub-goals will certainly change now that he has the sword and a time limit.

Finally, character goals often change in the final act, near the climax. Perhaps the character achieves his goal, only to realize it doesn’t save the stakes character, or is not actually what he wants, or the cost is too high. Perhaps the character realizes the philosophy he used to create his sub-goals will no longer help him, and he must have a change of heart to create the appropriate sub-goals.

Perhaps our Tisgood corners Wickedsly with his sword, but realizes he cannot kill the evil wizard with his son so close; he does not want his son to see such death. Instead, he lets Wickedsly torture him, but in doing so prevents Wickedsly from killing the children when the moons align. Meanwhile, Tisgood’s son is able to grab the sword and free himself and the other children. So Tisgood ends up saving his son, but not in the manner he thought he had to. His overall goal of defeating Wickedsly is fulfilled, but his sub-goal of killing Wickedsly with the sword was, in fact, not the best way to defeat him.


In conclusion, make sure your readers can always understand your hero’s goals. It is how readers relate to what is happening in your story. It is why readers care about what your characters do, and why they have emotional reactions when things get in your character’s way. A story is not just a sequence of events with characters doing whatever they arbitrarily feel like at some moment; it is a progression of events driven by over-arching character goals with high stakes. Make sure your hero wants something specific and make sure the reader knows why he should care.

Hope this helps! Happy writing!