What Makes a Good Character?

So, last week, I watched both Pocahontas  and The Great Mouse Detective with some friends (and not my writing partner), which is why the showing wasn’t live tweeted.

This is another awkward week for me, because I personally think that the one with mice is a better movie, but not adjusted for inflation dollars say otherwise.

I’m also convinced that we can blame one particularly pervy animator working at Disney during the late 80’s for modern furries, but that’s unrelated to the topic I want to talk about.

At any rate, I would maintain that all the characters in both these films are not humans.  Miko, Flick and that stuck up pooch make decent characters in Pocahontas and Basil, Dr. Dawson and Ratigan are oozing with character in The Great Mouse Detective.

However, all these characters are missing one last thing that separates the Elsas of fiction from everyone else.  This intro makes this post sound long… might want to grab a drink before you dive in.

I’ll wait.

Got something with rum?  Yes?  Great.

Lets start by talking about what the humans from Pocahontas are lacking to make them strong characters.  Keeping within the narrow range of Disney films, a character is a person the audience is supposed to relate to.  It’s the characters of the film that allow the viewers to relate to the plot.  Without them, things just happen on screen for reasons.  You can have a badly written character, which would be one that attempts to connect to the audience in a particular fashion and fails (this was covered a bit in context with Beauty and the Beast).

However, the humans from Pocahontas don’t even reach that level for me, and I think it’s because they’re all way to genetic.  Jon Smith is a bland heroic character, Pocahontas is a vaguely rebellious teenage girl and the villain is greed personified (but not in a good way, like Doctor Facilier).  They all have strong character traits, but no personality.  Personality comes from the little quirks that riddle actual people and prevent them from falling neatly into an archetype.

Look at Grandmother Willow, who is a pretty solid character.  When we’re introduced to her, she plays into the “Wise Person Providing Guidance” archetype.  Pocahontas goes to her for wisdom, and she advises our female lead on dreams and listening with your heart and other Disney magical things.

However, later in the movie, we see Grandmother Willow arguably kick as much ass as our leads.  She drives away the men looking for Jon when he steals away with Pocahontas.  She’s old and wise, but she also has a surprising bit of spunk left in her.  It’s that quirk of spunk that prevents her from being bland and makes her a person (we all know that grandparent that rocks despite having two hip replacement surgeries)*.

So, what quirks does Pocahontas have?  Or, to cite some lines from a much better Disney movie:
“What’s his last name?”
“of the Southern Isles.”
“What’s his favorite food?”
“Sandwiches.”
“Eye color?”
“Dreamy.”

Sure, this conversation in Frozen happens in different context (true love, they aren’t having some meta conversation about characters) but the underlying concept is the same.  The audience should fall in love with the characters on the screen.  Pocahontas doesn’t have any of that– she’s more plot device than person, vague strong female lead than character.

All the characters of Pocahontas have this issue, except for maybe the villain who is a bit of a fop (and according to some equally unqualified people, not the real villain of the film at all).  It’s hard for me to care about the action on screen when I can’t relate to the characters that are a part of that action.

So, lets turn this about on its head and take a look at The Great Mouse Detective.  This film only works because of its characters.  The plot is pretty predictable.  The setting is just modern day (when the movie was made, anyway) but with mice and without the cool Rescuers-esque world building.

However, Basil is a wonderful protagonist.  He’s the spitting image of mousy Sherlock Holmes, and just like the detective he is based off of, he is bristling with character quirks.  He’s observant and brilliant, but because his mind works so much faster than the people around him, he comes off as a bit insane.  It’s also obvious he’s worked alone for quite some time– he has trouble relating and talking to other mice.  He’s arrogant (he never learns Olivia’s last name), full of himself and also dangerously obsessed with catching Ratigan.

He might be one of my favorite Disney characters.  He gets strengths and flaws in equal measure, and I totally know people exactly like him (heck, I’ve worked with Basils in software engineering).  The movie also mirrors it’s protagonist and antagonist very well– a lot of Ratigan’s strengths are Basil’s strengths, and a lot of his flaws are Basil’s flaws.  Ratigan is also brilliant (he’s evaded Basil’s attempts to capture him time and time again and comes dangerously close to lethally outsmarting the protagonist in the film), full of himself (he gets a harp solo in the middle of his own song, which he uses to bitch about his problems) and dangerously obsessed with killing Basil.

There is a defining difference in both these characters– one of virtue.  Basil does want to help people in his own, round about way.  Ratigan murders his own henchmen.  However, both these characters are effective because of their quirks.  Ratigan is just as greedy as the villain from Pocahontas, but he comes across as less of a plot device and more of a character.

So, we see the difference is that characters with little quirks are more believable than ‘pure’ characters.  Have another example: Elsa from Frozen loves chocolate, along with her sister, Anna.  It’s a one line gag, but it helps flesh out both characters.  That’s all it takes to establish a little quirk.

However, obviously, Elsa is a great character for more than just this one line.  In fact, Elsa is a cut above all the characters from both these films because she develops as the film progresses.  The events of the plot change who she is, she grows with the viewer.  Over the course of Frozen, Elsa goes from a girl terrified of her powers to a queen able to control them.  Along the way, she learns about what fear (and its opposite) truly are as well as how to appreciate and accommodate her extroverted sister.

It’s a powerful character arc, one that carries the movie.  Both films I watched last weekend did not have character arcs.  Heck, The Great Mouse Detective goes out of its way to remind us that Basil has not changed, at all, over the course of the film.  Pocahontas has character change (Jon Smith), but because he was never a fleshed out character to begin with, his growth isn’t a potent as Elsa’s.

In fact, without the ground work, his transformation over the course of the film isn’t effective, at all.

So, what to take away from all of this?  Characters are important, complicated things.  They need some good qualities, some questionable qualities and if we really want them to stick with an audience, they need to grow.

So, characters are basically my vegetable garden back home, except with less weeds.

*It is interesting to note that this “old person with spunk” has become a bland archtype.  It may have been a bland archtype at the time Pocahontas first came out.  However, I happen to still enjoy it, so this doesn’t bother me too badly.  It’s still something to note of having been done before, and maybe even done to death.

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About relimited

Sup. I'm a computer science grad student out in California currently reading fairy tales rather than writing a strong testing framework.

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