Pixar 22: Rule 1- Character Struggle

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.

The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.

Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

We’d love it if you’d comment on our posts and share anything you enjoyed as we do this blogging challenge to keep us accountable and motivated! As always, thanks for reading!

Focus: Katniss, Meg, and the Rest of Life

Focus is worth thinking about as a writer. Focus limits but enlarges, like a microscope. When I am focusing on writing, by definition I have to stop focusing on other things. Social engagements, reading, movies, time with family, and hobbies all get the short end of the stick. I’ve never liked this about writing. However, I do appreciate it. Choosing the object of my attention, pinning it down, and examining it in its entirety is both facinating and necessary for me to use it well.

The limits of focusing on one thing, especially writing, for too long is that I lose perspective on the rest of the world- and as a novelist, I’m writing about the world.

What is ultimately thrilling and pure genius, to me, is that people, relationships, hobbies, books, movies, writing, global politics, social justice issues, and the rest of life are undeniably stitched together. So, when I shift my focus from writing to volleyball in the park, I am not leaving my writing behind as much as you might think. I’m taking the chance to focus on spring- how it has come early this year, how sponge-like the grass and dirt are compared to the  unforving, frozen ground of winter. I’m taking the time to focus on people- their meaner competitive sides, their  subtext-heavy conversations, their healthy celebrations of a well-made shot. I’m also taking the time to use my body well- to see green and friends and opportunity. To hear the swish and thunk of ball, net, and sand. To feel warmth, a chill breeze, and the sting of that ball.  To feel, most remarkably, the movement of my muscles and their response my brain. To taste water, taste dust. To smell- one of the most impacting abilities of the body but often the most forgotten- sweat, the coming rain, and the damp sand four inches down.

Sometimes I focus on a movie. I saw The Hunger Games today in theaters. I haven’t read the book yet- I think I may be the only one. Taking the 3 hours to go to that movie this afternoon impressed on me even further how incredibly vital character development is to a lasting story. Katniss Everdeen is a remarkable character- she has internal and external desires, some of them conflicting. She has a backstory and an uncertain future. She learns, she reacts, she changes- but only into what she had the potential to be from the start. In her I could see bits of myself and large pieces of what I am not. I could see things I want to be. All this was delivered almost immediately. Within the first few scenes, we know all this about her and the effect is magnetic. Throughout the movie, we explore it, test it, and learn to trust it- but we see it immediately. The strength of her character development establishes a relationship with us, and that relationship pulls us onward. One of the most enjoyable factors for me about good character development is that I’m being pulled into something that I want. I’m not passive. I relate, I react, I evaluate. I’m being pulled toward something I am reaching for.

Lately I’ve been taking some time to participate in things besides writing. I  read A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is as true to life as ever, making an other-worldly story tangible and relevant. On Saturday, I spent nearly 13 hours babysitting 3 boys age 5 and under. Watching them plunge right ahead into consequences all day long was a potent reminder how motivating human desires and how overwhelming human emotions can be. Sometimes, they are all we can see. Sometimes they shouldn’t matter, and sometimes they are all that matters.

Focusing on this blog post, in fact, forces me to focus on these experiences and process them more deeply.

Now, here’s the part I love: as soon as I post this, I’m going to get a blanket, get a mug of coffee, enjoy the breeze and birdsong from the open window, and bring these thoughts and experiences to the main character of my novel. I’m going to take a second (or twentieth) look at who she is, and focus sharply on how I convey that. I don’t want her to be Meg or Katniss- but I do want her to be the strongest possible version of herself.