Destroying Your Character’s Comfort Zone: Pixar #6

I hope you all had a great Easter! After a one-day break for the holiday, we’re back to discussing Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Today rule 6 is up:

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

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 lit agency intern,

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

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.