Monday, March 29, 2010

Introducing Your Characters, Disney Style

Disney movies have this pattern -- in the beginning, the main character has a song that says "This is who I am, and this is what I want."

It's the ultimate use of telling, not showing, but we forgive Disney because the music is catchy as hell. AND, despite the obvious purpose of the song, there's subtlety in the lyrics that gives us added depth.

After the song, the conflict is introduced, and it offers the character what he/she wants and names the price. Dun dun dunnnnn...

The Line-Up

Song: Just Around the River Bend
The Gist: I know there's more to life, and I want to seek it.
Quality Lyrics: 
"Can I ignore that sound of distant drumming
For a handsome sturdy husband who builds handsome sturdy walls
And never dreams that something might be coming?"
The Conflict: Enter John Smith and the Englishmen, who offer the adventure she wants, but possibly at the cost of her tribe and the land she loves.

Song: Belle (This title is soooo lacking.)
The Gist: I moved to a boring little stagnant town where no one understandssss me.
*Ok, Belle's my favorite, but that sounds a little bit like ... Bella. NOOOOOOOOOOO
Quality Lyrics:
"Every day like the one before
Little town, full of little people"
Townspeople: "But behind that fair facade,
I'm afraid she's rather odd,
Very different from the rest of us is Belle"
The Conflict: She can live in an enchanted castle... as a prisoner who's given up her only family.

Song: Part of Your World
The Gist: I'd so rather be a human than a spoiled mermaid princess.
* There are like 50 million little girls who would totally disagree.
Quality Super-Foreshadowy Lyrics:
"What would I give
If I could live
Out of these waters?
What would I pay
To spend a day
Warm on the sand?"
The Conflict: Sure, she can have the hot human prince. If she gives up her voice. And possibly her life.

Song: I Just Can't Wait to Be King
The Gist: Stop telling me what to do. Being the boss would be awesome and sooo easy.
Quality Lyrics:
Simba: "I'm brushing up on looking down,
I'm working on my roar."
Zazu: "Thus far a rather uninspiring thing"
Simba: "Oh I just can't wait to be king!"
The Conflict: He gets his wish... after his father's murdered by his evil uncle, and he thinks it's his fault.

Song: One Jump Ahead
The Gist: I steal 'cause I'm broke -- and thus nearly get killed by the authorities on a daily basis, but I take it in stride.
Quality Lyrics: (all of them. seriously.)
"I steal only what I can't afford.
That's everything."
People: "Oh it's sad, Aladdin's hit the bottom
He's become a one-man rise in crime
I'd blame parents, except he hasn't got 'em"
Aladdin: "Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat
Tell you all about it when I got the time"
The Conflict: He's granted three wishes, but none of them can win the heart of the girl he loves. Oh, and a badass sorcerer's trying to kill him.

Song: Reflection
The Gist: I can't meet my family's expectations and be true to myself.
Quality Lyrics:
"Can it be
I'm not meant to play this part
Now I see
That if I were truly to be myself
I would break my family's heart."
The Conflict: She can become who she wants... if she runs away and pretends to be a boy.

Alright, so how does this help us as writers?

There's a clear pattern here that WORKS. Show what your main character wants, and put it in his or her reach ... while making that character sympathetic to your readers. Get the readers invested!

* It also helps if what the character wants is sooooo nearly impossible. Like, Ariel wants legs. Legs! And Aladdin wants to go from slum-poor to marrying a princess. And Mulan wants to overthrow cultural norms to be happy. No small things, here.

THEN throw every possible obstacle in the character's way, and make him or her sacrifice just about everything to achieve that dream. Voila! The beginnings of a great story.

What's your favorite Disney character intro song? I'm torn between One Jump Ahead and Just Around the River Bend.


  1. Am too big a fan of the Mulan soundtrack. Reflection all the way!

  2. I'm cheating a little bit, but "Almost There" from the Princess and the Frog is like my anthem for the upcoming year.

  3. Awesome post!! Good ol' Disney days.
    And I agree with najela, the only one I remember (because I watched it last week) is Almost There from the Princess and the Frog. Catchy to a fault! I barely remember the other ones :(

  4. I'm torn between One Jump Ahead and I Just Can't Wait to be King...I know both these soundtracks by heart!

    Awesome post =)

  5. I love this post! My favorite is One Jump Ahead. I love Aladdin. Belle is a close second though :)

  6. Belle! I heart that movie so, so much. And I actually really love Mulan, but I find her song a little less inspiring. Or maybe it's because I wasn't 5 when I first started watching it. :-)

  7. Great post! Now I have Belle stuck in my head.

  8. Let's tally up the votes thus far:
    Aladdin - 3
    Mulan - 1
    Princess and the Frog (write-in nominee!) - 2
    Simba - .5
    Belle - 2
    Pocahontas - .5

    (If you were torn, each song gets .5)

    Aladdin's in the lead!

  9. Oh my gosh, all these songs are going to be stuck in my head all day. And I love it! I've always been partial to Belle though (and I'm forcing my mind not to wander for hours on the Belle/Twilight reference).

    This was a great post -- Disney is a good place to turn if you want to analyze structure. There was never any doubt in any of those movies what the characters wanted, who wanted to keep it from them and why. They know storytelling.

  10. Great post! Now I want to go and watch all these movies. My vote- One Jump- I think Aladdin is cute.

  11. Great post!!! I'm a disney freakazoid (my friend Evan's words, not mine). Beauty and the Beast is my favorite, so I'll have to go with Belle's song. But I used to recite Pocahontas (the whole movie) to my dad when I was in elementary school. And The Little Mermaid has a special place in my heart as well because by bff and niece ALWAYS sang her songs. (okay I'll admit, they all are freaking amazing, & i'm sure I can come up with a million reasons why all of them are special to me and why I lurve 'em).

  12. Awesome post! I love Disney!

    My favorite is Belle. But did you have to bring up the Twilight thing?? Ugh.

  13. What a great post, inspiring and fun! I've gotta go with The Little Mermaid, I <3 it!! I love all the songs though, but that one's my fav!

  14. Updated tally:
    Aladdin - 3
    Mulan - 1
    Princess and the Frog (write-in nominee!) - 2
    Simba - .5
    Belle - 4
    Pocahontas - .5
    Ariel - 1

    (If you were torn, each song gets .5)

    Belle took the lead! (Sorry Aladdin.)

  15. LOL! I just dragged my husband over here and made him read this too.

    I had never notice this pattern, but you definitely have something here. Aladdin has the best song, though.


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