Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The illusion of life

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Last week, The A.V. Club ran an entire article devoted to television shows in which the lead is also the best character, which only points to how boring many protagonists tend to be. I’ve learned to chalk this up to two factors, one internal, the other external. The internal problem stems from the reasonable principle that the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when the goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. It’s great advice, but in practice, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t much room for the digressions and quirks that bring characters to life. The supporting cast has room to go off on tangents, but the characters at the center have to constantly triangulate between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain them of all surprise. A protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a sea creature brought up from its crevasse to the surface. Elsewhere, I’ve compared a main character to a diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. And on top of this, there’s an external factor, which is the universal desire of editors, producers, and studio executives to make the protagonist “likable,” which, whether or not you agree with it, tends to smooth out the rough edges that make a character vivid and memorable.

In the classic textbook Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, we find a useful perspective on this problem. The legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston provide a list of guidelines for evaluating story material before the animation begins, including the following:

Tell your story through the broad cartoon characters rather than the “straight” ones. There is no way to animate strong-enough attitudes, feelings, or expressions on realistic characters to get the communication you should have. The more real, the less latitude for clear communication. This is more easily done with the cartoon characters who can carry the story with more interest and spirit anyway. Snow White was told through the animals, the dwarfs, and the witch—not through the prince or the queen or the huntsman. They had vital roles, but their scenes were essentially situation. The girl herself was a real problem, but she was helped by always working to a sympathetic animal or a broad character. This is the old vaudeville trick of playing the pretty girl against the buffoon; it helps both characters.

Even more than Snow White, the great example here is Sleeping Beauty, which has always fascinated me as an attempt by Disney to recapture past glories by a mechanical application of its old principles raised to dazzling technical heights. Not only do Aurora and Prince Philip fail to drive the story, but they’re all but abandoned by it—Aurora speaks fewer lines than any other Disney main character, and neither of them talk for the last thirty minutes. Not only does the film acknowledge the dullness of its protagonists, but it practically turns it into an artistic statement in itself.

And it arises from a tension between the nature of animation, which is naturally drawn to caricature, and the notion that sympathetic protagonists need to be basically realistic. With regard to the first point, Thomas and Johnston advise:

Ask yourself, “Can the story point be done in caricature?” Be sure the scenes call for action, or acting that can be caricatured if you are to make a clear statement. Just to imitate nature, illustrate reality, or duplicate live action not only wastes the medium but puts an enormous burden on the animator. It should be believable, but not realistic.

The italics are mine. This is a good rule, but it collides headlong with the principle that the “real” characters should be rendered with greater naturalism:

Of course, there is always a big problem in making the “real” or “straight” characters in our pictures have enough personality to carry their part of the story…The point of this is misinterpreted by many to mean that characters who have to be represented as real should be left out of feature films, that the stories should be told with broad characters who can be handled more easily. This would be a mistake, for spectators need to have someone or something they can believe in, or the picture falls apart.

And while you could make a strong case that viewers relate just as much to the sidekicks, it’s probably also true that a realistic central character serves an important functional role, which allows the audience to take the story seriously. This doesn’t just apply to animation, either, but to all forms of storytelling—including most fiction, film, and television—that work best with broad strokes. In many cases, you can sense the reluctance of animators to tackle characters who don’t lend themselves to such bold gestures:

Early in the story development, these questions will be asked: “Does this character have to be straight?” “What is the role we need here?” If it is a prince or a hero or a sympathetic person who needs acceptance from the audience to make the story work, then the character must be drawn realistically.

Figuring out the protagonists is a thankless job: they have to serve a function within the overall story, but they’re also liable to be taken out and judged on their own merits, in the absence of the narrative pressures that created them in the first place. The best stories, it seems, are the ones in which that pattern of forces results in something fascinating in its own right, or which transform a stock character into something more. (It’s revealing that Thomas and Johnston refer to the queen and the witch in Snow White as separate figures, when they’re really a single person who evolves over the course of the story into her true form.) And their concluding advice is worth bearing in mind by everyone: “Generally speaking, if there is a human character in a story, it is wise to draw the person with as much caricature as the role will permit.”

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