Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing For Character, rather than plugging characters into a generic plot

Write For Character

I’ve always found that it’s much easier to write for characters that have strong distinct personalities – iconic characters.

Some cartoon writers like to begin with a high concept, (“Let’s start the picture by shooting the protagonist’s mother and then the son goes on a magical adventure to search for a replacement mother figure, but then finds out through trials that he himself is an individual and thus important to the uncaring universe and can solve his own problems with the help of a nagging assertive female.”) “Who IS the protagonist?, some junior executive asks. Everyone in the room agrees that that will come later and isn't. The story is what’s important, not who it’s about.

The writers then plug in stock animation character types, and randomly choose what species the characters are. These types of stories typically use generic plots and stock animated personality types. The last 25 years of animated features have largely been about finding and loving yourself. They are peopled by a wimpy ineffectual lead, the strong assertive liberated female, the wacky fast talking irritating sidekick, the evil hook nosed villain, etc. The creators just change the “arena” and the classes of animalia, but the characters remain essentially the same simple stereotypes, all out to find themselves and be OK with who they are.

The message seems to be: it's OK to be an individual, just not if you work in our unfeeling corporate-owned monster of a studio.


The easiest (and I think most successful) stories I’ve written or worked on were the ones that directly evolved out of the characters’ personalities, rather than just taking the characters and plugging them into a plot or situation.

Stimpy’s Invention was originally pitched as a typical “Character A makes crazy inventions that backfire on character B. Hilarity ensues”
It was rejected on that basis and I reexamined it and thought that it needed something that took advantage of Ren and Stimpy’s personalities.

Ren is a psychotic highly strung nervous wreck and Stimpy is a trusting, dumb but empathetic guy who loves Ren despite Ren’s meanness.

When Stimpy realizes that his inventions are driving Ren nuts, he doesn’t blame his screwy inventions, he instead thinks Ren just needs a cure for his unhappiness. Inspired with a new mission, he decides to invent something to make Ren happy. He gets the idea for a Happy Helmet.

Once we came up with that, the story wrote itself. (Well Bob Camp and I did, but it came much easier once it wasn't about wacky inventions) Now the gags were all about the characters, not about the props.

In Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse, the best stories were the ones about the villains. MM himself didn’t have much personality, so I found it more rewarding to write about the bad guys or quirky new superhero characters we created.

Tom Minton wrote “The Littlest Tramp” which, on the surface was a satire of “The Little Match Girl” and other sappy 1930s cartoons. The satiric elements were funny, but what made the cartoon exciting for me to work on was the character dynamics between Mighty Mouse, the Polly Pineblossom (the poor flower girl) and the villainous Big Murray, whose sole motive in life was to make Polly’s life all the more miserable.

The drawings of the acting of the well defined personalities was really what sold the story.
We had other stories that kind of went nowhere, demonstrations of how weird we could be, but the episodes which most developed the personalities were the most fun stories to tell – and to draw.


Once you have solidly defined interesting and fun characters, you can “write” endless stories about them. Conversely, the types of characters created for “Arena” cartoons or what I call “Mom-killer cartoons” rarely outlive their first appearances.

There is also the modern vogue of random cartoon writing where everything is supposed to be a rebellious non-sequitur. No plot, no character, no structure. I don't what can be said for that. You can't teach random because everyone can do it. It's a lack of purpose or plan.

Sorry I have no pictures today, but click any of the labels below and there will be other articles with illustrations.

Next: a bit about how to write strong character dialogue.