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.



Plots

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.

STRONG CHARACTER INSPIRES PLOTS

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.

69 comments:

Steven M. said...

I wonder, if ever in the slightest, it crosses the exceutives mind that the movies they churn out are nothing but a "copt-and-paste" of Disneys worn-out personalities set in a bland enviorment of no imagination.

My answer would be no.

kurtwil said...

"There is also the modern vogue of random cartoon writing where everything is supposed to be a rebellious non-sequitur. "

Could this embrace the "stream of consciousness" approach so many modern cartoons embark on (AquaTeenHungerForce a prime example)?

In any event, JK's comment nails a big flaw in animation, especially most present day stuff.

BTW, Disney animators have remarked how much more enjoyable it is to animate villains. No doubt they also relish the few times their heros get to be "Politically Incorrect" (Princess Jasmine punching out a villain, etc).

ardy said...

Your advice is always golden, these are the posts I enjoy reading the most.

As far as randomness goes, I think it mostly boils down to laziness. Nothing can really be random anyway, it will always be a sample of the creator's thoughts, and it only works when the creator is a unique personality with unique thoughts (like the weird Mighty Mouse episodes).

jeffreyJack said...

Boy, you are so right about generic animation stories. It seems like holes are created in stories into which standard conflicts get shoveled. Then they choose the most cute or repugnant animal character that will be able to say the words and move the story forward and look good in a dance number, penguins, warthogs, aliens, what have you.
Stimpy's invention was great because Stimpy's and Ren's personalities drove the story and not the other way around. Maybe Popeye falls into that class too, a character fully formed of his own stuff, he is what he is. And especially as Segar made him, it was the force of his personality that propelled him up from a minor character inThimble Theatre to the master and commander of that world. One more thing, about Mighty Mouse. The Cow, one of animations great antivillains. Moo! Thanks JK.

Gad said...

i'm horrored about the story you tell of the uncreative process in which animation studios cook up stories
naturally i assumed the story derives from the character personality
that's how i would do it

but aren't Ren and Stimpy "stock animation character types"
they are just like any other cartoon duo, Laurel and Hardy, Hubie and Bertie, Papa Bear and Junior, Duffy and porky,Blackadder and Baldrick,Bert and Ernie and probably lots others i can't remember.
the smart one and the stupid one.
i mean, how original can you get when creating comedic characters.
i bet the formula of the comic duo goes back to ancient Greece.

JohnK said...

Well you're right that they are archetypal characters, but they have very individual shadings and quirks just as Laurel and Hardy have.

Kramden and Norton are based on the same general archetypes as Laurel and Hardy, but have very different specific colorings layered onto them.

Same with Archie and Edith.

Without the specific traits all these characters would be generic (and forgotten)as so many others are.

Big dumb guy, short mean guy are not enough to define characters.

Wimpy bland hero is surely not even worthy of being generic.

SparkyMK3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gad said...

i guess it's the little differences in the characters personality that makes the charters unique.
no one can do something totally unrelated to what was made before

it's more how you interpretthe formula that make the characters work.
seemingly you could argue that characters like cow and chicken are basically the same as Ren and Stimpy, and yet they unbelievable and not funny at all, as opposed to ren and Stimpy. so they are diffident even if they are based on the same model. i think i get it.

K-T said...

This was a nice read. I'm sure the animators at Disney hate having to animate those generic stories, which is probably they always hide "SEX" in everything.

Or maybe I'm wrong and they love it, who knows. Maybe there's some great pleasure the comes with animating stock characters going on a bland adventure.

But I doubt it.

Andrés Sanhueza said...

I agree with this theory. The thing is, though, I believe is not easy to have a character completely defined in your head and make stories with them flow from the go at first chance (like making a show bible with long character descriptions without any proposed history and hoping the first episode will the best thing ever). So I think many would prefer starting doing some general dud stories and see how they can develop the characters futher. A great bunch of stuff had went this way, and I suppose that's somewhat how the approach of 'shorts' system worked.

I believe that an unconscious reason of why some people likes to write fanwork for existing stuff instead of creating custom characters is because the characters are already developed and they don't have to start practicing writing from scratch. Not that much of that stuff is close to the original characters, but still.

Erik B said...

Hey John thanks for the information about this subject.
I tottaly agree, its best to tell a story that comes out of character itself, than making a story and put some characters in it. The motivation of a character is better to understand that way, becouse of a strong personality.
And ofcourse a good design for a character helps a lot to.

personaly i think you don't always need a good story, but a simple creative idea and a good character fills in the rest. Thats how in my oppinion, most of the classic looney tunes cartoons (and others) work.

i've been struggling whit this my self for a while. Some of my teachers are always hammering about good story writing.

Thanks a lot for great this post.

JohnK said...

"Some of my teachers are always hammering about good story writing."

Animation teachers? Animation people love to talk about how important story is, but none of them ever do it.

It's just the same dumb animation cliches over and over again.

Scrawnycartoons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blitzen said...

It's true that you need great characters to make a story interesting, but you still do need a story. I think it's just much easier to write a great story once you have the characters because they already have motivation and direction.

But I think even the best characters can be shoved into a lame story. It's just easier to have both when you start with character instead of plot.

JohnK said...

It's true that you need great characters to make a story interesting, but you still do need a story."

who does? Not animated features. They have the dumbest stories of any medium ever.

kurtwil said...

Well, as JK said earlier, animation's become incredibly inbred. There's tons of original, semi-original and ripoff animation to study and reference.

Also, isn't much of today's acting mostly 1-dimensional projections of attitude? Older characters relied on usually clever variations of and building on a character type.

Like many cartoons, Popeye became stale because writers and animators eventually lost the ability to embellish or expand his character, instead falling back on basic repetitive aspects (get beat up, eat spinach, sock the bad guy silly).

Lohen said...

I totally agree. But, isn´t a "story" the best way to define a character´s personality?
You can´t create a solid character from "nothing", it needs a context. Isn´t it?

Martin Juneau said...

I think understand why most of modern Disney features is such unappealing in the way. The characters looks generic and the writing is almost the same, except a few variations, (Their Beauty and the Beast and Princess and the Frog by example are not so different each other.) and seems like the animators having a real pain to draw bland stock characters for the pleasure of executives and blindest theaters audiences like we was.

And Andrés, i think you refered to fanfiction, don't you? I remember writing one as a teenager but i was unconscious of what i do. Today i know it's just pure sillyness but they have a lot of idiots for defend their fan-craft work.

Elana Pritchard said...

Great post! You have given me much to ponder...

Margriet Kats said...

@ John K
Animation teachers? Animation people love to talk about how important story is, but none of them ever do it.

Its a long story but i got both animation and illustration teachers. But both are trying to teach me that they want some more story depth.

By the way, have you seen the movie Inception John? that movie totaly proves your point.

it tries to be so deep and awesome its ridiculous.

InYourFaceNewYorker said...

Nice post. What always bothered me about those "Disney Afternoon" shows (which I loved as a kid) is the fact that you can tell that it's the same writers behind all the characters. Even if a character's personality is superficially different, the dialogue still has a common element between characters. Okay, I confess my brother pointed this out to me as a kid and then I noticed it. But either way...

jeffreyJack said...

JK. You opened a great can of worms and I hope this thread continues for awhile. Story can drag us here and there for awhile but only characters and their lugubrious personalities can keep us engaged. You sent me back thinking of early Disney and the Silly Symphonies. Mickey had a personality that kicked it. And Donald (Bastard), and maybe Pluto a little, but Clarabell Cow? No. Horace Horsecollar? No. Pete, definitely a badass but clearly just a retread of every early silent badass. Early Disney had a character drive as broad and intense as the creator. And his attention was limited to just a few of his ace creations. Today- while they try to suck that corporate cartoon titty- and blow out one box office turd after another- exec's would do well to remember... You don't have to do anything new- just do it really great.

JohnK said...

"Its a long story but i got both animation and illustration teachers. But both are trying to teach me that they want some more story depth."

For some reason, everyone in the world is an expert on story. It must be because it's so much easier to write than to draw.

InYourFaceNewYorker said...

When I was working on my senior animation thesis film in college, the teachers were giving me crap about the story. I am not one to toot my own horn, but I have been writing for years (and drawing, of course) and I am sure I can write better than these people with both hands tied behind my back and one foot up my butt. And while they did focus on the animation quality (which left a lot to be desired), they kept asking me stuff like, "What does he have to gain or lose from..." whatever? Gee, what does Marty McFly have to gain or lose from going back to the future? Eventually, I just scrapped my idea because I was tired of putting up with this nonsense and just made a simple film about my mother screaming, which I did the voice for (and the animation was pretty crappy, I'm embarrassed to say).

Even more amusing is that a friend of mine, who can imitate Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and others almost seamlessly, did an animation about a dog scratching a flea. One teacher asked, "What's the flea's motivation?" FACEPALM.

SparkyMK3 said...

"You sent me back thinking of early Disney and the Silly Symphonies. Mickey had a personality that kicked it. And Donald (Bastard), and maybe Pluto a little"

Please elaborate on this if you want John to believe that.

Mickey Mouse NEVER had any personality. The closest thing he ever came to having even one discernable trait was in his earliest batch of cartoons, when he was kindof mischevious, but even that isn't enough to call a personality.

Donald Duck's only traits are that he's short tempered, likes imposing over others, and is impulsive when it comes to picking fights. A very bare bone personality, just enough to carry out a standard issue cartoon.

Pluto's only trait that i can think of is that he's short tempered, but that's pretty much it.

Peter Bernard said...

I'm really grateful to you for these kinds of blogs the most.

Luke said...

Characters are the most important ingridiant to entertainment, period. People who say story is important are the ones who aren't good story tellers to begin with. They cannot think of good characters, and instead cover that up with a thousand details and "plot points" that are really meaningless because there is no good character to drive those points.

To think of a story first is backwards, and pointless. We as people do not hold a set order of generic steps in life all leading to some grand reveal, we are the masters of our own destiny, in other words, we are the most important part of our "journey" in life. So why should stories be any different? The characters are there to choose what happens, which creates a story. And that is the magic charm that creates appealing, charismatic, or otherwise individual characters, and stories personal to the creator.

It is an ability held by many to create a character, however, it is an extraordinary gift held by few, to create an amazing, memoreable character.

Erik Robinson said...

I love this post and all of the comments. Happy to see you've found some time to post on cartoon theory. Also, I couldn't agree more...I constantly hear about how important story is, but it never goes beyond that. Can't wait for the next post!

Erik B said...

@ John K
"Its a long story but i got both animation and illustration teachers. But both are trying to teach me that they want some more story depth."

For some reason, everyone in the world is an expert on story. It must be because it's so much easier to write than to draw.

I am the same person who posted that as Margriet Kats :P

now thats a plot twist huh?

but you're right i have never seen an drawing made by my teachers...
pretty strange since they know it all...

And they probably know a lot about some other stuff but this has been bothering me.

Archie said...

Awesome post John.

David Germain said...

I'm in 100% agreement. Character does come first. If you don't care about the characters then you certainly won't be interested in what happens to them.

Shea said...

I'm not sure how everyone else feels about "The Simpsons", but I would wager the reason they have lasted so long is not due to their stories (because quite frankly, they've been lacking for a while), but their characters.

I've never seen one entire show come up with such memorable and unique characters, to the magnitude The Simpsons have. Sure the family are the main characters, and one could argue that once, Bart was the star and then it shifted to Homer. But their ensemble cast of characters is unique and I enjoy them all. Perhaps that is why they have such staying power.

Jeff Read said...

This was a nice read. I'm sure the animators at Disney hate having to animate those generic stories, which is probably they always hide "SEX" in everything.

It was "SFX" actually. As in special effects. As in "what Disney movies tend to be full of, at the expense of plot, characterization, and humor".

I re-watched The Lion King in my mid-twenties. It hasn't withstood the test of time.

Jeff Read said...

One teacher asked, "What's the flea's motivation?" FACEPALM.

"There's food around the corner,
Food around the corner,
Food around the corner for me,
Hallelujah brother..."

Jeff Read said...

I like how all these generic samey execs come up with the same generic samey stories about "being an individual". It's like back in the 80s when teenage girls dressed and made themselves up all slutty, trying to look exactly like Madonna, and claiming that they were being individuals and expressing their personality. Uh, whose personality? Your own? Or Madonna's?

I think we like the idea of individuality, but people with distinct personalities run the risk of being messy and unpleasant, so we become conformists at heart.

Mykal said...

"For some reason, everyone in the world is an expert on story. It must be because it's so much easier to write than to draw."

Whoa. Steady as she goes, John. I think it is easier to imagine you can write than it is to imagine you can draw well. This is; everyone thinks they can write well, whereas with drawing I think it is harder to fool yourself.


Good writing is just as rare as good drawing (actually, probably even more scarce). The real gift of talent is not easily come by in any field.

JohnK said...

Well listen, I can tell you this fact from decades of experience. I do both, write and draw, and it's a million times easier to write than to draw or animate.

Any idiot can write the kind of cartoons we've had for the last 40 years.

Writers usually start out as security guards and secretaries. Their only required qualification is that they get along with executives.

InYourFaceNewYorker said...

When I was a kid, I was really into dark humor (I still am, but I like all kinds of humor now too). At age 11/12, my favorite movie was "The Addams Family" and my favorite cartoon was "Ren and Stimpy." I experimented by drawing cartoons in the John K style with "Addams Family" humor laced in. This made my father a little concerned and scared the shit out of my mother. I think part of the reason my mom was scared was because I drew these "shocking" things without having a dick. A number of times, she asked me, "Why can't you create a character like Belle from 'Beauty and the Beast?'" Really, can you think of anything more sterile and generic? I saw myself as growing up to be the creator of a freaky weird cartoon show, not the creator of the next Disney Princess. :P

InYourFaceNewYorker said...

@Jeff Read,

Believe it or not, it wasn't really much like that cartoon you're referencing.

Roberto González said...

Perhaps we shouldn't call it "writing" but I think the original concept and ideas are the most important part, sometimes more important than the drawings or images.

That's why I sometimes tolerate boring drawings if the writing is ok.

Of course good drawings are a lot more entertaining.

And yeah, characters are one of the most important-if not THE most important- thing when I talk about the "concept". They should look good but first they should have interesting and funny personalities.

Although I'm not as extremist as John and I certainly can tolerate and even like a lot of modern animated features I think he's totally rigth about the over-abundance of cliches on characters and plots in most animated movies.

Some wimpy/underdog characters can work once in a while, but we do need other type of protagonists too. I don't see many animated movies with Popeye's or Foghorn Leghorn's types as main characters and even if they ever do it they would probably add some tips about how misunderstood they are.

I'm not even oppossed to subtle emotional moments even in a pure comedy, but they always use the same tricks or formulas for these things.

It's equally difficult to find really good life action movies these days, but they still have a lot more variety.

I'm really interested in this kind of posts, everybody is talking about how great Pixar is (and I actually enjoy most of their movies) but we need more of this kind of criticism if we want to see all kind of animation movies. If not, we are stuck in the Disney formula, Pixar is kind of a modern Disney, but where are the equivalents of Looney Tunes or the Fleischers? Not in Dreamworks or BlueSky, they also use the Disney formula, with some more gags that make it look a little more "irreverent" but it's just as safe. Even a pretty original and imaginative movie like Cloudy With a Chance Of Meatballs felt in some cliches in emotion and characterization.

SandraRivas said...

I love your theory, because it's not just applied in cartoons, but also in live action as well (Get Smart for example).

Any dummy can write a story. But to make a unique and interesting story that focuses on the iconic characters is a different situation. That takes a lot of work, and unfortunately the big animation industries aren't interested anymore. Not even Pixar.

Isaak said...

There's always primetime tv shows, like Law and Order and Bones to give great examples of character development. Mr. John K, have you seen these shows. They deal with the complexities of each character and have an...odd sense of humor.

C said...

I come up with characters better than I do story, but I'm pretty terrible at both.

Disney seems to like telling the same story over with different characters. Maybe I can help them. How about a princess who wants to be a plumber but her mean ol' dad won't let her so she runs off and marries a guinea pig? Does that sound edgy and hip and modern?

Mykal said...

"Well listen, I can tell you this fact from decades of experience. I do both, write and draw, and it's a million times easier to write than to draw or animate.

Jeez, John, I wish you'ld stop waffling around and say it plain. ;-)

Rodney Baker said...

Well said John.

Public (elementary) schools had this right years ago when they instituted their 'Character First' campaign. Kids apparently grow up out of this knowledge, join the workforce and forget its primacy. Somewhere the memory fades and 'Character First!' degenerates into 'Me first... right now... always!'.

I've adopted this 'Character First' focus to storytelling and character animation. It fits wonderfully.

Writing for character will always be better than plugging soul-less characters into generic plots and hoping something magic comes out.

Character defines us.

Yowp said...

Sandra's right, John. The "fill in the blanks in the template" style of writing is everywhere. It's perfect for corporate America because it's based on previous success and therefore easier to sell to networks, censors, clients, viewers, etc. It's why almost everyone fears anything different or original.

Writing should be a thinking process. Writers have to think of what it is they're trying to say and to whom, not take the easy and brainless way out by cutting and pasting into the same formula.

Pete Emslie said...

John, where did you find that awesome George C. Scott Halloween mask?

smackmonkey said...

JohnK sed:
"who does? Not animated features. They have the dumbest stories of any medium ever."

I don't think I've actually made it through any U.S-made animated features in a decade. I try and sit through these things with clenched fists and grinding teeth. Eventually I just can't take it and walk out.

JohnK also sed:
"Writers usually start out as security guards and secretaries. Their only required qualification is that they get along with executives."

Apparently the same is true of many animation producers these days.

Pokey said...

Of course, many classic series stories were timeworn ones but with different triwsts [Huckleberry Hound's debut episode,"Wee Willie", on a construciton site, used countless times in cartoons-The Golden Age Cartoons Merry Go Round Break Down, yet another sub forum of theirs, profiled an early Warner Bros.black and white short "Hold Anything", that was the first of those "Skeleton Construction Sites to set a story by" deals, along with Fleiscbher's "A Dream Walking", [whose sleepwalking gimmick itself inspired among others, a late 60s Gumby stop motion episode, only with a car trip instead, and both of these influenced a Daffy-Speedy short also from late 60s].

Also, "The Littlest Tramp", that John refers to, he could have mentioned was THE turning point of Mighty Mouse----a Christian group attacked it in that second season 1987 [as if that Glendale-based Q5 corporation at the same time dumbing down the same genre in their own right wasn't enough.] We all know what happened to Mighty Mouse after THAT, DON'T we? [Doesn't take anything away from the significiance of that take on Mighty Mouse in the scheme of things, though.

SandraRiva and Yowp are right on the issue of stock characters,too, by the way, while I'm still at it.

Finally, the Disney wisecracking sidekick had been around for years, only when it was Jiminy and Timothy Mouse, the characters were fully rounded [thank also the long late Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards for the voice and characterizxation, for Jiminy Cricket, & the even longer deceased Ed Brophy for the delightful Brooklynese Timothy Mouse character as well]. The major difference is the princess-first bland, then in the eighties onward ["The Little Mermaid", 1989] overly assertive all the way to "Tangled"'s "Rapunzel". Need I even mention "Herc's" feminist, "oh so smarter than the guy" "Megara" & "Hunch's" "streetsmart" [thank you K.Wise, director for admitting THAT fact*] heroine Esmeradla.

*Source: The Schweitzers, "Disney: Mouse Betrayed", 1998.

Pokey said...

Of course, many classic series stories were timeworn ones but with different triwsts [Huckleberry Hound's debut episode,"Wee Willie", on a construciton site, used countless times in cartoons-The Golden Age Cartoons Merry Go Round Break Down, yet another sub forum of theirs, profiled an early Warner Bros.black and white short "Hold Anything", that was the first of those "Skeleton Construction Sites to set a story by" deals, along with Fleiscbher's "A Dream Walking", [whose sleepwalking gimmick itself inspired among others, a late 60s Gumby stop motion episode, only with a car trip instead, and both of these influenced a Daffy-Speedy short also from late 60s].

Also, "The Littlest Tramp", that John refers to, he could have mentioned was THE turning point of Mighty Mouse----a Christian group attacked it in that second season 1987 [as if that Glendale-based Q5 corporation at the same time dumbing down the same genre in their own right wasn't enough.] We all know what happened to Mighty Mouse after THAT, DON'T we? [Doesn't take anything away from the significiance of that take on Mighty Mouse in the scheme of things, though.

SandraRiva and Yowp are right on the issue of stock characters,too, by the way, while I'm still at it.

Finally, the Disney wisecracking sidekick had been around for years, only when it was Jiminy and Timothy Mouse, the characters were fully rounded [thank also the long late Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards for the voice and characterizxation, for Jiminy Cricket, & the even longer deceased Ed Brophy for the delightful Brooklynese Timothy Mouse character as well]. The major difference is the princess-first bland, then in the eighties onward ["The Little Mermaid", 1989] overly assertive all the way to "Tangled"'s "Rapunzel". Need I even mention "Herc's" feminist, "oh so smarter than the guy" "Megara" & "Hunch's" "streetsmart" [thank you K.Wise, director for admitting THAT fact*] heroine Esmeradla.

*Source: The Schweitzers, "Disney: Mouse Betrayed", 1998.

InYourFaceNewYorker said...

The wisecracking sidekicks in modern Disney movies are just plain annoying. It all started with "Aladdin." I liked "Aladdin." I liked "The Lion King." But then "Pocahontas" capitalized on the "wisecracking sidekick" to the point where instead of being amusing it just became irritating.

By the time "Mulan" came along, these sidekicks were awful. The trailer for "Mulan" was just plain misleading. It looked like this great, epic film, and then the TV spots showed what it really was... an Eddie Murphy worshiping platform. When I saw "Mulan" in theaters, I wanted to the horse to continue trampling on Mushu and finish him off! Worst sidekick ever. I think he had more lines than "Mulan" did. As one critic said, he's the wrong character in the wrong movie.

Martin Juneau said...

I start to see the point of this post: Characters should be the dominant part and writing is the second. I can tell by experience that i'm not a good writer but the characters are here. It still tired me when i see a long sheet of characters profiles with a long storyline behind it. Why don't just draw your character and made fun on it without think to writing?

Richie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richie said...

SparkyMK3, Donald Duck's cartoon personality ain't generic; your perception of it, however, is. Your description of him only fits the very early stuff with the Duck and those Jack Hannah shorts that put him against chipmunks, bees and whatnot, a very unfair summary of the character as a whole, when you choose to ignore the shorts that showed just how compelling he could be on screen. That's the same as calling Daffy Duck's persona "barebone" solely basing your views on the 60's shorts with Speedy Gonzales.

Here's but a sample of shorts that show Donald with a wide variety of emotions, that wouldn't belong to that "1-dimensional" perception you have of him:

-The Trial of Donald Duck
-The Vanishing Private
-Donald's Crime
-Duck Pimples
-Soup's On
-Donald's Dream Voice
-The Old Army Game

Walt didn't call Donald "the Gable of his Stable" for nothing. Why, if you take the comic books in account, he just may be the most versatile character ever! Michael Barrier wrote an article about it, which I'll post next...

http://michaelbarrier.com/Home%20Page/WhatsNewArchivesAugust09.htm#mysteryofdonaldduck

Roberto González said...

I kinda agree with Richie about Donald. Then again, I was the guy who thought Tom and Jerry had personalities too.

Well, I'd agree all these characters are more generic than Looney Tunes characters but Donald is still a lot more defined than almost any modern character in a recent feature. And he worked as the main character of a whole feature (Three Caballeros) without pathos or backstories...heck, it didn't even have much of a plot.

I'd like to see,say, Remy from Ratatouille entertaining me during a whole feature without story or emotional pathos(and I don't even dislike that character that much, but it's pretty generic and I don't think they could make it work).

I also think Donald has a pretty well defined personality in the comic books.

K-T said...

It was "SFX" actually. As in special effects. As in "what Disney movies tend to be full of, at the expense of plot, characterization, and humor".

That's rubbish, it wasn't SFX.

SEX has appeared in countless Disney movies (mostly the ones after The Little Mermaid).

If they wanted it to say SFX, I'm sure one person would've said "Hey, you know, that kinda looks like it says SEX! Maybe we should remove that line under the F so it doesn't look like an E!

Morgue Anne said...

i unfortunately sold my creative soul to work as a graphic designer for the company that produces all of disney's sleepwear products...it is absolutely astounding how much money these movies generate just in merchandise alone, even the decades old princess characters. And whatever big executive turd that came up with the concept for Cars (and the upcoming sequel) is a GENIUS. How many little boys are already obsessed with cars. Cars has already made $5 BILLION just on merchandise alone. It's mind boggling. But the moral of the story is now you not only have to write to entertain, but they don't accept ideas that aren't merchandisable. Same thing has been happening with life action movies for years. Warner brothers refused to release Trick R Treat, probably the best horror film in over a decade, because they said it had no marketability past the movie. Instead, they back remakes thinking they are safe, but end up throwing successful characters in retarded, non-related scenarios.
Nothing is art anymore, everything is money.

J C Roberts said...

I thouroughly agree with the points made in this post. Stories that actually resonate and feel fresh have to come through distinct characters. Sure they'll be variations on familiar themes, because so is everyone walking the planet. What makes a given character unique is mixture of familiar elements that create a well defined personality.

For animation that also requires design that's appealing without being too derivative and a voice that suits the character provided by someone that has both the "pipes" and the acting chops to make it believable. Once you have those things you can spin stories out of how that particular character relates to whatever core idea you apply to them.

One problem that's been around for quite a while is it's harder to develop a character they way they used to in the "golden age". Go back to the formative Bugs & Daffy, at one point they were nearly the same-wiseguy screwballs razzing some schlub all through the picture. Then they became well defined as two different types that complimented their designs and voices (then they went too far, but that's a different story).

Animation was a developing medium then, with the characters developing along with it. Since that time it hit many peaks, and has since been either stagnating or eroding, but people have seen too many fully developed properties and doesn't have the patience it once had for something new to find it's footing.

At the same time, creators have too many examples and formulas to copy, with far less that hasn't been done already. Even if they're not quite aware they're doing it, they're cribbing from what they've already seen. There's still much that hasn't been tried yet, but it's also tougher to fight the formulas and expectations of the business than it was when Bugs was passing the ketchup and going to bed.

Keeping in mind the points raised in this post is a good way to start, though.

Tony LaMothe said...

i was wondering, john k, what you thought of the show adventure time.

I was also wondering how much anime youve watched.. ive been watching some more than usual lately and i am currently watching FLCL which = ?
yep.

kurtwil said...

Might be good, JK, that in your upcoming expansion of this topic, you could touch on how the target audience might influence this process.

To keep it simple, why not look at "kids" .vs. "adults"? And let's for the sake of brevity assume the writer already knows network/social restrictions for product directed towards children.

Gerber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elana Pritchard said...

John, will you come back?

Elana Pritchard said...

I am helping Jim put together a gallery show of his work.

Johnny said...

@ roberto Gonzalez

The plot of Three Caballeros was simple: chasing hot women.

Elana Pritchard said...

Also, here is a Clampett Tweety study I did...

Clampett Tweety

Alice said...

It is unfortunate that most animation today does not derive comedy from character. Character is the biggest asset an animator/cartoonist has but it is a neglected aspect of the art.

Marty Fugate said...

Yeah. I'll never forget the time I was working on storyboards for the second (sadly unproduced) season of "Mother Goose & Grimm." Mike Peters had just seen a broadcast of "Space Madness" -- and his eyes were practically popping out of his skull like a Basil Wolverton character. He burst in the door and said "Marty! Throw everything away! Forget stories! !@##$ this animated radio crap! Crazy characters! Bits of business! This is the wave of the future! This is the way all cartoons are going to look from now on!" Then he asked if I'd seen it. Uh, no. Well, he'd taped it. He gave me the tape. I watched it. I joined the cult.
Unfortunately, this is the future and most cartoons don't look like that.

Pinhead said...

http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/film_salon/2011/02/09/gnomeo_and_juliet_character_design

Scroll to one of the questions, its proof that in todays proccess they make the story then design the characters.

BrianVL said...

Very well written post. I always did feel that Ren and Stimpy was different in the overall plot of each episode. Ren and Stimpy always seem to live in a different home, and everyone's lives are different. Compare this to any other cartoon which tries to make a story which is just like "any other day". Ren, Stimpy, and a lot of the other characters on the show are just plugged into random scenarios, and it couldn't get better than that. Not to mention they have completely different personalities to adjust to this new scenario. But there is one thing I have to wonder... Why is this method so underrated...?