Yet another pseudo-writing rant of mine, but it's been bothering me for a couple of days now, so I gotta get it out.
I am a big fan of cartoons and, really, film aimed at a younger audience in general. It might seem like an odd choice considering that my other favorite category is monster movies, but the two of them share a playful, imaginative, and often simple and wondrous quality that I find endearing.
One movie I've been waiting for the right time to watch if a Pixar release from a few years back, "Up." I've heard many reviews saying the movie was good -- as to be expected from a studio like Pixar -- but on the sad side as well. Consequently, I've been holding off on actually watching it despite having it on DVD.
Well, the other day I finally sat down and put it in, watching it from beginning to end. The movie starts wonderfully, introducing the characters of Ellie and Carl and leading you through a wonderful montage showing their life together. It covers maybe the first ten minutes of the movie, but in that time you come to care for the characters deeply.
With so much thought put into this opening section, it truly breaks your heart when Ellie dies, and Carl's life begins to disintegrate around him. Being a kid's movie, though, that's about the time they introduce the plucky sidekick, along for comic relief, right?
Unfortunately, in this case, all we get is an annoying little kid who does little if anything to endear himself to the audience.
From there, the movie is almost all downhill, with the child's constant whining being only intermittently broken by bits of humor or poignant emotion from Carl's lingering attachment to mementos from his wife and their life together. The introduction of two animal companions who were doubtless meant to ease the atmosphere of the film -- the talking dog "Dug" and the colorful emu-like "Kevin" -- does little to make the child more likable, and by the end of the movie I found myself crying in frustration for Carl, who loses everything he owned, everything to remind him of his wife, all for the wellbeing of an unlikable brat who does nothing but cause him trouble from beginning to end.
Following all that, of course, is the closing of the movie, where we are supposed to be inspired by the fact that Carl has somehow grown attached to the little imp at his side, and is stuck living in a nursing home while doting on the brat who cost him everything.
The movie was, to put it lightly, a huge letdown to me.
The reasons for this are due in large part to what strike me as fundamental missteps in the movie's writing; namely, that the writers neglected to try to make most of the cast likable.
Carl, as the story's core protagonist, is an amazing character. While the previews for the film represent him as a crotchety old man, the movie makes a solid effort from the start to make you see that he is in fact wonderfully caring. Each little idiosyncrasy of him, from his feeble movement to his expressive brows, lends to making him quite possibly one of my favorite Pixar characters to date. Ellie, despite having only a brief appearance in the film, is almost as fully fleshed out as her male counterpart. Both are given wonderful traits that fit perfectly with the ideal characteristics of a story's protagonist. Human, but strong. Not perfect, no, but charismatic in their own special ways that will draw you to them immensely.
Unfortunately, every other character in the movie lacks this same attention to detail. Russel, the eight-year-old sidekick, is the largest offender in the movie, with the animators trying to use cute animation to make up for a character who at his heart is shallow, nothing more than a collection of negative traits tied together with a passing attempt at pathos through the use of an absentee father. His actions cost Carl everything, and throughout the entire movie there is never any indication that Russel even realizes what he has done, never making any attempt to truly connect with Carl or consider the old man's feelings, or what consequences his actions might bring.
In fact, of all the side characters from the film, possibly the best portrayed -- and most likable -- is the film's secondary villain, a talking dog called "Alpha," whose speech mannerisms and often-broken speech collar give him enough quirks and character to stand out from the otherwise bland cast of characters.
The story of the movie was overall compelling, but the lack of care given to the characters within it ruined the effect for me, and left me feeling highly dissatisfied with the film's ending, which to me felt forced, as though throughout the whole film the main character had been railroaded to this ending with complete disregard for the actual events leading up to it.
This has caused me no end of torment over the last few days as I dwelled on the issue, and led me to where I have to say this:
When you write, think about not only the character you want central to the story, but those characters surrounding them. More to the point, think about how those characters' behaviors and personalities will be viewed by your readers. A strong central character is a must, to be sure, but without a compelling and, if not truly likable, then sympathetic cast of side characters, a strong central character is often not enough to carry a story on their own. Without that connection to your secondary or even tertiary characters, a story loses a good deal of verisimilitude, a feature that is very important to keep your readers drawn into the world you create.
A great example of fleshing out side characters can be seen in much of EoF's work here on the site, with the character of Mary being a wonderful way to show it. Throughout "For The Fairest," we are shown a side of her that is dark, yet compassionate, making her a strong ally to the main character and giving her character the depth needed to stand on her own.
In "Season of the Witch" we see another side to her, still dark, yet lacking that compassion and care that was present in "For The Fairest." Thus, she is represented as an antagonist, providing a counterpoint to Kelly's own often self-centered character. In both cases, however, she is given distinctive speech, and mannerisms, that define her character and give insight into she is beyond her merely serving as an interaction point for the main character.
This is what makes a good character, whether they be the main character or little more than window dressing. Those bits of personality beyond the simply described, even when presented in very small amounts, help to make a character much more dynamic and engaging, strengthening the entire story.
There ends my rant, for now.