I love living in New York, but there are a few things I miss from Florida. I miss family, and the beach. I miss knowing how the heck to get around without my GPS. And I’ll be honest: I miss Disney. Raising two small children in south Florida, we spent A LOT of time at Disney. It was one of the few places where we could do family trips without ruining our vacation and everyone else’s. On one of our last trips, we were at Animal Kingdom watching the Finding Nemo show for the dozenth time, and I was sitting there, completely enthralled. I got to thinking about why I wasn’t bored with this show, and it occurred to me: it’s the characters. They’re memorable, and they resonate with audiences. In short, they’re the kind of characters that we all want to write.
So how do we do it? Let’s take a closer look at the cast of Finding Nemo to see what makes them so memorable and how we can use the same techniques when creating our own characters.
Marlin is the hero of Finding Nemo because he has the most to overcome. He’s emotionally wounded by a traumatic event from the past—the death of his wife and almost all of his children. This event has twisted his view of the world, making him believe that the only way to keep his remaining child safe is to hover over him and protect him from all of life’s dangers. But this lie that he has embraced is crippling him and slowly destroying his relationship with the person he loves the most. In order for him to be whole and for his relationship with Nemo to be healthy, he must learn to let go. This is the essence of Marlin’s character arc throughout the course of the story.
Audiences respond to Marlin because they can relate to him. We all have past events that have wounded us. We all have flaws that hamstring us and make it difficult to achieve our goals. If you want to create a hero that people respond to, make sure he’s got a complete character arc. For help in this area, check out Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell, which contains a crash course in characterization and just about everything you need to know about story structure. I’m also shamelessly going to plug The Negative Trait Thesaurus, since it discusses at length how flaws develop and the roles that they play in the character’s arc.
One of my favorite characters in this story is an antagonist—Bruce, who is as threatening and brutish as any shark should be. But he’s also a vegetarian who runs a twelve-step support group for like-minded sharks. His motto? Fish are Friends, Not Food. This is one of those ideas I wish I’d come up with; it’s genius because it’s so unexpected. It would have been really easy to create just another shark character to add conflict to the story and complicate Marlin’s journey. Instead, the writers gave Bruce a unique twist. By adding some ethics and a sense of social awareness, they created a never-before-seen character that readers remember. When creating characters, make sure to give them some unexpected positive or negative traits that will save them from becoming stereotypes and will make them unique.
As a needy, scatterbrained, and gullible fish, Dory could easily come off as annoying to audiences (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?). Instead, she’s a beloved character, and I think it’s because she’s also funny, friendly, and helpful—all likable traits that offset her flaws. Dory’s memory deficiency also renders her vulnerable, which makes us want to protect her and root for her success. The takeaway here is that if you want your characters to resonate with readers, give them an endearing trait or two. This will help to make even the most broken, weird, or despicable of characters resonate with readers. Oh, and a little vulnerability is always a good idea.
Crush is one of my favorite examples EVER of a stereotype that has been turned upside down. When you think of the mentor archetype, many clichés come to mind: the sage old woman, the shrewd but befuddled wizard, the wise-but-slightly-cracked medicine man, etc. True, Crush is old and wise. But he’s also a super cool sea turtle. He surfs. He’s a thrill-seeker. He talks like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Clichéd characters aren’t memorable; they’re fairly forgettable because they blend in with all the familiar characters that have come before them. When it comes to the archetypal characters in your story (heroes, villains, mentors, sidekicks, etc.), make sure to avoid the cliché and give them some unique characteristics that will make them stand out from the crowd.
Memorable characters abound on stage, screen, and the written page. Sometimes, just taking a closer look at them can give us insight into why they’re so special and how we can create the same kind of magic with our casts. Can you think of other characters that have stuck with you, characters that were created with the techniques that were shared today? I’d love to see your ideas in the comments section. Happy writing, everyone!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.