Let Toy Story Show You the Key to Subtle Character Development

This week’s video shows you how to make character development easier thanks to one fundamental rule.

Video Transcript:

Good character development is easy.

Writers sometimes approach it as if it’s the hardest thing in the world to create a fully fleshed-out, compelling character. And certainly there’s a lot of nuance involved. But truthfully, there is just one single key to amazing character development, and that can be summed up in one word: contrast.

Or two words: conflicting traits.

When we write a plain vanilla character (whether he’s good or bad or funny or pathetic) if he’s just that one flavor—if that’s all he is—then he’s not likely to be a good character. The best characters are like that chocolate-vanilla twist ice cream cone that was always our first pick when we were kids.

This is why killers with a conscience and their like are perennial archetypes. It’s not the killing and it’s not the conscience that makes them interesting. It’s the contrast.

This isn’t just true of really complicated characters, it’s also true of characters painted with broad strokes. There is an absolutely fabulous example of this is Pixar’s Toy Story.

We’ve got the sadistic neighbor kid Sid, right? And his evil is pretty much unmitigated: he wears black,

Sid's Shirt Cackling Pixar Toy Story

he rips apart toys,

Dr Sid Toy Story

he loves explosives.

Sid's Rocket Buzz Lightyear Pixar Toy Story

He’s a prison mug shot waiting to happen. And yet, there’s a great moment late in the movie that, within one single line, humanizes this character into something much more complex and compelling than what we are actually seeing.

When nearly roused from his sleep, Sid starts murmuring in his dreams. What could be more revealing of someone’s inner heart than that? And does he say, “Aww, I wanna kill the puppy”—which would be totally in character? Nope. Instead, the filmmakers had him say, “Aww, I want to ride the pony”—something inimitably childlike—and as a result of its contrast with the rest of his personality, inimitably telling and tragic.

How’s that for subtle character development?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What contrasting traits are you using in your character development for your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

Let Toy Story Show You the Key to Subtle Character Development

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    The four young adults.. After a daughter, who wants to be like her father (A Representative to his Community), and, after all the language of service and of Representation, and Arbitration and of a “mother and father”, what’s a then more contrasting reality than the language of “four youths”, and the desire to share their houses’ “turret” with them?

    I think I violated that golden rule, “To kill one’s darlings”, when I finished The Representative: as far as contrasting traits go, I don’t think I could have asked for a more contrasting trait in Croyan than in his having had that history with the four young adults – a group that live in the vicinity of Krenok.

    Contrast isn’t just an important aspect of fiction – it’s an essential means to the human race’s survival.
    Variety of facets, and of iconography and of imagery..

    This is the real reason, why The Representative is a standout work of fiction: it represents this principle of existence to its best quality!!

  2. Thank you for this video! It’s very insightful and interesting! My favorite characters and the ones that seem so real-to-life in literature have–now that I think about it–exhibited this characteristic! Thank you! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Whenever I’m writing a character that isn’t quite popping for me or that I’m maybe finding a little boring, the first thing I look for is a way to bring out his inner contrasts. Works every time.

  3. I’ve only recently discovered this ‘secret’ about character development, and it has really transformed the way I go about creating and writing my characters.

  4. Oh! I love this! Worthy of a second thought! I definitely need to watch this movie, lol.

    Thanks!

    M.

  5. Lol, I know, and I love Disney and Pixar. I just never had the chance to do it.

  6. Great point about what would’ve been in his character vs the contrast that humanized him. If you’re going to have the character do something out of character, it should be for a purpose–like humanizing him. Otherwise your readers will call foul.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. And it wouldn’t have made sense in this particular story to do anything more obvious, since it would required character development the story didn’t have time or purpose for. But it was a very nice touch.

  7. June Sullivan says:

    This post has me really inspired. The way you wrote it, it made me think of Citizen Kane and that character whispering Rosebud at the very end (albeit he wasn’t revealing a better side so much as his deep motivating pain).

    Anyway, I’d like to ask you another question about this topic. Do you think leaving a hint of a villain’s better side to the end (like Rosebud) or at least “late in the” story like you mention for Sid in Toy Story? Or do you think there should be some hints earlier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It depends how complex you’re intending the character to be. If you want him to be broadly villainous (as Sid was), it’s better not to confuse things early on. But if you’re wanting to paint the portrait of a more complicated character (such as in Citizen Kane), it’s best to hint up front that there’s more to this character than meets the eye.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Truth. I’ve always thought that too. If nothing else, the poor kid was traumatized for the rest of his life by “living” toys and the certainty that no one else would believe what he saw.

  8. Posts like this are the reason your website sits on top of my bookmark bar so I remember to click thru everyday. This is a story telling aspect I never considered and actually missed when I watched the story.

  9. K.M…

    I have a protagonist who has been a life-long socialist, and now later in life when he needs money for some altruistic purpose, he regrets playing fair and not having amassed a capitalist fortune. And in fact, he turns traitor on his principles and plans a heist. I’m guessing now that he should remain of two minds about all this — that he should be conflicted all the way to the heart of his story. What say ye?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Speaking totally personally, hypocritical characters are always the ones I end up hating the worst–which is awesome if he’s supposed to be hated and not-so-awesome if he’s the good guy. :p So, yeah, I’d say inner conflict and progression always beats immediate turnabouts in fundamental views.

  10. Trevor Veale says:

    My “bad guy” antagonist on first meeting the MC was so light, witty and charming that one reader said she didn’t know whether to like the guy or dislike him, so I’m with you all the way on humanizing the villain.

  11. Andy Costello says:

    Another fantastic post. Katie – your advice is insightful and superbly illustrated. Every day I’ll either listen to a podcast, read your book, or study one of your blogs.

    Then I review my first draft to see how I can incorporate what I’ve learnt.

    Thanks

  12. Wow, this is great! I have thought about contrast before, but never so clearly as you write here. Now that you mention this, and Toy Story, I can see how Buzz and Woody are so contrasting next to each other as well. Is this purposeful for the reasons you mentioned? Buzz is tense and ‘military’ feeling, dressed in silver and hard metal (hard clothes), with blinking lights. Even his name is short and succinct. Woody is brown and yellow (warm tones), dressed in soft clothes, and his body is very relaxed as he swaggers. He wants everyone to be friends. Even his name is more relaxed. Do we want our characters to contrast each other, as well as themselves?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m sure the contrasts were at the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds when they designed the characters. Woody and Buzz are perfectly matched to create all kinds of interesting conflict opportunities.

  13. Could you please explain why he says ‘I want to ride a pony’? I just find that part confusing. Or the contrast of his inner and outer personality because I’m really new to this ‘author stuff’.
    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s just a casual illustration that, for his evilness, he’s actually just a little child at heart.

  14. Characters with highly conflicting traits are some of my absolute favorites to write…even though they’re my least favorite to figure out.
    I have no better examples in my character roster than Morgan and Miran, the younger twins of a royal family of a world left in ruin. They have an elder sister and she’s a fantastic character in her own right, but she’s a bit more straightforward than her siblings.
    I’ve been poking at Morgan for around a year now and he’s just now allowing me to see his inner workings. He’s kept himself so carefully guarded for so long that I really had no idea what was going on underneath his hood. I’ve only scratched the surface with him, but what I do know about him is absolutely fascinating.
    If you were to meet him as a real person, he would give off the appearance of being rather cold, calculating, and detached. Even being a member of a royal family, he’s a tactician and the one of the best his world has ever seen even when compared to his mother (photographic memory helps along with having an IQ that’s probably off the charts). He holds and conducts himself in a way that reinforces the image of a very cold, rather uncaring individual that’s willing to make rather large sacrifices that many question. He does whatever he can to ensure victory with the best results in the long run even if costs the lives of good men that could have easily been avoided. Aside from his friends, he treats all of his soldiers as any commander would, being rather curt and short with them most of the time.
    He further reinforces this image by how he conducts himself in the realm of politics. He’s hard nosed and doesn’t let anything escape his scrutiny. (It was his older sister’s birthright to rule, but a bit more on that below.) He rarely goes out of his way to interact with the people aside from what’s necessary.
    He probably sounds like a bit of a monster, and he definitely appears so but if you spent enough time around him, you would begin to see that he’s not everything he makes himself out to be. You’d see that he does his best to check on his men, often in a roundabout way, relying on his friends to inform him of individual soldier’s conditions. He knows each and every one of his men’s names and birthdays along with every member of their immediate family. He personally informs families if their husband/wife/sister/brother/mother/father was killed in battle and their exact manner of death.
    Underneath that hard shell is actually someone that feels the death of each and every man personally. He feels that even one death is one too many, but considering the world they live in is basically in an apocalypse, he has little choice but to send people to their deaths in order to keep the larger populous safe.
    He’s actually a very sensitive person, but he’s had to harden himself in order to lead the country and rule even though it was his sister’s birthright.
    What shows how much he cares about those around him is the fact he’s so cold BECAUSE he cares.
    What started him down the road to this coldness was a promise he made to his mother when he was very young. He promised to protect his sisters due to the fact she knew bad things would happen in the very near future. She had him promise to take on the royal duties because she knew the eldest wouldn’t be able to handle them due to her insanely sensitive nature. Of course, he couldn’t tell anybody, so he didn’t.
    Each and every wall he erected around his heart was to keep his beloved sisters and kingdom safe to the best of his ability. It tears him up to see anybody die especially when he knows he could have easily avoided certain deaths, but he remains cold in order to protect their world and give their nation the best chance of surviving.
    tl;dr version: He’s an ISFJ masking as an ISTJ
    I can’t say I know Miran anywhere near as well as she’s highly quiet and elusive in my head, but she’s one of the most contradictory characters I have.
    She’s highly sensitive and feels basically everything around her deeply, yet she’s not as sensitive as she appears. She can withstand far more emotional turmoil than her elder sister despite feeling each unkind word hurled at her like a dagger to the heart. Even her siblings are so afraid of hurting her they refuse to say anything unkind to them, yet she’ll stop them in their tracks with mere looks and cut them down to size with her own words, pointing out how terribly they’re acting (either in regards to their own unhealthy behaviors or how they treat others. She’s a cleric-healer, so she’s definitely not someone you wanna cross).
    It’s always fun to write characters like this, but they’re beyond frustrating because they often take so long to figure out. (I just learned Morgan was actually an ISFJ within the past month, month and a half.)
    Of course, these are two of my most extreme examples.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love writing characters like that. They’re incredibly tough to crack sometimes, but always worth the effort.

  15. Hannah Killian says:

    Sid is the garbageman in Toy Story 3.

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