Monday, May 22, 2017

Character motivations as shown by Disney’s ‘Tangled’

Confession: I’ve not followed the theme this month. The closest I can get is that the weather in Tangled is really summer-y… and the Darling Buds of May is summer-y too….

Yeah OK it’s not linked.

Anyway, I was listening to Disney’s Tangled’s soundtrack yesterday (Yes it’s on my workout list) and as I was singing along to ‘I’ve Got a Dream’, I realised that Disney has basically whittled down one of the most important parts of fiction writing into a really catchy song. For those of you not Disney-inclined, this is sung by a group of scary pirates/thugs in a dodgy tavern, and it’s describing how even though they’re a bit murderous, they all have a dream that’s separate from their ‘day job’ of being violent.

I can’t directly quote the lyrics here due to copyright, but the opening of the song describes one pirate’s desire to become a concert pianist. (It’s so catchy, look it up.)

I know in YA writing we can’t be quite as obvious as Disney can, handily providing an exposition song to explain a character’s motivations, (if only) but the song is a really good reminder that no matter what character you’re creating they will ALWAYS have something driving them, and often more than one thing. So here we have a guy whose motivation seems to be money, taking out his anger on others, intimidating others etc… which is a bit of a 2D cliché, right? But then we’re told he actually wants to be a pianist. So, let’s say we were writing about this character and taking him out of a Disney realm, we could show his hidden motivation in subtle ways such as demonstrating his fondness for music; exploring his lack of opportunities to follow his dream growing up; maybe even having another character hear him secretly practising his tunes…

The song goes on to describe a multitude of cameo characters’ dreams, such as being a florist, doing interior design, being a mime artist, making cupcakes, knitting, sewing, performing puppet shows and collecting unicorns.

So now we have an ensemble cast who have suddenly become individuals with names, hobbies and aspirations, all in eight lines! Again, I know that when we’re writing YA we can’t just list what drives our characters, but if we know what they are as the writer, it will shine through in their actions; the way they speak and react to things and their understanding of other characters, which will all contribute to making them well-rounded 3D characters.

Within the song, we also have the main characters’ love interest sing about how his dream is to be ‘surrounded by bags of money.’ This is great, because it shows us how the character perceives his own motivation, whereas by the end of the film we know what will really make him happy is to find someone to share his life with. So now we start adding layers onto the motivations of our characters – what do they think drives them in comparison to what they ACTUALLY are looking for, if they were honest with themselves?

If you know all this, your characters will naturally demonstrate their motivations (hopefully in ways slightly more subtle than bursting into song,) within your writing.

And if nothing else, this post will ensure that you won’t be able to stop humming ‘I’ve Got a Dream’ for the rest of the day.


  1. This makes me wonder what my characters would be singing if they had a verse in that song.

    Oh, and I will definitely be humming and/or just outright singing this song for the rest of the day. Good thing I like it. :)

    1. Oh that is a great writing exercise - give your character a verse! I might try it today too...