In both stories and the real world, people often find themselves cast in roles: the hero, the good daughter, the brat. But, people are complicated, and so rarely just one thing. As I find myself re-listening to the soundtrack of Encanto, I’m reminded of how often characters, especially secondary characters aren’t given the chance to become fully 3-dimensional.
1. Remix the tropes!
How Did Encanto Break The Tropes
Encanto starts by establishing everyone’s roles in the family and the story — with everyone honestly trying their best. And most of these roles are twists on the tropes in the first place. Mixes of characteristics that usually don’t go together. All too often, we just see characters straight out of the proverbial central casting. By varying age and gender and temperament and physicality, we get a more natural variety and less of a cookie-cutter story.
In most tales, one expects the ‘brawn’ to be a big, dumb, burly guy, not a sister who is respected for her abilities and has a feminine side.
The spooky uncle with visions is supposed to be majestic and either the bad guy or the sage and stoic one. Not the lonely, comic relief uncle hiding in the walls, to stay close to a family he never wanted to hurt.
The bookish overlooked main character usually would hesitate to take action, but Mirabel is determined to fix whatever is hurting her family.
But, Encanto doesn’t stop there.
2. Pay Attention To The Roles and Labels You Assign Your Characters
Labels Can Be Limiting
In Encanto — and real life, once you put a label on someone, they often feel obliged to uphold that label, either out of fear of shaming themselves by not keeping up, or spite — if you’re going to call me the immature one, then fine, I’ll be the biggest jerk you’ve ever met. People often hear and see what they expect to see. Anything you do that reinforces that label proves that they’re right, anything you do outside of that label is an exception that proves the rule.
In real life, it can take stepping into a new environment to break bad habits or allow yourself to outgrow old expectations.
In stories, by recognizing the roles expected of your characters by their families and by society and which parts of those roles chafe, you can make them more than just their label. And, when one role is cast off, they can grow and evolve to a new one.
Labels Can Be Inspirational
Not all labels are bad. Not all roles are bad! As long as they are a good fit for where you or your character are in your lives, right now, embrace them. Or use them as a target to grow toward.
But, we all change, and evolve, and grow. That’s a part of life for both us and our characters. If a role no longer fits, it’s time to move on. Sometimes, that’s all you need as an inciting incident.
3. Winning Can Look Very Different Than You Expect
At the start of Encanto, Mirabel expected to be able to complete a quest, restore the family, and earn her own magic power. Yet, as her sisters’ confided in her and she won her uncle and grandmother’s respect, she found all she needed was acceptance for who she was, and encouragement in her own natural strengths.
Encanto isn’t alone. Often, stories end with the main character getting something completely different than they expected, and finding that’s what they actually needed. Don’t be afraid to explore different directions and endings for your characters. Think about who they are and what they need, not just what they want, and make them earn it.
People always value things more when they’ve worked hard to achieve them. Besides, what’s a story without putting your characters through at least a little bit of trials and tribulations?
Do these tips work for you?
Are there any tips you’d like to share on making characters more 3-dimensional?
my main character is very controversial, just like i am, it’s not always believable for some reason. it happens a lot in life to me too, i want to yell, it’s all me! just the side you haven’t discovered yet. how do i justify my character’s polarities? in life i just walk away instead of explaining myself
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Yeah. The struggle with novels is they have to be believable and reality doesn’t.
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Love the idea of remixing the tropes! Really adds some surprise to the story.
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