Defining Characters

At the suggestion of a friend, I recently purchased a copy of Before Ever AfterThe Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio. The book details Walt Disney’s efforts to acquire and train his animators. When the process started, animation was a new concept uniquely tied to motion pictures. Drawing animated cartoon characters became a new genre of artwork. Disney recruited raw artistic talent, then trained his artists to create the desired animation. The book contains many of the lectures used in Disney’s classes. Imbedded in this process (in my opinion) was Disney’s desire to create memorable characters with human-like traits who would endure over time in the cartoon world.

The book is of particular interest to me because my writing has been criticized with regard to my  character development. While I didn’t buy this book as a writing text, I realized, as I read it, that the concepts of drawing animated characters apply to fiction writing as well.

To illustrate my point, I have quoted below some excerpts from Art Babbitt’s lecture entitled “Character Analysis of the Goof.”[1] We know this character today as “Goofy.”

Mr. Babbitt says: “In my opinion the Goof, hitherto, has been a weak cartoon character because both his physical and mental make-up were indefinite and intangible. His figure was a distortion – not a caricature, and if he was supposed to have a mind or personality, he was never given sufficient opportunity to display it.”

Babbitt then details some of Goof’s character traits:  “Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless good natured boy and a hick….Yet the Goof is not the type of half-wit that is to be pitied. He doesn’t dribble, drool or shriek. He is a good natured dumb-bell who thinks he is pretty smart….He talks to himself because it is easier for him to know what he is thinking if he hears it first.”

Clearly, the Goof is a multi-dimensional character who can not only carry his weight, but interacts well with his fellow characters, even if he often gets mixed up or lacks understanding of the situations around him. His good nature makes his bumbling palatable and humorous.

Ted Sears, another Disney instructor, says of the Goof: “The best rule for handling the Goof should be: always have him go about an action in his own, particularly goofy way. He does practically everything backwards, and is amused with the result, even though he suffers from it.”

My take from all of this is that characters should have primary defining qualities, but their personas should be multifaceted. Even the worst villain may be capable of kindness or some other humane quality. It’s up to the author to make characters whose traits can surprise the reader with unexpected actions.

While we’re on the subject, I admit that I prefer my character’s traits to come out through their actions or dialogue, not through lengthy descriptions. In this regard, I tend to follow Elmore Leonard’s Writing Rule No. 8: “Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Character.”[2]


[1] Hahn, Miller-Zarnecki, Before Ever After, Disney Enterprises, Inc, 2015, p36

[2] Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, HarperCollins e-books, 2010