I’m currently deep in rewrites, doing a final spit-shine and consistency check so I can hit my deadline for getting queries out. Which means no time to write a new post. I rewarded myself for having a productive few days by purchasing Wreck-It Ralph, because I am a toddler who needs to be bribed through adulthood. So here’s a post about that lovely little movie resurrected from the old blog. Standard spoiler warning applies.
Let’s be honest, there’s no way I wasn’t going to like Wreck-It Ralph. I was raised on a combination of Disney movies and video games. (There were parents somewhere in there, too, I think.) (Kidding, Mom.) From the very first trailers, I was stoked. Having just gotten back from seeing it as a reward for finishing NaNoWriMo, I not only enjoyed it, but I think it’s one of those movies that every writer should see. There are a few movies that should be required viewing because they illustrate very important concepts, and Wreck-It Ralph is practically a textbook for two vitally important, and very difficult, elements of storytelling:
Stakes and Motivation
Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of a game called Fix-It Felix Jr. He’s tired of being unappreciated and neglected by the other residents of his game, so when one of them tells him that he can join them in the penthouse when he gets a medal of his own, he leaves to do just that. He earns his medal in a realistic shooter called Hero’s Duty, but crashes into a candy-colored racing game Sugar Rush and gets it stolen by Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). Finding his game out of order and in danger of being shut off without its villain, Felix (Jack McBrayer) goes off in search of him, teaming up with Calhoun (Jane Lynch) from the FPS.
In this setup, we have four major characters, each with a very clear motivation:
Ralph wants respect and companionship.
Vanellope wants to become a real racer.
Felix wants to bring Ralph back.
Calhoun wants to stop the dangerous cybug that escaped into Sugar Rush with Ralph.
Motivation is one of the most important things about writing a character, because their one motivation needs to define everything they do. There can be other countervailing pressures, but the most compelling characters have a single goal that informs every choice they make.
But it’s not enough to want something; there has to be some reason that it’s important. Janet Reid, who runs the brilliant blog Query Shark (which should also be required reading for anyone looking to get published, by the way), boils down the essence of a good query/pitch to three elements:
- Who’s the main character?
- What choice do they have to make?
- What are the consequences of making or not making that choice?
It’s that third element, the stakes, that a lot of people struggle with. How do you make your readers care about this goal as much as your character does? You have to show what’s at stake.
Each character in this movie has not only very clear stakes, but stakes that run a huge gamut in scope. To wit:
If Ralph fails, his life will never improve.
If Vanellope fails, she can never be chosen as a player avatar.
If Felix fails, his home will be destroyed.
If Calhoun fails, the cybugs will overrun the entire arcade.
So many writers fall into the trap of thinking that high stakes must mean life-or-death, earth-shattering kaboom sort of situations. Not that those aren’t really high stakes, but things get kind of dull if those are the only stories out there, you know? The beauty of Wreck-It Ralph is how these stakes intertwine and escalate. The climax centers around getting Vanellope safely across the finish line, even as the cybugs start swarming. Critically, the focus always remains on the personal stakes: Ralph has to find a way to stop the cybugs not to save everyone, since they’re able to evacuate all of the other residents, but to save Vanellope, who is unable to leave. Indeed, Ralph makes several difficult choices throughout the course of the movie, and all of them are tied to the other characters’ motives and stakes.
Oh, and don’t forget your villain! Remember, villains are characters who want important things just like everyone else. Villains who are bad just for evil’s sake stop being interesting around the time you turn 4 or 5 and discover that people don’t work like that. Within his game, Ralph is trying to destroy the apartments because he wants his land back. In the larger story, King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is concerned that Vanellope’s glitch will get their game turned off if she’s allowed to race. Granted, the ol’ King’s not entirely honest about his motives, but that’s okay. What’s important is that he acts in a manner that’s consistent and understandable, even when it crosses into the unsympathetic. Remember, he’s the hero of his own game. The villain’s motivations have to feel just as authentic as everyone else’s. They’re only really scary when you know exactly why they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want; that is, when you understand what’s at stake for them.
There are other reasons I think that Wreck-It Ralph is a very good and very enjoyable movie (and those aren’t always the same thing). But there are movies once in a while that you should not only just watch, but take notes on, analyze, take apart, find out what makes them tick. I think this is one of those. There’s a lot to learn about character development here, and about the way your characters should be the ones driving the story.