Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I Have a Dream: Defining Your Characters' Dreams

Confession: In the last seven years, almost every movie I have watched has a princess in it. I would guess I've seen all of the Disney princess movies at least ten times.

There's one Disney movie my children have played several times a month and I never get sick of it. Tangled.
I'm convinced every writer should watch this movie. A villain with depth. Quirky characters that defy the Disney "mold." A compelling beginning. A fairy-tale worthy ending that is "earned."

Do you have a favorite song from Tangled? Three guesses what my favorite is....

Let me set the scene. Snuggly Duckling is an eating establishment hidden in the woods. Hero Flynn Ryder brings Rapunzel in to the disreputable inn to frighten her from running away from her guardian. Rapunzel is naive to the world's ways. Mother Gothel keeps her locked up in a tower in the forest, isolated from the rest of the world. Reading, baking, cleaning, painting, and brushing her hair have been Rapunzel's sole entertainment. 

When Flynn and Rapunzel step into the Snuggly Duckling, they are surrounded by a clan of men in brown leather wielding weapons. Every metal detector's nightmare. Hook Hand Thug and his friends determine to make some money off the arrival of the "wanted" Flynn Ryder. 

Her entire life, Rapunzel dreams of watching as hundreds of lanterns are launched from the nearby village one single day each year. She needs Flynn to help her achieve this. Therefore, she is ready to defend Flynn with her handy weapon, a frying pan. 

"Find your humanity! Haven't any of you ever had a dream??!!" Rapunzel screeches out in frustration when even her trusted frying pan does not ward away these thugs. 

Rapunzel backs away as Hook Hand Thug makes his way to where she is standing and raises his axe high in the air. 

Ready to watch a chase scene, the viewer sits tense in her seat and then bursts into fits of laughing as Hook Hand Thug belts out "I had a dream once..." as he pounds on the ivories.

What is your character's dream? 

Dreams are a vital part of who your character is and show you what makes them tick. We spend a fair amount of time dreaming in our heroine's head, but each character has a dream that is essential to making your character likeable. We want to invest in their dreams. A good character's dreams become our own for at least a few hours.

What can we learn from Tangled about creating our character's dreams?
  • Make at least some of your characters' dreams unexpected... We delight in the dreams of the misunderstood thugs who run Snuggly Duckling. These characters are violent rogues, yet their dreams amuse us because they are surprising. The wart and goiter covered lanky gentleman wants to fall in love. It is wonderful because it is unexpected. The reader is thrilled when his dream is realized. How can you choose a dream for one of your characters that will create surprise and delight in the readers?
  • Don't forget to make the reader look deeper to find "layers" of the character's dream. Flynn Ryder is the first character we see and hear in the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Flynn takes a valuable tiara belonging to the lost princess from the palace. Flynn and his thief buddies appear to be mainly caught up in gaining riches for themselves. His heart seems to beat with the thought of the notoriety he earns as a "wanted" man. As Flynn is lowered in through the ceiling of the palace to steal the crown, the guard sneezes. "Hay fever?" Flynn questions. The viewer sees here that Flynn is more interested in the chase than the actual loot. We find a deeper insight into Flynn's dream as he opens up while sitting around a fire with Rapunzel. Here we learn Flynn is an alias for Eugene, an orphan boy who grew up poor and alone. Here we begin to understand, Flynn's true dream is to be known
  • Bring in another character who will validate your character's dream. Rapunzel validates Flynn's true desire to be known by asserting to him that she prefers his real name, not the name he picked out of a storybook to impress others. She shows here she values Flynn's dream and who he is as a person.
  • Don't forget your villain has dreams of his/her own, in addition to a desire to thwart your main character's dream. Mother Gothel's dream is to live forever and maintain her youth. Rapunzel thwarts this dream by making an escape from the tower and seeking to find out more about the lanterns launched from the palace each year. Make your villain's dream compelling and realistic.
  • What does your character most fear and how does that relate to their dream? After leaving her cloistered tower world and the only human contact she has known, Rapunzel tells Flynn her fears. "What if its not everything I dreamed it would be?" Perhaps your character reaches what she thinks is her dream only to find disappointment? Maybe you just need to peel back another layer, like in Flynn's case? Perhaps the dream brings little fulfillment because it is only a cover for the character's real dream. Fame, riches, even romance can all come out empty and meaningless. What lie does your character believe that may keep him or her chasing false dreams?
  • "You get to find a new dream." Flynn tells Rapunzel. There is no end to the dreams of our characters. Keep the conflict going. As soon as your character reaches their dream, leave a new dream dangling out of reach on the horizon. 
What are your character's dreams? 

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also a reviewer for Library Journal, Christian Library Journal, and Title Trakk.


Debra E. Marvin said...

I do need to see that movie again.

You know... there are so many things we 'should ' do with our characters and stories. It's a wonder I remember to think of a third of them.

I like linking this 'goal and motivation' to 'what is your dream'.
Thanks Julia!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Wonderful post, Julia!

That is one Disney film I haven`t seen, but will have to! Sounds so cute.

Thanks for the smile today!


Angie said...

Great post, Julia! Man, I need to watch that movie...I don't think I've seen it all the way through!
My character's greatest dream is to be loved. Kind of simple...but she has a lot to overcome!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Awesome post, Jules! You brought those dreams out so clearly. When I was watching it last week with my kids I failed to see the learning opportunity like you did. Great flick and wonderful topic today!

Amory Cannon said...

Great post! I confess I watched this movie just last night for probably the tenth time. I've been taking notes on Flynn for my male lead in my WIP. Nice to see I'm not the only one taking hints from Disney. :)

Pepper said...

LOVE this, Julia!
One of Disney's BEST, IMO. I did a blog on the plot structure of Tangled when it first came out! Ooo, what fun!!!

And using Tangled is a great way to talk about the overt dream and the deeper dream. All of our characters have them - and you've done such a great job of chatting about them here. LOVE!!!

In my Contemp Romance, the overt dream is to get a job at UVA Charlottesville. Her deeper dream (or inner motivation) is to discover 'home'.
My hero's external motivation/dream is to save the family farm. His internal motivation/dream is to trust his heart to love again.

Julia M. Reffner said...


When I read your comment I was trying to remember whether you went to the talk with Deb Dixon. Fantastic! I think of it often.


I think you'll enjoy Tangled as a writer and a viewer. ;)


That's a great dream and one you can explore on so many levels, from the spiritual to the romantic to friendships to parental relationships. Look forward to seeing how it comes into play in your novel.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I confess I watch movies in a new way since hearing Deb Dixon speak on GMC in my area. Fun kids movie with so many layers.


Disney has so many great examples for many aspects of our novels and I think Tangled is among the best.


I'm with you. This is my favorite princess movie and perhaps even my favorite Disney. LOVE!

Discovering home...I love it!! That can be shown on so many levels. Can't wait to read it!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh I love Tangled and I think you did a fabulous job with it! Way to go, girl!

Julia said...

Thanks, Sherrinda!

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, I love this post today! I especially like what you said about peeling back the layers of expectation so that characters have unexpected dreams... that was such a good point!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Thanks, Ashley. Can't wait to read about your character's dreams :)