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Character Development (As Sung by Disney)

How many of you have seen Moana? If you haven’t, you should go watch it immediately. Because Lin-Manuel Miranda. The songs are absolutely amazing, and Emily and I have been singing them over and over again for DAYS. But one song in particular really made us realize how great Disney is about showing their character development through song.

In the movie, Moana sings this song every time she has to make a huge decision. And in it, it very clearly lays out the things that are important to her. There’s her family, her responsibilities to her island, and her forbidden love of the ocean. And it shows how torn she is between these things while also being incredibly catchy and sticking in your head.

And Disney is a master of this. Think about your favorite Disney character. Odds are, you immediately have a song running through your head that exemplifies who they are. For many of us, as book-lovers, Belle instantly pops to mind. For me personally, the song that most resonates with her character is that brief interlude between Gaston asking her to marrying him and discovering that her father is missing.

That song shows her rejection of the expectations of those around her, her longing for something more, and most importantly, her longing for someone who understands her. Which sets her up splendidly for meeting the Beast.

But it doesn’t always have to be a stunning emotional solo. Think about Emily’s favorite character, Mulan. The first song in Mulan, which really introduces the character, isn’t even sung by her. Yet, even though she only sings one brief tiny bit of it, we see that the most important thing to her is her family, and her father in particular.

When the movie starts, she wants something. She wants for this very important day to go smoothly, and we see her taking action to try to do that. She’s got notes on her arm, she’s thought ahead, she’s made plans… Granted, it doesn’t quite work as expected, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that Mulan is set up as a character who is smart, prepared, and who takes action.

In fact, not only does it not have to be a big section, the want itself doesn’t have to be that big. Think about Rapunzel from Tangled. Her introductory song is basically a list of all the banal tasks and activities she does all day to stave off the vast boredom of being stuck in a tower. She’s not asking for a prince to come rescue her or epic adventures, it’s not the biggest day of her life. All she wants is to go on a field trip to see some pretty lights.

Yet, by the end of that song, you know a lot about who Rapunzel is. (As Emily says, she’s the most Hufflepuffiest Hufflepuff to ever Hufflepuff.) And you want, as a viewer, for her to see those lights. You are in.

So, how can you take those lessons and apply them to your own writing in your own stories? You might not be able to have a super catchy song, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character those same kinds of emotions.

Is your main character torn between two conflicting desires like Moana? Are they stuck in a place where they feel misunderstood, like Belle? Are they facing what they think is going to be the most important decision of their life with all these expectations heaped upon them like Mulan? Or are they trying to make the best out of their normal, boring life and hoping for one little special thing like Rapunzel?

Whatever it is that your character wants, just make sure to share it with us, the readers. You have to tell us what the goal is. That way, we can be hoping and dreaming right along with your characters.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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