A Character Development Tip from “Inside Out”

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving 11-year-old Midwestern girl, but her world turns upside-down when she and her parents move to San Francisco. Riley’s emotions — led by Joy (Amy Poehler) — try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event. However, the stress of the move brings Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to the forefront. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept into the far reaches of Riley’s mind, the only emotions left in Headquarters are Anger, Fear and Disgust.

This is a fantastic movie. It has the brilliant visual style and the deep story-telling of the best Pixar movies. For a thorough review, check out Plugged In (and then go see the movie!).

One thing this movie does well is paint a picture of the richness of emotions within people. The five main emotions–Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Anger, and Fear–all have roles to play within Riley’s psyche.

While Joy seems to the most obviously pleasant and good emotion, the others have their own parts:

Fear – lends caution to Riley’s actions. In this instance, Fear is not just synonymous with being scared, but also symbolizes respect for potentially powerful or dangerous situations.

Disgust – identifies things as off-putting. While this often has negative connotations, it does give Riley her own personality by showing what she does and does not like.

Anger – in the movie, Anger often acts selfishly. However, there is such a thing as righteous anger at injustice.

Sadness – dwells on the difficult parts of life until they are released through tears.

How does this translate into writing? Consider your own characters in each scene and chapter of your novel. What emotions are dominating their psyches at that point? Why? It can be easy to get into an “emotional rut” with characters: becoming so focused on the larger plot and character arcs that the smaller moments are overlooked. But those small moments are what really build depth into your characters and make them unique.

For instance, I have a character in the urban fantasy who could easily be stereotyped as the “whiny, little-brother geek.” However, in individual scenes I’ve added other emotions. The protectiveness he has towards a friend, even though she doesn’t respect him. The disgust he has towards the bad guys they are taking down. The sadness when he sees how poorly his sister is treated by the very organization they both serve. These elements develop him beyond the stock role into a full-fledged character. They offer refreshing contrasts into his person as a whole.

What about in your writing? Do you use any contrasts in your characters? What kinds?

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