A general rule of superb story telling is to remove any character who’s the same as another. As Robert McKee puts it, when a glass of wine spills at a table, each character must have a different response. If not, why are they in your story? A story must have character polarization.
It may be tempting to conclude that character polarization materializes with the actor. We’re accustomed to Angelina Jolie’s no-nonsense confidence, Matt Damon’s determination and Denzel Washington’s stone cold gaze. However, in reality it’s first found at the script level. And there’s no better way to prove this than with a Pixar film. But before we do that…
The primary colors are Red, Blue, Green and Yellow. “Hold up!” you might be thinking. “I’m not limiting all of my uniqueness to a color box.”
Don’t worry, that’s not how it works.
Take dog breeds for example: Each individual Golden Retriever has its own unique personality, right? But as a breed, they are generally known as meek, docile and good around kids. While dobermans generally wouldn’t be viewed that way. Get it? A human’s personality can show all sorts of traits, but we are typically grounded in 1-2 motivating color groups.
Pixar veritably grasps the art of story telling, and their characters are sometimes a clean fit into the major personality colors. Let’s take Finding Dory as an example. I know this movie backwards and forwards because of our precious two-year old. It’s about the only TV time we let her have. Let’s take a quick look at the methodology Pixar used in Dory to polarize their characters by basing them in one of the four personality color groups:
Dory embraces life. She doesn’t need a plan. She’s great at last minute, fly-by-your-seat execution. She loves community. She needs to connect with others. She even speaks whale to do that! She loves change. Doesn’t mind traveling across the ocean. Dory’s color is blue.
Marlin must have a plan. He needs structure, and freaks out if it’s not there. He doesn’t like change. Marlin simply wants to wake up at the same time each day, clean the anemone and “enjoy the view.” He’s also a HUGE stickler for the facts. There’s no greater sin than getting the facts wrong. Marlin also tends to look at things in a more cynical nature. Marlin is your classic green.
This little guy is forgiving. He’s adaptable. Kind. A peace maker. You rarely see Nemo aggressive. Doesn’t mean he’s perfect with no attitude, but Nemo’s default demeanor is a go-with-the-flow and smile type of life. Nemo is a yellow.
Pixar didn’t just ground major characters in the color groups, they kept an incredible balance throughout the film so that at all times the audience connection was maximized. Let’s see what they did:
The movie begins with three characters, and three colors represented. Dory (blue), her mom (yellow) and dad (green). Notice how Dory’s dad gets hung up on the fact that baby Dory isn’t getting the game right. That’s blaring green, while the yellow mom just let’s it go. The strongest “character” represented at the beginning is the under tow which fills the need for a red.
We see baby Dory ripped away by the under tow and then we’re ushered to the present time with two new characters: Marlin (green) and Nemo (yellow). The color balance is still the same, with yet again, the under tow knocking Dory out and bringing her memory back.
Fast forward the film and Dory is again separated from the yellow and green combo, only to finally be face to face with a living and breathing RED.
The octopus, or rather septopus, is one of the B story characters. His name is Hank, and he views the rest of the world as schmucks. Hank doesn’t like people messing with his plans. He doesn’t want the responsibility of worrying about anyone. He’s blatantly out for himself, and has no problem letting someone know that. Nothing is going to stop him from going where he wants to go or doing what he wants to do. Hank is your classic red.
The Finding Dory B story characters complete the color scheme when Marlin and Nemo are out of the picture.
So now Dory is paired up temporarily with an all out, flaming red. But it’s not too long until Dory is yet again with, you guessed it, another yellow and green combo. Look at Destiny (yellow) and Bailey (green). They are the other two B-story characters, and they once again complete the 4-color ensemble. Crazy right!
Pixar doesn’t do anything by accident. They know character polarization is crucial, and they made sure the film was constantly balanced, which allows the audience to really connect (Did they call it “colors”? I have no idea).
Basing primary characters in color groups maximizes your audience connection.
How would yellows, greens and blues feel if they watched a film, and all of the likable characters were reds? They might enjoy the explosions or fast car chases, but they wouldn’t empathize with, or feel connected to these red characters very well. But if all the colors are represented in the main characters, the audience reach is massive. In Finding Dory, some viewers are really going to get Marlin. Others will say “Hank is JUST LIKE ME.”
Have you watched Finding Dory? Did you relate to a character? Did you see things in them that justify yourself? Make you feel better about things you do or feel? Then you probably now know what your color is!
Understanding human traits isn’t anything new. It’s as old as the very conventions of story telling. Look at the Bible. The Apostle Paul was not only a humble servant of Jesus Christ, he happened to be a very well educated Roman citizen, trained by Gamaliel. Paul understood people.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, Paul mentions color groups (not labeled this way back then). It can be found in Corinthians 13:1-3:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.”
What’s Paul doing? He’s saying love is most important. But he’s doing more than that. He’s stripping away some of the shining strengths of personality colors. Let’s rephrase:
“Blues, if you’re able to connect with both men and angels but don’t have love? Doesn’t matter.”
“Greens, if you can understand all the facts. All mysteries and knowledge but don’t have love? Doesn’t matter.”
“Reds, if your faith is so powerful that you can move mountains, but you don’t have love? Doesn’t matter.”
“Yellows, if you give up everything and even sacrifice your life, but don’t have love? Doesn’t matter.”
Each color group has specific strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to both stereotype the weakness and take too much pride in our strengths. Paul is saying, “let’s remove all of this and get down to the heart of the situation. We must love. That’s truly all that matters, and everything else is meant to compliment that.”
Of course not.
Finding personality colors strongly represented in a film like Finding Dory is fun, and we see the benefits, but obviously it isn’t the only what to tell a good story. It is a way for writers dealing with multiple strong characters to begin the required polarization process, and keep it consistent. And it’s a great way to connect with your audience.