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Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! We start with a short prologue where a young Alma Madrigal loses her husband Pedro but saves their infant triplets. The candle she carries with her becomes magical and creates a sentient house, the Casita, which protects the village that grows around it and gifts the Madrigal family magic abilities, all except Mirabel, who has no gift.
The Madrigals live in the Casita except for Bruno, but it's not clear yet why he left. On the day youngest cousin is gifted with the ability to speak to animals, Mirabel has what seems like a vision of the Casita cracking, but her warnings are ignored when everything seems fine. Mirabel resolves to save the magic and so investigates. Her older sister Luisa tells her that her gift of strength is weakening and suggests Bruno's room may hold clues. There, Mirabel finds pieces of a slab that seems to show her causing the Casita to fall apart.
At a dinner where Mirabel's oldest sister Isabela is to become engaged, the Casita begins to crack again. Mirabel catches a glimpse of a man she chases through a hidden passage in the walls. He turns out to be Bruno, who never really left their house because he still loves his family. Bruno summons another vision, which shows the Casita collapsing and Mirabel embracing Isabela, who blamed Mirabel for the failed proposal.
The sisters reconcile, but Abuela blames Mirabel for everything. Mirabel snaps and blames Abuela for making everyone do things her way. Their argument creates a gigantic fissure that destroys the Casita and extinguishes the magical candle, effectively stripping the Madrigals of their powers.
Abuela admits to forgetting the real gift was not the powers but the family itself. They reconcile and, with Bruno in tow, reunite the Madrigals to rebuild the Casita, assisted by the villagers. When Mirabel places the last doorknob, the Casita springs back to life, and the magic returns. The movie ends with the Madrigals taking their first family picture with Mirabel and Bruno now included in it. Carly, what’d you think about the movie?
Carly: Okay so, I like this movie but I don’t love it. Please don’t hate me, everyone. I really enjoy the music, especially the more I listen to it. And I love Mirabel and Luisa. But I felt that it leaned too heavily into Broadway musical territory where too much happens in the songs. We don’t need to meet the entire town in one song. I think there are some wonderful moments, mostly Luisa because I relate to her so much. But it felt like Lin Manuel Miranda was missing someone to rein him in. He was given almost too much power to do whatever he wanted. And so sometimes certain moments were lacking. If that makes sense? If they had paired down some of the characters, I would actually be able to get invested in the relationships. I didn’t have time to care about most of the family, even though the movie acted like I should. But this is my personal opinion. Overall I enjoyed the movie, despite seeing it a million times because my friend’s kid is obsessed. What’d you think?
Jeni: I’m stunned. I … I’m going to need some time to process this information about you, Carly. This is honestly one of my favorite Disney movies now. I love that it focuses on family over romance and that it honestly has no villain. The representation of mental health issues and how people mask them feels so real and heartbreaking. I actually kinda like that we don’t get into the individual relationships much because I think this story is really about how big families function as a unit and individuals can sometimes feel lost in all that, especially when they feel like an outsider or like they don’t belong for some reason. And this is totally the adult in me, but Abuela was such a heartbreaking character. Her strength in what she did alone at what was likely a very young age with three infants, which–is it me, or did it seem like she popped out those babies and then they had to leave right away?? Anyway, how the strength that served her so well at that point in her life is what caused problems for her and the rest of the family later–that’s so real. I think this movie is ambitious, and I can see how it might feel like too much because of that. But I really love it. HOWEVER, I do definitely agree that we don’t really get to know the secondary characters much and would love to see an animated series come from this show so we can have that chance to get to know everyone. Are you listening, Disney?? So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Emotional wounds. Oh wait, we just did that last month. Okay then, instead it is character arc. All of these characters grow and change so much over the course of the movie. And not just Mirabel, which I think is very important. They all have these deep emotional wounds but they use these wounds to change. Character arc and emotional wounds are so intrinsically tied, that it makes sense that both would be really strong in this movie. And yet, they are different enough that we can do it as another topic. So people definitely shouldn’t feel that we cheated on topics. Definitely not. Anyway, Mirabel has a clear character arc, but so do Luisa, Isabela, and Abuela. Even Bruno, who we don’t talk about, has a character arc. Oftentimes it is easy to only have the protagonist change over the course of your story, but better stories give character arcs to multiple characters, just like this one does. We get to see that everyone is as complex and interesting as Mirabel, they aren’t just foils for her to play off of. They are real people with their own unique stories. And more and more in modern fiction we’re seeing that casts of characters are getting depth and growth. Not just multi-POV stories like Six of Crows, but side characters in romance novels (although they usually get their own books), or the best friends to the main character.
Jeni: In most modern fiction, the main character goes through some kind of internal change over the course of the story. So, like Carly mentioned, we just did a whole episode about emotional wounds, so I’m not going to go over that too much, but I do want to talk a little about how it works with the character arc. As a quick reminder, the emotional wound is a negative event or pattern of events that cause deep emotional pain for the character and affect how they see their world and their place in it. And ideally that emotional wound should be the foundation for your main character’s motivation. Now, this is not necessarily something they’re aware of, just like in real life, we aren’t always aware of our own deep inner pain. So it can color their actions and perspective without them even really knowing that’s happening. For example, Abuela is probably my favorite character in this movie. Abuela wants a good life for her family, but her emotional wound–having to leave her home, her husband dying, raising three babies on her own–creates an internal problem of a deep fear that anything good can be taken from her.
Carly: Perfect. Okay so we have touched on character arcs before when we talked about satisfying endings. As Jeni said, character arc is all about the internal changes your character goes through as the plot acts on them. Characters can change positively, negatively, or flatly by the end of your story, but the important thing is that they transform internally. They don’t need to become entirely different people, but they need to grow and learn. They need to solidify their beliefs, gain new ones, change morally, or have a tragic fall.
So we break that down into three pieces to create a solid character arc:
- The Goal: You start with your character’s goal, what do they want in life? What do they want at the beginning of this story?
- The Lie: Then you find the “lie.” What lie is the character telling themselves that stops them from achieving their goal? Or is their goal itself destructive and the lie they tell themselves is that the goal will be good?
- The Truth: And finally, we need the “truth” that reveals the lie to your character. By the end they will have learned that the “lie” wasn’t in their way, that they could overcome it, or they will learn that their goal is destructive.
So Jeni and I have started to mention the different types of arcs your character can have. There are three main arcs, positive, neutral, and negative. With a positive arc your character will overcome the lie to be a better person. And here being a better person can mean being more comfortable with themselves, stronger in their beliefs, morally on the right path, etc. With a neutral arc, the character usually has internally grown or learned something, but they are more of a reflection on the changing world. And finally the negative arc is where we get all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The character’s fatal flaw leads them to a descent that they can’t or don’t come back from. No matter the outcome, your characters need to grow and learn and change.
We see this in Mirabel, Luisa, and Isabela. Let’s start with Luisa and Isabela. Both of them realize that the lie they were telling themselves, isn’t true. They learn to overcome the limits and constraints they’ve put on themselves. Luisa learns that she doesn’t need to carry the weight of everyone on her shoulders, she can let them support themselves. Isabela learns that she isn’t restricted to being perfect, symmetrical, and whatever people expect her to be. She can have thorns, and edginess, she can be whoever she wants. Now Mirabel has kind of a complicated arc. I could argue it being both neutral and positive. Mirabel learns that she doesn’t have to prove herself to everyone, she learns that not everyone is as perfect as she thought. But at the same time, her arc is about teaching others that their magical powers aren’t their only worth. She shows them that she has worth too. She pushes the world to change around her and grow, while she herself stays mostly the same. She doesn’t have to try as hard, but she also teaches the world to accept her as she is, that she is inherently worthy.
Jeni: Right, so at the beginning, your character has an internal problem caused by their emotional wound, and it keeps them from having what they really want in their lives. A huge part of showing the character’s ordinary world is establishing a baseline for the change that will come later. Then for each major turning point in the story, the character will have to evaluate their involvement in the events of the plot, and that often comes down to an understanding of what they want versus what they need. From my example, Abuela wants to protect herself against ever feeling that loss again, but she needs to realize the terrible things that happened in her past weren’t her fault and she can’t control whether anything bad happens again. The best way to show the character’s arc, in terms of both setting it up and showing the change throughout, is through your character’s reactions. Regardless of whether you’re writing in close or distant point-of-view, the reader still needs to see what is going on in your character’s thoughts and emotions and how those internal reactions tie into the character’s external actions. Basically, we need to understand the meaning of each action they take, no matter how large or small. We need to be able to draw a connection between what they do and this picture they have of themselves and how they fit into their world. Abuela sees herself–and honestly, everyone else sees her like that too–as holding everything together, and as she isn’t able to do that anymore, we get these little glimpses of the crack in her facade, like when Mirabel hears her praying at the window. So even though we don’t necessarily know every little thing Abuela thinks and feels, we get enough information to see that, later when she gets angry and yells at Mirabel, this fear is what’s behind it. Over the course of the story, she eventually realizes that the coping skills that served her in those early years are no longer serving her and her family. Her personality won’t fundamentally change, but this one element shifts. Connections.
Carly: Next we get into character arc and theme. They are both intrinsically tied together. You want to use your main character arc to reflect the theme of your story, and vice versa. The emotional journey that your character goes on is the part of the story that your readers will connect with the most. Emotions are what connect us as humans and therefore it is what will connect your reader to your character. Because of that, you want your theme to be a reflection of the character arc. So I’m going to take a minute here and actually directly quote Jeni from our episode on theme, because honestly, it is my favorite definition. So good job, I guess. “Theme is a deeper layer of meaning that underlies the expressed elements of the story (like plot, character, dialogue, etc) and speaks to an aspect of the human condition that is larger than any one character or story.” Because theme is a reflection of the human condition, it will inherently be tied to your character arc. In a way, your character arc is the most direct expression of your theme. It is the part of the story that deals with your characters in the most human way. So as you are working on layering in your theme, look to your character arc and make sure they align. Or use your character arc to help you figure out your theme. In this movie, the theme is about finding your worth and being yourself, especially as a second generation immigrant. All three of the main grandchildren have character arcs that reflect this theme.
Jeni: Okay, so, how do you know if a character arc is working, and how can you fix it if it isn’t? Typically this is something you’d get from feedback. You might hear that the character feels too flat, that the reader didn’t connect with them or understand their motivations, that they aren’t as interesting or engaging as other characters. Agency problems can also be connected to character arc. If we don’t understand the meaning behind a character’s actions, it can be hard to tell if the events of the plot are connected to that character, and if we don’t understand their goals, it can be hard to know if their actions are intentional or if they’re just sort of going with the flow. Sometimes it can also come through as voice issues because not enough of the character’s personality, motivations, and reactions are coming through to give a strong sense of who the character really is (and the voice might actually be fine). And of course, you might just get feedback that the character needs to have a stronger or more satisfying arc.
So, if you’re getting any feedback along these lines, I recommend going back to the character arc and emotional wound. In the beginning, are you setting up that baseline? Are you showing how the character reacts to smaller, everyday conflicts in their ordinary world? Do we see how their emotional wound creates that deeper meaning behind their actions and decisions and how it’s creating problems in their life before the main action of the plot even begins? We need to see hints of this starting on the first page. Then at each of the major points where the plot takes a turn, how does that impact your character? Go deeper than the surface level. Don’t only consider the life-and-death stakes, for example. Think about how they think of themselves and their place in the world. So to use my Abuela example, she thinks of herself as sort of holding their life together. So how is that challenged when Mirabel starts investigating? What fears would that bring up for Abuela? At first she reacts by doing what she’s always done, trying to take charge. When that doesn’t work, she doubles down, whereas Mirabel makes the choice to question what’s happening. This is the heart of the conflict between them. That’s why it’s personal, why there are these highly personal stakes. If one of them had made a different choice, the story might have gone a very different way. So once you are clear how those turning points affect your character, use that as a guide for their reactions in that portion of the story. Then make sure you’re actually showing those reactions instead of expecting readers to infer them. What readers will infer is the connection and the meaning. But if you don’t show how things affect your character, your reader can’t infer that through the course of a whole book.
Carly: Now let’s take this a bit further. Once you nail your main character’s arc, you want to work on your secondary characters. Now while this might not be necessary, I highly highly encourage you to do this. It has grown a lot in modern writing and it is the best way to make your world feel real and three-dimensional. Your story may have a main character, but they aren’t the only real person in this world. Everyone else shouldn’t only be there to serve the main character’s story. You want your important secondary characters to grow as well, even if it is in a much smaller way. Luisa’s arc doesn’t take a ton of screen time, but she changes and grows. The secondary character’s arcs don’t need to take up a ton of space, but they will flesh out your world. They will also probably be tied in with your subplots or with your main character’s growth. Now here is where it can get really fun, your secondary characters can have arcs that span a series. Maybe the character hasn’t fully grown over the course of the first book, but maybe they will as the series progresses. As the hero goes on their journey, the important people around them will grow as well. Or, even better, the next book in the series can be a secondary character’s story. This is best seen in romance series where the secondary character or best friend in book one is the person that gets the romance in the second book, and so on. Look at the Bridgerton series where each book focuses on a different Bridgerton sibling.
This month our query is an adult fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: Overall this is a good query, in that it lays out the stakes and focuses on the main character and conflict. But it feels like there’s some information here we don’t really need in the query. For example, I think you could just tell us that he fakes a relationship with his friend without a whole paragraph explaining the reasoning and how it comes to be. In general, I advise authors to consider: what is The Central Conflict you need to explain in your query? What information ties directly to that? What can your reader infer without you explaining, just based on information they already have from the sort of cultural consciousness? In this case, I think we really only need to know one of the four political intrigue type things you tell us in the third paragraph, and you can almost completely cut the fourth and fifth. So, yeah, just really pare down to the bare essentials that will get the reader to understand the stakes, main conflict, and why the main character has to be involved. What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: I completely agree. This is a really solid query that sounds very interesting to me. I love this humanistic look in an adult fantasy. But like you said, it is getting overly detailed in some areas. We are learning about the internal conflict for a couple paragraphs before we even get to the main external conflict. While the internal conflict definitely needs to be there, and is wonderful, it can be cut down quite a bit. I think the third or fourth paragraph could be cut entirely, thus moving the query along quicker. The third and fourth paragraphs give us almost identical information. Anyway, I’m getting really granular here, and it is because a lot of the good query stuff is already here. We just need to tighten it up a ton.