In Pixar's latest film, "Finding Dory", we see our favorite regal blue tang is off on a mission that she herself doesn't quite seem to fully understand: to find her family. Kids and those who grew up on "Finding Nemo" waited on baited breath for a worthy sequel. Oh, and some lady named Ellen something. I think she had a sitcom at one point.
Dory captured our hearts immediately. In the hands of lesser writers, Dory could easily have been an obnoxious one-off character whose memorable gimmick of short-term memory loss could have been extremely annoying. But between director Andrew Stanton, Ellen Degeneres, and writers Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, they created a truly endearing sweetheart. But the funny thing is, Dory's hardly unique. In recent years, there have been several different characters in several movies that have had similar characteristics. Olaf, Groot, Baymax...the list goes on. Well, I studied these characters and what made them tick, and I assembled the following list so you too can create your own fool!
While there are varying degrees of the category of "fool" in creative works around the world, it's commonly accepted that the fool is no less a critical element to good storytelling. Often used for comedy, the fool still has the capacity to provide all sorts of insight into the human condition. Sometimes we relate to the fool, other times we pity them (Insert obligatory Mr. T reference here.). Other times they have the ability to spin profound wisdom in their simplicity. At this point, I'd provide a few examples, but we're about to do several using mostly Disney characters. Chances are you'd be familiar with most of these references.
1. Infantile characteristics - We all have that one friend who doesn't bat an eyelash if a whole infantry of soldiers die on the battlefield in a movie, even if they're the good guys. But should the dog die, well, then the movie is just too darn sad. We have millions of movies on Netflix where people die horrible deaths, but we all cry over "Old Yeller" because of that one scene everybody knows, even if you haven't seen it.
Why? Why do we care if an animal dies over our fellow humans? The answer is surprisingly simple: dogs, being submissive, optimistic, loving, affectionate, and co-dependent on humans, are also unable to defend themselves. Dogs will stare at us lovingly even after we do horrible things because their love is unconditional. They rely on us for everything. So to betray the total trust and devotion of an animal to such an extreme, it's downright sociopathic.
Babies and toddlers are similar in that they can't talk to us, they can't lie, can't have ulterior motives, are 100% co-dependent, and can love completely without condition. The main difference is a dog can bite or otherwise maul you, but babies cannot. As a result, even more so than dogs, children are almost completely disarming. Babies allow us to psychologically drop our defenses entirely because we know they are not a threat in any way, and our instinct to preserve future generations is simply survival instinct.
Basically, if you want the audience to love your character at first sight, it's best to imbue as many characteristics - physical or otherwise - of a young child as you can.
Have you sniggered at Baymax's stiff shuffle in "Big Hero 6"? The animators based his waddle off that of a toddler with a full diaper. How about Dopey's large eyes and disproportionate head from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"? Much like the physiology of a baby, right? There's Dory's inability to stay focused, which is par for the course for children of many ages. Or Olaf and his inability to full let his arms down, much like a young child trying to balance him or herself as they try to walk?
While these touches are subtle, they deceive the brain. Even though we know they are not actually babies or and non-fiction, our eyes notice the similarities on such a subconscious level that we aren't even aware of it. We find ourselves endearing to them without really understanding why.
Does this mean your character should BE a baby? Not necessarily. While babies can be fine, remember there's an element of unpredictability to them. They can wreck things, soil themselves, scream loudly, and so on. By having an adult character imbued with the appealing aspects of toddlerhood, you create the best of both worlds: level-headed maturity, rational thought, and self-control, mixed with mannerisms and motions reminiscent of an adorable baby.
2. Sincerity - At some point, the fool needs to interact with other characters. Family members, friends, strangers, figures of authority, even the bad guys. We'll also see how these characters do when they are by themselves. How we, as humans, act so differently around people of various influence in our lives is staggering. We do this because we want them to regard us in ways that will benefit us. When talking talking to a cop, we do our best to seem polite and articulate so we won't get in trouble. We tell jokes with friends in exchange for social acceptance. It's our way of adapting to social situations to maximize whatever benefits, tangible or not, coming our way. Sure, con artists are more adept at this, but it's something we all do.
Sincerity is about speaking from the heart. To be honest and free from adulteration. And when a character speaks from the heart, regardless of to whom they're speaking, it shows that they have no ulterior motives; they do not care about the social benefits.
Olaf greets everyone he meets with a big smile and friendly wave. Baymax, being a nurse robot, can only interact on a nonthreatening, gentle level. Dory, given her short-term memory loss, is unable to put forth any facades.
Much like children, these characters are incapable of insinuating deeper meanings other than what they say. Lying, fibbing, or saying anything but the truth rarely, if ever, crosses their mind. But why does this translate into "appealing"? Well, aside from we are naturally drawn to people who are honest, what we like better are honest people who are genuinely nice. Plus, like I already stated, it makes them that much more like children. But there's an extra wrinkle to this.
In this day and age, we are surrounded by people who want our trust, our money, our votes, our likes on Facebook, our possessions, and our livelihoods. These people will usually be nice, if not overly nice, to con you into relinquishing these things. And we expect these same people to be corrupt, evil monsters when our backs turn. This has resulted in many interpreting abrasive and uncouth as a sign of honesty (Cough cough Donald Trump cough cough!). But in these characters, who are the same person in private as they are with others, it's a breath of fresh air that allows us to drop our defenses. You never need to worry about Dory or Winnie the Pooh or Mater being dishonest with you. Their sincerity shines through.
3. Compassion - In the same vein as sincerity, we find compassion: a trait we desperately desire in others but are reluctant to give out ourselves in the name of self-preservation.
Babies, and by a lesser extent, animals, are inherently selfish creatures. They couldn't care less about what you think or how you feel. So when you find those viral videos of babies hugging or animals performing tasks seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts, it triggers a strong reaction.
Of course we want to see our heroes and other "good guys" be naturally compassionate. That's part of what makes them heroes. And combine this with their sincerity, it becomes believable.
For example, in "Guardians of the Galaxy", when our rogue group of misfits encounter a band of adorable children, Star Lord warns the others that they are pickpockets. While everyone tenses up, on the defense, Groot instead creates a flower for one of the girls, a small gesture of kindness that may have inspired her to be a better person, who knows? And do we even need to say his heart-wrenching line at the end of the movie?
Dory, despite her own shortcomings, assists Marlin in his search for his son with minimal hesitation. Olaf the snowman doesn't think twice in making Anna a fire when it clearly poses danger to him. Mater's more than happy to provide his tow cable to a broken car in need, no questions asked. Baymax is the embodiment of bedside manner.
We'll never run out of anti-heroes like Deadpool or Wolverine or Han Solo. It's a fascinating character study to watch heroics achieved by characters who don't care. But for fools, to genuinely care and offer small gestures of compassion are what make these guys endearing.
4. Mental capacities - it's far too easy to label most of these characters as "dumb" or "not very bright". They are often shown grappling with subtleties, nuances, and social graces that most of us have mastered. Dumb cartoon characters were par for the course in the old days of animation. Goofy is probably the epitome of this trend, and his likability has endured for over 80 years. But let's not be nasty. It's been decades since it's been acceptable to laugh at the misfortunes of others. Since then, our favorite fools have had to have other shortcomings to seem either unintelligent or unable to grasp complex concepts.
Winnie the Pooh is "A bear of very little brain". Baymax understands medicine and little else. Groot can only say "I am Groot". Mater is a redneck stereotype in a podunk town. Flash the sloth from "Zootopia" is hindered by his slow speech and actions on account of being, you know, a sloth. Kronk from "The Emperor's New Groove" is so focused cooking, bird-watching, talking to squirrels that he's never quite sorted out the whole "good-versus-evil" thing. Also from "Guardians of the Galaxy" is Drax the Destroyer, an alien whose ability to understand metaphors makes it seem as though he isn't quite keeping up with his friends.
The intelligence factor, or otherwise inability to fully articulate, is yet another thing that ties into childlike qualities. We can't fault children for not knowing as much as adults, and because they're unable to communicate as effectively, we disregard their musings or become charmed by them. To call them "dumb" is unfair to them. Much in the same way we are loathe to refer to Dory or Pooh in the same manner. Especially since many are savants.
The term idiot savant is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a person affected with a mental disability (as autism or mental retardation) who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (as mathematics or music)". Characters like Baymax and Mater are undoubtedly stunted from a social perspective, but Baymax knows medicine better than any doctor alive. Mater, as shown in "Cars 2" is pretty savvy around cars and repairing them. Olaf the snowman understands love better than most everyone else in the movie. Launchpad McQuack is a bumbling sidekick to Darkwing Duck and forgetful pilot-for-hire in "DuckTales", but his understanding of aviation is second to none. Thanks to these characters' skills, we happily forgive their inability to keep up with with the rest of the cast and let them be focused on other things.
All right. Let's say you've created the next great fool. Your character has baby-like qualities, is honest all the time, is kind to everyone around, and isn't very bright. Is that all there is to it? Hypothetically speaking let's say there's a scene where your character wanders around like a toddler, honestly proclaiming how much he loves everyone, oblivious to whatever dangerous situation they're in. If this seems to fall flat, that's because there's one more critical ingredient:
5. Understanding of negative consequences - In order for a movie to matter to the audience, there have to be stakes. If the villain or antagonist wins, the characters are supposed to have something to lose. More often than not, these repercussions often mean death: the ultimate sacrifice. Death of a population, death of a society as a whole, or death of an ideal. This, more often than not, is what inspires a hero to get off his butt and venture forth to stop the villain. He or she is deemed a hero because he disregards or accepts the risks and goes to take on the threat for the greater good. Once they understands what he or she stands to lose, we watch in fascination as the hero heads off to battle.
If a character thinks they're invincible, it's hard for us to feel for them. In 2010's "Alice in Wonderland", Alice spends most of the movie believing she is asleep and dreaming. She goes on most of her adventure, doing dangerous things she would otherwise never do, and as a result, it becomes hard for us to empathize with her. Why would we worry for her if she isn't worried about herself or the people around her?
Olaf, Groot, and Baymax all demonstrate an act of self-sacrifice at the movies' finales: Olaf lights a fire and stays beside it to accompany Anna as she slowly freezes, well after he realizes that heat is not good for snowmen. Groot wraps his friends in a wicker cocoon made of his own body, knowing full well it could mean his death. Baymax asks Hiro to shut him down and leave him in the collapsing portal so he can be safe. They all know what's at stake. They all know what they risk. But they do it anyway. Just knowing what they stand to lose makes all the difference.
And it doesn't stop there. Goofy has always been a character for comedy, but the first time most of us felt for him was in "A Goofy Movie" when he became afraid of losing his son, Max. Kronk won our affection once he realized throwing the emperor into a canal and letting him go over a waterfall was morally wrong. Dory gave us the feels when A.) she got severely injured by the jellyfish and B.) when she told Marlin her memory was better around him. Not just better, but made her feel at home.
Whether it's concern for themselves or others, the fool should be able to recognize danger or negative outcomes, or we'll fail to connect with them.
Not so foolish, is it?