The Lesson From “Toy Story”

I heard an interesting interview with the original writers of “Toy Story.” The writers knew at the end that they wanted Woody, the hero, to realize that he could co-exist with Buzz Lightyear, so they decided that in order for Woody to change into a nice guy, he had to start off as a selfish character.

The problem was that Woody became so unlikeable in the beginning that by the time he changed, nobody cared because nobody liked him. Early drafts of “Toy Story” made Woody seem too much of a selfish bully, hogging all the attention and not wanting to share any attention with the other toys. So the first lesson “Toy Story” taught these writers was that even though your hero must change from beginning to end, he needs to start off as likable in the beginning or the end change won’t even matter.

The “Toy Story” writers found a solution. First, they made Woody likable in the beginning so the audience would like him and care about him. Then when they introduced Buzz Lightyear, he threatens Woody’s status as the favorite toy. Suddenly, we see another side of Woody that we didn’t see before. Now when Woody starts scheming to regain his status as the favorite toy, we not only understand why he’s doing that, but we actually sympathize with him, even though we don’t want Woody to do anything bad to Buzz Lightyear.

Now when Woody inadvertently gets rid of Buzz Lightyear, he has to fix his mistake and that effort to fix his mistake causes Woody to change. But Woody remains likable because he didn’t purposely get rid of Buzz Lightyear and he makes an effort to make up for his actions by rescuing Buzz Lightyear.

The lesson of “Toy Story” is that you can’t make your hero unlikable in the beginning. Your hero must be likable in some way, then you can show your audience a different side of your hero but also show that your hero really is good at heart but he or she might just be misguided at times.

By making these changes, the writers turned “Toy Story” from a story that didn’t work into a blockbuster that spawned the entire Pixar animation empire. If something in your screenplay isn’t working, just keep in mind that the writers for “Toy Story” didn’t get it right the first time either, so keep experimenting and fiddling with different options. You know your hero must change, but make sure your hero remains likable too. Even in a movie like “Inglorious Basterds,” we like the heroes even though they’re vicious killers, but that’s because they’re only killing Nazis.

Make sure your hero is likable in the beginning, then make sure your hero changes for the better in the end. That will go a long way towards making your story work, unlike early drafts of “Toy Story” that kept running into dead ends until the writers realized that all heroes have to be likable.

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