Encanto is Disney’s 60th feature-length animated classic and harks back to the studio’s glory days as a production house of wonder. Set in a fictional region of Colombia, the magical family Madrigal have shouldered the duty of leading a community of refugees now forming a bright and colourful town safe in the wilderness. When their home, the magical casita, begins to crack beneath the pressure of perfection, Mirabel sets out to repair the house and her family looking to their inner strengths over their magical “gifts”.
Our What We Can Mimic articles are dedicated to showcasing the finer, grander points of a writer’s work and how a deeper inspection of inspiration material can help new writers find their feet. So, read below for our top four take-aways from the beautiful Encanto.
1. How To Do “Untalented” Right
For those who haven’t fallen under Encanto‘s spell already, the story revolves around Mirabel, one of the youngest members of the magical Madrigal family. Unfortunately, whilst everyone else in her bloodline (including her two older sisters) has been anointed with magical “gifts” by the “miracle” that sustains their wondrous home, Mirabel has been left distinctly giftless.
At this point, the story could have taken a hard-left into the “not like other girls” / “I’m not normal” trope that we’ve seen in a thousand YA or Childrens stories. Instead, Encanto gives us all a hint of how to write “untalented” in a healthy and interesting way. Throughout the film, Mirabel continues to insist that she is special: that she is part of an amazing family that she’s proud to call her own. That makes her special too. She loves her kin, supports them and never doubts her own self-worth. Not at her core. She doesn’t wallow in her own self-pity or even address feeling out-of-step with her relatives. She adores them and they adore her. Tensions only rise over Mirabel being “giftless” when it comes to public expectations and the duties of the family. She isn’t actively shunned by her relatives but the fact remains that (as far as they are aware), Mirabel’s lack of gift makes her unable to contribute. It’s not a question of worth but of reality (again, as they see it). This is how to do “untalented”. This is how to bring up a characters’ “normalcy” in a way that builds drama, without your protagonist morosely attacking that over-played violin in the corner.
A character can feel disappointed that they aren’t taller, smarter, prettier or the owner of a gift, without it damaging their sense of self.
2. “Perfect” Characters and Perspective
Whilst Mirabel is never outwardly jealous of her siblings, their apparent success can be a frustration. Particularly in the case of her older sister Isabella. But this has less to do with Isabella’s gift of creating beautiful flora and is, instead, rooted in Isabella’s prima dona attitude. What Mirabel discovers over the course of the movie is that Isabella’s attitude stems from her gift. Creating perfection, literally at the tips of her fingers, has become fused with Isabella’s self-view. If her gift is about beauty and perfection, she herself must be perfect. This is a fantastic way to bring in real interpersonal tension, without relying on trite jealousy.
When building our protagonists, its helpful to have proximal characters either more or less talented than they are. Those who (apparently) have greater success than the protagonist can inspire a desire for change, covetous ambition or simply a development of self by comparison. These “perfect” / “successful” characters are useful tools, not merely background “Mary-Sues”. Using these characters improperly, however, can lead them into the realm of two-dimensionality. Consider how a “perfect” or “successful” character in your story can have an additional element. Do they feel the pressure of their own success? Are they suffering from Imposter Syndrome? Even if your story doesn’t have the scope to explore their mentality in depth, you can write in hints and moments of dialogue that speak to a deeper character beneath the shiny exterior. This, in turn, will build opportunities for your protagonist to connect with these characters on a human level, allow you to use that connection to move a plotline forward and, in general, create an immersive world of people who actually feel realistic.
3. Emotions Can Bridge Context
I’ve heard would-be writers talk themselves out of potential stories because they don’t have the background or real-life experience to inform their concepts. As if they fear they cannot do the story justice. Encanto is a great example of how characters can connect with one another and how you can connect with your story, even if you don’t share the same life experiences.
In the emotional finale of the film, Mirabel reconnects with her abuela after witnessing her grandmother’s story: a harrowing journey across Colombia that claimed the life of her husband. Mirabel has no context for this kind of life event. She has never suffered the loss of a spouse nor, in fact, the loss of any family member. Yet, even as a young adult, she can understand sorrow. She knows what it means to hurt. And she can empathise with her grandmother’s choices of holding her kin too close, because of that shared humanity.
And we can do the same.
No matter where you were born, in what era or to what level of privilege, culture or state of being… we are all human. We all share a fabric of emotions that can be used and applied to the imaginative scenarios of your stories. It does not, of course, excuse writers from doing due diligence. Communicating with those who have lived lives apart from our own is essential for creating a story that is authentic and respectful. But never doubt that you cannot put a character’s story on paper, simply because you never lived their specific life experiences. If we all remained inside our own heads alone, we’d never empathise. We’d never connect.
The same can be said for your characters. Two characters do not have to have each lost a parent to be able to bond over what it means to feel grief. They do not have to have been raised with the same ideals or contextual knowledge to understand one another. Get creative with your characters’ emotional maps and where they could overlap – particularly in unexpected areas or reflections of each other. Use empathetic emotion as your guide to less obvious common ground.
4. Believable Multi-Generational Characters
Stories like Encanto, that revolve around families with multiple generations, are great fun: challenging when you’re writing a conversation at the dinner table and hilarious when you nail those bantering interactions. A pitfall of stories like this, however, is relegating particular family members to plot tools and / or seeing them pop up only when necessary. It’s a natural and easy mistake to make when juggling so many characters.
Encanto has a large and multi-gen cast. Even side characters, in the opening musical number, complain that it’s hard to keep track of everyone. Here’s a tip on how to make families like this realistic and memorable: remember that children are a reflection of their parents. Younger generations should feel as if they were guided and moulded by the older. Whether that guidance sent them down similar paths to their parentage or off in a deliberately different direction is up to you. But the connection should be there. In Encanto, Mirabel’s cousin Camilo encourages the idea that Tio Bruno is a monstrous, looming figure of doom. And it’s Camilo’s mother Pepa who insists “We don’t talk about Bruno” because he ruined her wedding. Whilst most of the family are in agreement that Bruno is the black sheep of the family, the strongest dislike for the character has been passed from mother to son. Similarly, the giftless Mirabel works hard to support others, looking after their health and emotional well-being as friend to one and all. It’s no surprise that her mother doesn’t have a proactive gift but one of healing through delicious food.
Keeping lines of familiarity from parent to child, generation to generation, helps build a family that is at once believable as a complete unit but also memorable in regards to who is related to whom. These inherited ideals, world views and personality traits also give your forefront characters deeper motivations for their behaviours. They refuse to do X because they learned Y from their father. Or they have learned to be particularly A because their mother was the complete opposite: B. Rather than building a character from the ground up, try developing one from the ancestors down. Consider what lessons might have been passed along and how each generation has helped to mould the following one. You never know – you might build something as fantastical as the family Madrigal!
Check out Encanto here, on Amazon!