I’ll be writing about the video A Conversation About Characterisation – writing a good character – SPOILERS – Peter Rabbit The Movie, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
Your characters are one of the most important things about your story, they’re how your audience connects to the story you’re telling, how your plot moves along, and, usually, the point of the story in the first place. To write good characters that your audience will be interested in and want to follow, either by reading or watching, you have to be good at characterisation. This is how you bring them alive and make them interesting.
Young Mister McGregor
To give you a good and clear example of well done characterisation, and why it works so well, I’ll be writing about the character of Young Mister McGregor in the 2018 film Peter Rabbit: The Movie. This is a children’s movie, but the writing is really excellent and the way the character has been built and performed is definitely worth noting, so read this then watch the film so you can focus on how it’s been done.
One of the clever things about the character of Mister McGregor that is worth learning from, is that he’s an antagonist to Peter Rabbit; you’re intended to dislike him (despite the fact the actor, Domhnall Gleeson, is actually very charming on screen) and root for him to fail. However, through the story you actually come to root for him, and his character is written to become more and more sympathetic as the story goes on.
Writing A Character Arc
The way Mister McGregor becomes more likeable through the story, is that his character is taken on an arc. A strong character arc can really make a character worth reading or watching.
Going on a journey with a character lets you watch them either learn from their mistakes and improve themselves from those lessons, or become more evil and corrupt. But that arc makes the character interesting, brings the audience in, and makes them dynamic and interesting. They’re not just flat.
Mister McGregor’s Arc
Mister McGregor starts the film as a controlling and neurotic grump, working in Harrods, and aspiring to be the manager. He likes things incredibly clean and perfect, so clean and perfect that he could drink water from the toilets (which you almost watch him do.) He is then fired from Harrods, and when he inherits the house in Windermere from the Old Mister McGregor, the goal he sets out on is to get the house cleaned up and put on the market, so he can then use the profits from that sale to set up his own toyshop.
Upon arrival in Windermere (which we have been to and is utterly beautiful for the record) he is confronted with a herd of sentient creatures, lead by Peter Rabbit, who’s story goal is to have full access to the McGregor garden so they can eat the vegetables that are grown inside. Mr McGregor and Peter Rabbit are set at odds, because Mr McGregor wants to keep them out at all costs to make sure the house is in perfect condition to sell.
In the grand tradition of using female characters as a tool to improve male characters, Mister McGregor’s new neighbour Bea, played by Rose Byrne, is very loving towards and protective of the animals, and challenges Mister McGregor to accept nature as beautiful and become less controlling.
Whilst this is a trope I’m personally not a fan of, I have to say it’s really well done in this story, and watching the change in Mister McGregor as he connects with and learns from Bea is very sweet and well performed. You go with Mister McGregor as he learns and changes, until his story goals start to change based on those experiences.
Character Vulnerabilities And Humanity
As he grows, the character’s vulnerabilities and humanity comes through more. Allowing your audience to see a character they’ve previously disliked as vulnerable makes them more sympathetic and starts to explain some of their more questionable behaviours.
For instance, at the start of the movie he seems incredibly tough, and his controlling ways seem purely selfish and cruel, as he’s antagonising Peter Rabbit and his mates who were are automatically sympathetic towards. However, through conversation with Bea, you learn that his parents died when he was very young, and he was moved around children’s homes.
Control of his environment was hard to come by, so he controlled what he could by cleaning and organising everything he could as a coping mechanism. Revealing this brings the audience closer to him, makes him seem softer and more accessible. It starts to change how you respond to the character.
A Complex Character
I very much enjoy when the antagonist of a story is, instead of outright evil, a good person who’s flawed. Mister McGregor is an excellent example of this, he’s not setting out to be evil or bad, it’s more complex than that. Mister McGregor has been damaged and hurt by his experiences in life, and it’s how he responds to those things that sets him at odds with the Protagonist.
Through the story he learns to deal with those flaws and handle the damage and pain in a more healthy way, until he becomes a Protagonist in his own right.
To learn from the writing of the character of Mister McGregor, you can look at the story arc, and how he has layers of motivation. The growth and change is demonstrated in his behaviours, and how he changes through his relationship with Bea and how he responds to the rabbits.
The motivations are layered and complex, he cares about more than just one thing. He wants to sell the house to set up a toy shop, he wants to cope with his pain through control and order, he wants to impress his neighbour Bea and have a romance with her. All the way through the story he has multiple goals, and all the way through the story he is growing and learning.
Conflicting Character Goals
Another interesting part of this character, and again something you can try and bring into a character of your own, is that some of his goals are actually in conflict with each other.
He wants to sell the house and move back to London, but he wants to be with Bea. He wants to keep the rabbits out, but Bea loves the rabbits and he also wants to impress her. This makes the character complex and interesting because he’s got to constantly navigate his own conflicting goals and that forces him into situations that are more interesting to watch play out because of the conflict he brings with him, as well as any external factors within that scene.
Characters Are Changed Through The Story
The film ends with Mister McGregor having grown and changed, so he accepts the rabbits and is less controlling because he’s happier, but also achieving his goal of opening a toy shop and being with Bea.
It shows the character doesn’t have to give up on everything they want through the story to go on an arc, but that the motivations can be changed and developed. His toy shop is now not part of a vengeance plan on Harrods for firing him, it’s part of his happy new life in Windermere.
Making your characters grow throughout your story, and be changed by the events in the story, humanises them. We all learn from the experiences we have, and we are all changed by them, so let your characters go through that same journey.
Obviously, Peter Rabbit is a children’s film and will not appeal to everyone, but if you go in watching it with the lense of tracking Mister McGregor’s character development, motivations and conflicts, you’ll learn a good deal about successful characterisation.
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