How to Train Your Dragon – your main character drives the story
Last saturday marked the start of the new course Painting Drama 2 of the Oatley Academy. We had a blast and it was really good to be in a live class again with Chris Oatley all those lovely and crazy talented people. This course is all about colour and artistic growth and I can`t wait to get started on the homework tomorrow!
Since Painting Drama is taking up a lot of time and I`m currently in the process of visualizing the script of my comic and I already blogged about how I go about that, I decided to do something different on this blog every now and then.
As artists with a story to tell we can learn a lot from immersing ourselves in other forms of visual storytelling. Books and comics, movies, theater plays and what have you.
That`s why I had the idea to go through a few of my favourite movies and show you how they work through their story and get their point across in an interesting and artistic way.
It should be noted that, of course, these articles contain a LOT of spoilers. So if you still didn`t see these movies (most of them will be fairly old) I urge you to watch them first and then read these articles.
So, if you`re ready tag along and go look at this week`s movie with me:
How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) is one of my favourite movies that features the 3D animation technique. Not only because the designs, animation and music are gorgeous, but mainly because of the great storytelling and character development. Speaking of characters, let`s look at how important a well developed main character is in this weeks` blogpost.
The protagonist of the movie is Hiccup. He is a Viking kid, living in a small village on an isle in the sea called Berk. He`s a little plain, scrawny (good character design that says a lot about his character) and apparently, he messes things up. Often.
He is the typical underdog character. And he knows it. He desperately wants to change, but doesn`t seem to succeed.
It`s tough balancing this, since you don`t want the audience to only feel sorry for a protagonist. We have to actually LIKE a character in order to wanting to spend an hour and a half with him/her. This is, for example, particularly well done in “Megamind” where the character deems himself a villain and does all these “evil things” and yet you don`t despise him for it. I`ll leave you to think about how they did it in Megamind. In HTTYD they gave Hiccup a sarcastic, witty personality. (immediately clear from his opening voice over) He complains about his situation, but he does it with humour, and his determination and cleverness make up for a very likable character. His underdog position is something we all recognize and symphatize with and we get curious about how his story will play out. We root for him.
The movie opens with a voice over of Hiccup, showing you around Berk and introducing all of the Viking characters and dragon types. This fighting scene explains in a very economic way what this village and it`s people are about and what the main problem is: the place regularly gets attacked by dragons. It also cleverly shows how Hiccup moves around in that environment, how people react to him, and what his own problem is: he desperately wants to be like everybody else, but he`s the towns` freak who makes weird contraptions and who fails at everything a Viking needs to be in the eyes of the townspeople.
This is one of the main traits your main character should have:
He or she should want something, badly.
Hiccup wants to be like everyone else.
This all brings us to the theme of the movie: being different doesn`t have to be bad.
Throughout the movie, the people of Berk, Hiccups (later) friends and his dad are trying to figure out how to relate to him, and even Hiccup himself doesn`t know how to handle his own differentness.
Early in the movie we get introduced to Hiccup`s father. Ironicly, (but not coincidently!) he is Berks leader, the toughest and seemingly bravest Viking. He and Hiccup couldn`t seem more apart from each other. Stoic the Vast is the ultimate image of what a Viking in Berk needs to be, and the one who represents everything Hiccup is not.
I like the character of Hiccups dad a lot. He`s not a typical harsh parent, he honestly doesn`t know what to do with his son and makes bad choices because he doesn`t understand him. Again, this is very well done in the scenes of Hiccup and his dad together.
This is our set up.
Now, think about Hiccups friends: Astrid, Snotloud, Fishlegs and the Ruffnutt and Tuffnutt twins. If you picked one of them as a main character, (ignoring the fact that you`d have to change a few things and that we really need far more information about them to actually want to follow their story) you`d have a completely different story that deals with completely different issues.
About the theme: the story resolves around being different and going against the status quo. Hiccup is befriending the “enemy” and wants to change the way his townspeople think and see. Sound familiair? Think of a movie like “Pocahontas” for example. She does the same things, yet these different movies need really different main characters to get their respective themes across.
Back to Hiccup.
In the events that follow, Hiccup has his chance to get what he wants: he captures a Night Fury, the most mysterious and dangerous dragon there is. He comes to the point of almost killing it, but he can`t. Hiccup himself, again, sees this as weakness.
He gives up on his dream to kill a dragon and become a great Viking right there, even tries to refuse his dad`s offer to go to dragon training, and instead starts a friendship with the dragon, which he names Toothless, in secret.
This is important. Even though your characters sometimes get thrown right into things,
they should still make a decision about their fate.
A main character that has no saying over what happens to him/her is usually not very interesting to look at. We watch as they get moved forward through the plot without being active about it. We want to root for characters who make decisions, even if they`re wrong. (we then hope they`ll discover that)
Hiccup chooses to not kill Toothless and his act of mercy, and Toothless reaction to that (in turn not killing Hiccup), makes sure that Hiccups` curiosity gets the best of him. There is something about this dragon and he will find out about that. This is where the second act of the movie starts. In the second act it`s all about that process of their growing friendship and how Hiccup discovers that you can actually train dragons and ride on their back.
His growing knowledge of dragons makes him do very good in dragon training and his fellow trainees even want to hang out with him now. (Except for Astrid, who`s competitive personality makes her following him around until she`s the first to discover his secret)
Hiccup now leads two lives, pretending to be who the townspeople want him to be, but training Toothless in their secret hideout. The inner conflict grows as his father comes back from searching for the big dragon`s nest and is now really happy to learn his son is doing so well in Dragon Training. A funny but very awkward scene follows in which they try to have a conversation about it.
This part of movies is often called “fun and games.” It`s where most parts of movie trailers come from. Characters going on their respective journeys, where we see how they grow and change and there`s a lot of fun to be had. But it can`t go on like this forever. At some point, something has to change and:
The stakes should be getting higher as we near the third act.
More and more obstacles are thrown Hiccups way. As the Viking kids wrap up Dragon Training, the eldest of the town will decide who did best. He/she who wins will have the “honour” of killing his/her first dragon. Hiccup wins and he decides to leave because he`s now convinced that dragons are not as bad as the Vikings think they are and he won`t kill a dragon. On top of that, Astrid finds out about his secret. Luckily for the two friends, she eventually understands and after a romantic flight through the sky they find the hidden dragon`s nest.
A gigantic dragon called “the Green Death” lurks there, for which the other dragons have to gather food or he eats them. Now Hiccups knows why the dragons are attacking the village and stealing their food. With this new knowledge, and with the support of Astrid, Hiccup decides he will stand up and show his fellow townsmen that there is another way.
This is a great scene. Hiccup finally gets what he wanted at the beginning of the movie. His father makes a speech about how proud he is and how Hiccup will become “one of us.” A real Viking. But Hiccup changed. He doesn`t want this anymore. He has his great entrance, with the people shouting his name, but he`s filled with dread.
A Monstous Nightmare appears, it`s one of the most dangerous dragons, which can set itself on fire. One of those almost killed Hiccup at the beginning of the movie and his dad rescued him.
Here is where Hiccup makes a mistake. When he throws away all his armour (including the helmet that he got from his father) he declares:
By saying this, his father already stopped listening, and when Hiccup tries to explain that dragons are different from what they thought his dad gets angry. And he scares the dragon. The Monstrous Nightmare almost kills Hiccup, and Stoick, used as he is to saving his son from the dragons, goes into the ring. But this time, Toothless intervenes and gets caught by the Vikings.
We arrive at the “All is Lost” moment of the movie.
At this point it usually looks like the protagonist is worse off than he/she was at the beginning.
Hiccup lost the respect of his father, of his fellow townsmen and he lost Toothless. On top of that, his father wants to use Toothless to find the dragon`s nest where the enormous Green Death lives and takes all his warriors with him. They`ll probably not survive.
Hiccup`s not only different from the rest, but he also doesn`t belong to the group anymore. Hiccups dad tells him he`s not a Viking because he chose to take the side of the dragons. Even worse:
He`s a parent who just doesn`t understand. But he is not cold about it.
But Hiccup beliefs him. And as he watches the ships leave with his dad and his best friend he regrets every decision he made about Toothless. Again, he sees his differentness as “messing up” and weakness.
It`s at this point that their newly found change or knowledge is put to the test and they will learn something, or finally “see”.
Whenever they get out of this moment, they come out stronger, with new insights, and are ready to take on the finale of the film: the third act.
Astrid makes him see how his different approach to dragons is not a bad thing. Hiccup still sees his act of sparing Toothless as a negative thing, an act of weakness. “300 years and I`m the first Viking who wouldn`t kill a dragon.” But Astrid sees it differently:
Hiccup recognized that the dragons are just like them. And he realizes he was right. And he should do something to save both Toothless and the Vikings.
The hero rises stronger from the trial and we go into the third act.
Stoick the Vast didn`t listen to Hiccup when he told him about the Green Death. When the Vikings arrive they realize they are completely powerless against such a large dragon. Luckily, Hiccup and Astrid convinced their friends to fly on the dragons to the island and they save the day. (also, did you notice that each dragon really complements the characters they carry?)
His father now finally “sees” and the theme is being repeated again. Gobber tells Stoick about his son:
Stoick agrees, and in a great moment that mirrors Hiccup sparing Toothless, Stoick saves Toothless and admits his mistakes to Hiccup, who does the same. He says he`s proud to call him his son but tells him he doesn`t have to beat the Green Death. Hiccup now sees that despite the fact that his methods are still a little unorthodox, he is still the same as everyone else. It turns out he does resemble his dad. And he`s going to save his people.
His friends and fellow Vikings watch as Hiccup and Toothless take on the Green Death alone. In scene that`s reminiscent of the one in the ring that went so wrong, when Hiccup had to kill a dragon he didn`t want to kill, the townspeople look on as Hiccup and Toothless both step into the spotlight to kill a dragon. Only now it`s different. It`s a merciless, dangerous dragon, the real villain of the movie, so it`s more a battle between good and evil.
Hiccup is saving his people and he does it in his own way, with all his knowledge of dragons he gained, and with the help of another dragon.
The townspeople look on as Hiccup and Toothless both take on the biggest dragon they`ve ever seen. It`s the ultimate expression of the theme: being different doesn`t have to be bad. In fact, it might be needed to use a different approach to overcome something that can`t be done otherwise. The Vikings failed at killing the Green Death. It`s up to Hiccup and his collaboration with the dragons to do it.
It goes wrong in the end, the dragon is killed, but it causes Hiccup to lose his leg. He and Toothless are now equals, they both need each other to walk, and to fly. We know this not because it is told, but this shot says it all:
The movie closes with the changed situation in Berk, that mirrors the completely opposite situation of the opening scene. There are dragons everywhere now, living in peace with the Vikings. Hiccup is the towns’ hero and he got the girl of his dreams.
Great movie! And it shows how everything that happens ties in with the theme of the movie. Your protagonist, and everything that happens to him or her, is the advocate of that theme.
What does your protagonist want more than anything else? What is he or she prepared to do for it? Is it really what he/she needs? And how can you express your theme througout the movie? It`s fun to think about these things.
Oh, and while we`re at it, go watch the teaser trailer of How to Train Your Dragon 2!
See you next week!