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Cross Post: Brenda Chapman on Writing BRAVE

by Susan J. Morris
August 18, 2012 11:31 AM
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Brave rocked the box office. Its themes of identity, responsibility, and family were equally appealing to boys and girls, adults and children. Its unique characters were memorable and brimming with personality, with pitch-perfect dialogue and solid arcs. And it’s technically brilliant.

Watching Brave, I found so much inspiring material, I wanted to watch it twice, so I could take notes the second time around. Because movies are a different medium from books--with different demands and limitations--they offer novelists some unique insight into writing. And there is a lot an author can learn from Brave--from how to design a resonant character to how to turn that into an engaging plot.

So, I was beyond thrilled when Brenda Chapman, writer and director of Disney-Pixar's Brave, agreed to do an interview on how she did all that magic. Because while there’s a lot you can learn from watching it and piecing things together, the chance to glean techniques from Brenda Chapman herself is simply irreplaceable.

Beware: spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it. Otherwise, enjoy!

Susan: Merida, Elinor, and the rest of the cast of Brave are such unique and memorable characters, courtesy of their strong and distinct personalities. How did you go about creating them?

Brenda: I drew from my own life. Merida and Elinor’s characters are inspired by my relationship with my daughter. I think a writer needs to draw on truths for characters, and then expand on them. What is it you admire about that person that you could use? What is it about another that you can’t stand? Mix it up . . . it will just feel a bit more believable when the audience experiences those characters.

Susan: One of the hardest things for new authors is learning to allow their characters to make bad decisions, the better to make things interesting. What tricks have you learned for letting your characters do the wrong thing, without making them bad people--and without losing the audience?

Brenda: First you need to know what it is you want your character to learn over the course of the story. What is the arc of their story? You have to find ways to show that your characters are lacking in that one thing they need to acquire as the story progresses. Let them realize they’ve been wrong about something, which allows them to learn. That is one of the differences between a protagonist and an antagonist. The villain should believe whole-heartedly that he/she is right--unable to accept that they could be wrong until it’s too late (in many cases)--whereas the protagonist should be able to realize that they need to change their thinking to learn something in time for the happy ending (or whatever type of ending you choose). There are oh so many ways to twist and turn throughout that journey, but find the simple arc first before twisting it up for unpredictability.

Susan: Brave has a nonstandard plot. For one, it’s not your typical princess story: there’s no prince! For another, though Merida’s conflict with her mother is central to the story, her mother is not the enemy. What steps did you take to plot out Brave?

Brenda: Character is the most important factor in creating a story. Your characters should lead the plot. What do they need? Who are they? What do they want? (That’s different than need.)

For a plot, I try to plan what my beginning and end will be, then figure out the path between those two points. But many people like to write “straight ahead” figuring out what happens next as they go and know the end only when they get there. I find that approach sends me on too many wild goose chases and I burn out. Others love that discovery process. I think it just depends on the writer and what feels right to them.

The main thing I wanted to do was tell a story about a relationship where the audience could empathize with both characters, even though they seem to be at cross-purposes. I wanted Elinor and Merida to be right about some things and need to learn from each other on other things. Because isn’t that the truth of a parent child relationship? They love each other, but they have their own approaches to life--a parent sometimes has a hard time realizing that their child is an individual, and a child trying to express that individuality often doesn’t realize that they could learn so much from their parents. That was the basis for moving ahead with my characters and the plot.

Susan: Kids are the toughest critics--but they all seem to love Brave. What are your secrets for writing for kids?

Brenda: The same for writing for adults. Give them something to relate to! Don’t talk down to them simplistically--challenge them, but make it fun.

I tried not to go with the stereotypes of little boys and big sisters in Brave. They actually work out how to get along, yet have that mischievousness that little boys (and girls) can have. And Merida is smart enough to figure out how to keep the peace by bribing them with the sweets they love so much, instead of the big sister being annoyed and harassed all the time. I hoped that siblings could relate to that back and forth trade-off/bribery--yet done with love. And maybe it would give kids ideas on how to get along if they currently don’t.

Susan: Brave is a movie adults and teens seem to love as much as kids. How do you write something with that crossover appeal?

Brenda: It’s really the same answer as writing for kids--I specify as I write. I just try to create something that feels true, have fun with it--and make it something that people (grown ups and kids, alike) can relate to. When I try to specifically target the different ages, it always comes off as forced to me. That’s just me--maybe other writers are cleverer than me. I go a lot by gut.

Susan: Conflicts are central to every story--but in Brave, rather than the typical conflict of good vs. evil, or the alternative story of the antihero, the central conflict is between two characters who are both good--neither of which needs conquering. How does writing a story with such a plot differ from these other models?

Brenda: Well, I think many people would say that the bad bear, Mor’du was the villain, but in reality, he represented the darkness of the conflict in the mother/daughter relationship. Merida and Elinor were both good and bad--their journey is learning to know each other and listen to each other to conquer that darkness that is in themselves.

This was a hard story to get across--trying to find the balance so Merida and Elinor didn’t look worse than the other. I wanted the audience to relate to them both and feel the conundrum of their conflict. It was certainly more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding for me in the end. Creating a straight forward “baddy” is quite a bit easier, in my experience.

Susan: Have you ever thought about turning your talents to books?

Brenda: Most definitely. I have been working on a children’s book for two decades--mainly because I’ve been working full time for most of those years and had very little energy to give to it. But I do hope to finish it soon. It’s based on my 3rd year film at CalArts. It’s an old idea, but it still resonates with me. It’s about an old woman who is alone on her birthday--inspired by my Great Aunt Em, who was always worried she’d never see us again after we’d visit.

I’ve also been working on a memoir . . . but I’m considering turning it more into a novel. It’s still in very early stages. It has led me from my own life back in time to the lives of my mother and my grandmother--I would not be who I am without the choices that they made . . . So--I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting their lives out there so openly. Nonetheless, I’ve really been enjoying the creative process of discovery as I write. It is so freeing, rewarding and incredibly challenging! I love it! Just wish I could make money at it! I still have a daughter to put through college!

Susan: What are the different challenges of writing a movie script versus writing a book?

Brenda: Well, since I haven’t completed a book, I’m still working on that. But as I write, I am finding that I am editing myself too much for my book. I have been trained to be time conscious and economic for film: “show us, don’t tell us.” It has been hard to let myself describe a moment in a book, to talk about the environment and the mood of the thing that is happening. But I’m beginning to enjoy it . . . so that means an editor will start chopping away at my prose soon, I have no doubt!

Susan: How much did Brave change, from concept to the final film?

Brenda: Every animated film worth its salt goes through a lot of changes from concept to end. Brave is no exception. My original concept had a double mother daughter story--the witch had a daughter that had infiltrated the castle. But it was way too complicated and I ditched the extra characters and subplot very early on. But once I landed on the structure that is now what we know as Brave, we just reworked the details a lot.

As a story artist for many years, we called it sto-reboarding, rather than storyboarding. The same goes for writing--it’s rewriting . . . again and again and again.

It does get difficult when a project goes on too long. Brave’s release date kept getting pushed back after Disney bought Pixar to accommodate sequels of other Pixar films and other Disney animated films. Ideas that were once thought brilliant or funny started to feel tired and not so funny--not because they had changed, but because people got bored with seeing them so often. It’s heartbreaking some of the ideas that we lost just because people couldn’t remember their initial good reaction to them.

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  • Olivia Stratton | August 26, 2013 5:53 AMReply

    As much as I love that Brave had a heroine undefined by her looks and without a love interest, am I the only one who noticed that the plot was basically a rip-off of Freaky Friday and Brother Bear? Like, seriously, they couldn't have picked a different animal? Also we never get to see Merida and Elinor actually work out there problems. It's like the moment Elinor becomes a bear their relationship is pretty much healed. She seemed to have a standard case of Restless Princess Syndrom akin to Jasmine. I'm not saying she isn't an improvement over other cartoon princesses. I'm just saying that being more feminist doesn't automatically make a movie good. And this plot needed a good dose of originality and solid well-written character development.

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  • grrljock | August 20, 2012 12:00 PMReply

    Thanks for cross-posting this interview. Yes, what I love the most about "Brave" is its depiction of the mother-daughter relationship. I hope that Brenda Chapman will write more movies.

  • MysticCrone | August 18, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    When I was a little girl, back in the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I love stories of princesses. First it was Snow White, followed by Sleeping Beauty, and then Cinderella. The story was basically the same: evil female (witch, stepmother, stepsisters or all of the above) envies the princess beauty, curses the young lady in question and prince charming saves her. The princess' mother was usually nowhere to be seen. As anyone familiar with fairytales should know, women will kill for eternal beauty.

    Time passed and my interest in princesses waned. Maybe I realized I wasn't pretty enough or rich enough to ever become a princess. However, I got to see the wedding of a real princess on TV. Unfortunately, I learned that princesses didn't necessarily live happily ever after. Princes cheated with older, uglier and even married women. Princesses could get anorexic and even die in horrifying car accidents. Last time a princess got married on TV, I didn't bother to watch.

    Disney produced a slew of princesses who were supposed to be more modern and assertive. So while my nieces grew up I watched Ariel risked her kingdom and the life of her devoted father to get the boy prince she wanted. Belle was supposed to be beautiful but brainy but honestly, her taste in literature was doubtful consisting mainly of fairy tales. And OK at least she read but who cared, she was pretty. The one with the problem was the Beast. Jasmine was a spoiled child that was very aware of her sexuality and beauty and used both accordingly. She didn’t care about the politics of her kingdom or about her people. She just wanted to marry for love. Ew! Rapunzel was endearing but her story involved a wicked witch who kept her prisoner. The young princess hair had the magical quality of keeping people young and beautiful. Beauty again is the key.

    And then came Merida and with her, Brave breaks with many of the clichés of princesses' fairy tales. Merida is a pretty Scottish princess with a temper as fiery as her red hair. She is independent, strong, self-sufficient and a kick-butt archer. She loves both her parents but is always arguing with her mother, the Queen. Queen Elinor is trying to turn her daughter into a proper lady who will in the near future become queen. But Merida doesn’t want any of that. She wants to keep her independence and she doesn’t want responsibilities. So mother and daughter fight, argue and hurt each other on a daily basis.

    Brave is not the story of a princess in search of love. It is the story of a princess in search of herself. Merida is willful, a little selfish and does not realize the sacrifices that come with being the future queen. Yes, there is a witch in this movie. But she is rather funny, takes her trade very seriously and is not after any woman’s beauty. She does give Merida a spell to change her mother, but as we all know witches can be tricky so instead of changing the queen’s mind, the spell changes her body. The witch’s spell will take Merida into a path of understanding and knowledge. I like that witch.

    Merida gets into a lot of trouble when her mother transforms into a bear. And for the first time in a children’s movie we encounter the story of a heroine’s journey in search of her destiny. Daughter and mother (or bear) learn a lot from each other and finally get to walk in each other shoes. They have to help each other to survive. The climax of the movie gave me goose bumps. The King and his men are about to kill the queen thinking she is a dangerous bear and Merida gets between her father and mother. She picks a spear, points it to her dad and says: “I’ll kill you before I let you hurt my mother.” The only thing I could think of was wow, that is some strong statement and some brave girl. You see daughters and mothers don’t get to bond in fairytales. Princesses don’t confront their fathers, don’t know how to live by themselves in the forest and don’t snub princes. This princess does all of that and more. In the end Merida learns to understand and appreciate her mother and realizes the strong love that unites them.

    And no there is no prince charming at the end to sweeten the deal. Maybe love is in her future but she still is Merida, brave princess of her Scottish clan and the viewer knows she will be, when her time comes, a great queen. Thank God, in Brave, nobody burst out singing.

  • Marian | August 18, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Terrific interview, Susan! Sharing link everywhere I can! Many thanks!

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