Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lessons From Frozen

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the movie Frozen. If you haven't seen it yet and don't want it spoiled, come back after you've watched it.

I'm one of the millions of Frozen fans. This movie has resonated with audiences in a way Disney hasn't done since The Lion King. The music is amazing and each song advances the plot, the characters are engaging, and it's a story about sacrifice. But it's not the main character everyone loves. It's Elsa, the older sister.

Why are so many people in love with Elsa? It's not just because Idina Menzel works her vocal magic, though the popularity of "Let It Go" is definitely thanks to Idina's magic, and the lyrical beauty of the melody and words. (Big fan of Idina Menzel, in case you haven't figured it out.)

We love Elsa because we see something she doesn't know about herself. We root for her to overcome these things and see herself the way we do. This is accomplished with a lie Elsa believes about herself. Lies happen to be my favorite way of building characters. Frozen is one of the best movie examples of character lies since The Patriot starring Mel Gibson.

Elsa's lie is born in the movie's opening when she accidentally almost kills her little sister. Her parents teach her a mantra: Conceal, don't feel. Don't let anyone in. Be the good girl and don't lose control. This mantra, combined with what happened to Anna, leads to her believing she can't trust herself. If she's not perfect the people she loves will be hurt by her power, and could even die.

She's exposed at her coronation and flees the kingdom. If she stays everyone she loves will die. In the process she sets off an eternal winter, which sends Anna after her to bring her back and melt the frozen world. Except Elsa doesn't know how.

When working with character lies, by the end of the novel (or movie) the lie must be broken so the character can grow. Elsa's lie is built on keeping her emotions frozen. There's one more element at work in Frozen, and it's the can't/won't. Elsa can't control her power, and she won't let anything happen to her sister. By the end of the story the character has to do the one thing they can't, and the one thing they won't. Along the way she gets herself imprisoned because she won't let Anna be hurt. However, she doesn't see that by cutting herself off from Anna she's hurting Anna. That's how powerful her lie is and how strongly it's attached to her need to keep her emotions frozen so Anna won't die.

At the midpoint Elsa's lie is reinforced when she once again hurts Anna. This time by shooting ice through her heart, which will kill her if it's not thawed. A frozen heart can only be thawed by true love. At this point you may be rolling your eyes because it's time for the prince to ride in and save the day with true love's kiss, and that's what Anna thinks has to happen. But here's where Disney breaks Disney stereotype. Anna's heart is thawed when she sacrifices herself to save Elsa. There's more than one kind of true love, and sacrificial love is the most powerful of all.

This sacrifice, and seeing Anna embrace emotion, breaks Elsa's lie. When the lie is broken she gains control of her power and thaws her kingdom.

Elsa resonates because she's real and three-dimensional. Viewers are rooting for her to be who we know she can be, and this formula has created a blockbuster that's been in theaters since Thanksgiving. As I'm writing this, two and a half months after its release, it's still playing four times a day at my local theater. Using these techniques in novels also creates characters readers can't get enough of. As a reader I connect most with characters who believe a lie. It's also way fun to write and makes the story that much richer and deeper.

Want to know more about lies and how to use them to build great characters and stories readers can't put down? Check out The Character Therapist archives, and this post in particular.

Rachel Leigh Smith is a romance writer, a geek, and a Southern belle. She lives in Louisiana with a half-crazed calico named Zoe. When not adding words to an SFR novel she’s reading paranormal romance or crafting while watching some type of SF on TV. She’s still unpublished, but hopefully not for long. She also blogs sporadically at www.rachelleighsmith.com and hangs out on Facebook.

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