If there were Ten Commandments for writing fiction, the “show, don’t tell” rule would probably be at the top of the list. It’s a sentence that gets thrown around a lot, especially on the Internet, when critiquing a fictional work that feels subpar. But why is it so important?
Generally, it’s a lot easier to get an emotional reaction out of an audience when you show them why a character acts or thinks the way he does, instead of just telling everyone the reason. Simply having a character inform the rest of the group that “Mr. Mean Man had a terrible childhood” probably won’t invoke the same response as actually showing the audience some flashbacks of Mr. Mean Man’s terrible childhood. By showing the situation, instead of making a statement about what it is, people can get a better idea of what the writer really wants to convey.
By now, you’ve probably already guessed that I’ll be using this post to talk about how Pixar gets this right while other companies don’t always meet this challenge. But first, I should warn you that this post will contain major spoilers for Toy Story 3 and Kingdom Hearts II. If you’re not familiar with one of them, but you’re planning to see/play it some day, you might want to stop reading.
Still here? Awesome! So, today we’re going to look at two characters who turn out to be pretty complex within their respective stories: Axel, from Kingdom Hearts and Lotso from Toy Story 3. Both are not what they seem to be at first glance, and both have tragic backstories, but one was shown, and the other was told. And that made all the difference in how I viewed both characters when I first watched their stories unfold.
Axel first showed up in Chain of Memories as a member of a group called Organization XIII, who served as the main villains in the Kingdom Hearts series for a few games. The most memorable aspect of his character was the way he constantly stabbed people in the back, to the point that nobody could figure out whose side he was truly on. Then, Kingdom Hearts II was released and everything changed. KH2’s story takes place about a year after Chain of Memories, and a few hours into the game, the player finds out that he used to be best friends with one of the protagonists, Roxas. But then Roxas decided to leave the Organization, the Organization doesn’t accept resignations, Axel’s usually the one they send out to kill people who disagree with them, and…yeah. Axel’s in quite a predicament. He ends up going rogue and spends the majority of Kingdom Hearts II popping in and out of the story, until he finally sacrifices his life to help the heroes.
Now, let’s look at Lotso. In a way, he’s the polar opposite of Axel because he starts out looking like a cute, cuddly bear that cares about his fellow toys…but he’s actually cruel and merciless. His anger comes from a perceived abandonment by his original owner, Daisy. She accidentally left him behind while her family was on a picnic, and by the time he had journeyed back to her house, her parents had bought her a new, identical Lotso’ Huggin’ Bear. The thought that his beloved owner didn’t love him anymore made Lotso snap, and when he arrived at Sunnyside Daycare, where our heroes find themselves after Andy prepares for college, he basically turned it into a terrifying dictatorship ruled by him.
The tragic nature is similar in both Axel and Lotso’s stories: their lives become chaotic after they are each seemingly abandoned by a person they deeply cared about. But in Axel’s case, it look a long time for me to actually feel sorry for his predicament, mostly because his past friendship with Roxas is told, not shown. Players get to see one flashback- that’s right, one– where Roxas is actually leaving and Axel quietly admits that he’d miss him. But what is he missing? Why did they become friends? Why did they stop being friends? What the heck happened? Most importantly, Axel’s transformation from evil, manipulative backstabber to a character who’s deeply conflicted is pretty jarring, and the game never bothers to show its audience how that character development took place. We’re just supposed to accept that it did happen and move on. (And yes, this issue was sort-of resolved in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days…but that doesn’t change the fact that that game was released about four years after KH2.)
Thankfully, Pixar has yet to break the holy “show, don’t tell” rule and they show their audience Lotso’s backstory in their usual expertly-crafted way:
Imagine if that scene had never been in the film, and instead, Chuckles said to Woody, “Yeah, Lotso’s evil. We used to belong to the same owner but she lost us one day and replaced him with another bear, so now he’s evil. You’d better go back and save everybody from Sunnyside.” Wouldn’t that have severely lessened the quality of the story? Sure, one could argue that it’s Woody and Co. that we’re supposed to care about, not Lotso. But, like Axel, Lotso’s transformation is very jarring at first. In order to understand why the adorable pink teddy-bear is suddenly an evil beast, some explanation is required. And in my opinion, Pixar did an absolutely brilliant job showing us what happened to Lotso. Nice work, Pixar! Keep up the awesome storytelling!