How (Not) To Write Your Protagonist (Lightyear RANT)

Writing a protagonist isn’t always easy. It’s something I’ve had trouble with myself, but one thing I’ve always tried to do with whatever I write is to make the character likable in some way. For me, that is the number one priority.

Pixar movies usually star likable and complex characters, however their sci-fi flick Lightyear introduces us to their most dislikable character and, as a result, their most terrible character arc. Almost all of the story’s problems can be pinned on this terrible protagonist.

Disclaimer

Any advice given is based on observations from works I enjoy and is not intended to be taken as the end-all-be-all solution to everyone’s writing woes. I do not give advice that I myself don’t follow or haven’t found useful at some point. Please remember that writing is an ongoing learning experience and I’m not flawless.


A Failed Character Introduction

Let’s look at the opening.

The opening is the moment where we learn about the world, the characters, and the main conflict. It’s what K.M Weiland calls the Characteristic Moment and it’s probably the most important part of any story.

In the first five minutes of the movie Buzz does the following:

  • Complains about a young, less experienced crew member who has literally done nothing wrong except be young and inexperienced.
  • Once Buzz realises that this poor person has heard his relentless rant about him, Buzz does not apologise and instead doubles down and proceeds to berate the man to his face.
  • On top of that, Buzz can’t pronounce this person’s name, which is Featheringhamstan, and instead of apologizing he proceeds to just call him ‘Rookie’ for the rest of scene in a demeaning way.
  • After being attacked by hostile lifeforms, Buzz pilots the ship ‘The Turnip’ to escape but is struggling. He refuses Featheringhamstan’s help because he hates ‘rookies.’ As a result, Buzz crashes the ship, damaging it and stranding the crew.
  • Buzz blames himself, but instead of owning up and being accountable, he immediately quits being a space ranger. The only reason he changes his mind is because his friend, Alisha Hawthorne (AKA the only good character in this story), convinces him not to, but only by appealing to his ego by telling him in no small terms that they need a special someone to save the day.

Good Lord, I don’t think I have ever hated a character more quickly than this one.

Character Flaw Overkill

But wait! Aren’t characters supposed to be flawed?

There are plenty of rude, arrogant, cruel characters who are also lovable. The problem is that Buzz Lightyear has no redeeming qualities.

We need to indicate the character’s “lack”—the problems in his life caused by the Lie—as soon as possible. But we don’t want to focus too heavily on the character’s negative aspects right away.

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 5: The Characteristic Moment, K.M WEILAND

He’s not charismatic, he’s not compassionate, he’s not smart, he’s not funny, he’s not brave, or strong, or heroic… He’s so terrible that the twist (spoiler alert if you care, which you shouldn’t) that evil Zurg is actually Buzz from the future made a little too much sense.

That’s not the look of a hero. That’s the look of a smug, sanctimonious git.

I literally made a list of his flaws while I was watching the movie (Brace yourselves):

  • Doesn’t listen to people giving him advice.
  • Makes the same mistake over and over and over again without ever trying something different.
  • Thinks that settling down and making the best out of one’s circumstances is somehow a bad thing, and upending a civilization that been established for years is heroic.
  • Also, his goal is to upend a civilization for the sake of stroking his ego and for his own selfishness
  • He wants to leave the planet he’s stranded on – but everyone he was stranded with has grown old and died, and those who remain have done the smart thing and settled.
  • Doesn’t care about anyone.
  • Has no idea how animals behave.
  • Is an idiot.
  • Comes in and takes over someone else’s command, despite not knowing jack about the situation.
  • Offers no insight or encouragement to anyone.
  • Ungrateful.
  • Doesn’t see any value in anyone.
  • Patronizing.
  • Fails to give other characters important, life-saving information and then proceeds to deflect blame onto others when he is rightly called out.
  • No empathy for a character about to have a literal panic attack.
  • Whiny.
  • “Redeems” himself after one conversation with a minor character.
  • Is the literal villain of the story.

Flawed Character Arc

If it’s one thing Lightyear made me realise, it’s that a badly written character makes for a badly written character arc.

A basic character arc is like so:

  1. A character has a flaw.
  2. Character confronts flaw through multiple trials on their way to pursuing their goal.
  3. Character resolves flaw and realises that their goal isn’t exactly what they wanted, or that they needed to resolve their flaw before getting it.

Technically Lightyear hits all these beats.

Except it feels like it was hitting story beats for the sake of hitting them. At no point does it feel like Buzz is going through a genuine character arc, or even that he’s learning from his mistakes at all. If anything, his character gets worse.

So what is Buzz’s goal?

Goal: Get everyone off the planet by any means necessary.

Fair enough, right? He created this mess, he wants to fix it.

The problem starts that in order to get off the planet, he has to test a hyperspace fuel crystal and needs to do a test flight. Because of the effects of time dilation, Buzz’s test flight puts him four years into the future. So he does it again. And again. And again. In the end, he ends up in a distant future where his friends are dead, and the planet is being attacked by alien robots. Buzz teams up with Izzy, the granddaughter of his now deceased friend, and her team of misfits to defeat them.

About halfway through the film, Buzz is confronted with the Emperor Zurg, who unmasks himself to reveal that he is Buzz Lightyear from the future. Zurg jumped so far into the future that he discovered time-travel (like… reverse time-travel in this case, I guess) and has come back to the past with an army of robots to prevent the Turnip from ever becoming stranded, thus erasing the lives of Buzz’s new companions and of everyone living on the planet.

Having worn out his own crystal through time travel and excessive usage, Old Buzz/Zurg needs a fresh crystal to power his ship and complete his mission, so he requests it from his younger self.

Buzz, realizing that Zurg’s goal is pretty messed up, says no.

Which…

*sighs*

Okay. You cannot convince me that Buzz Lightyear – who has spent every minute of this film listening to no one, who cares about no opinion but his own – when confronted with his literal self from the future, wouldn’t say hell yeah me, our plans are great.

Buzz Lightyear would have joined Zurg because he thinks he is superior to everyone.

Buzz Lightyear would have joined Zurg because no one has been able to demonstrate why his beliefs are wrong.

Buzz Lightyear would have joined Zurg because he is a bad person.

But since this is a Pixar film, Buzz ‘realises’ that he’s wrong and decides to help the heroes. He suddenly declares the message of the movie and it is not convincing in the slightest. It would have been more convincing that he were so arrogant that he disagrees with Zurg out of spite.

What To Do Instead

If your character has a false belief, then the story needs to teach them how and why their belief is wrong. That is how character arcs work.

The Lie is what will force change to happen. The misbelief is what hinders and holds back your character and once they realise their belief is false they will be able to move past it and grow. This growth is what will allow them to achieve their goal.

How to Craft Powerful Character Arcs Using Their Lie

What’s frustrating about Lightyear is that the foundation for a good story is there. Technically, Buzz is told why his beliefs are wrong but only in half-hearted conversations that fail to demonstrate the why. People seem too willing to let him get away with terrible things, when really what this movie needed was someone to take him to task. Imagine Izzy, his friend’s great granddaugther, completely ripping into him and saying ‘You’re not the hero my grandmother told me about.’ That would have been the perfect scene to include.

On top of that, Buzz doesn’t show any remorse for his actions and doesn’t have any justification for why he acts the way he does.

The most important part about writing a protagonist, especially one needing to redeem themselves, is to give us a reason to root for them. If they’re supposed to be terrible people, show us why so we can at least understand the reason. If we don’t have faith in their ability to change, then the character arc falls completely flat.

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