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The "I want" song

What makes any sort of storytelling successful? How do you get audiences to root for your characters? How do you get them to love them? Is there a special super secret formula for it?

There likely isn’t a simple answer, but there is one piece of advice that does work more often than not. Today, we’re going to talk about the songwriter Howard Ashman and his key to great storytelling.

In an interview around the time of The Little Mermaid’s theatrical release, Howard Ashman was quoted saying, “early in the evening, the leading lady usually sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life – and the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”

Like it or not, this is part of what makes Disney movies so loved. Snow White has her “I’m Wishing” song over a wishing well. Cinderella has “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” Ariel has her “Part of that World” song. Belle has her “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” moment. As a viewer, you have already seen how she’s dismissed in the song “Belle”, and then when she’s finally on her own, you get to see what she truly longs for and get to connect with her.

Recent profitable Disney movies have them. Moana has “How Far I’ll Go.” Anna and Elsa? They have “Do you want to build a snowman?” Encanto’s “I Want Song” comes in the form of “The Family Madrigal.” You spend the whole song talking about the family and their super awesome powers and Mirabel leaves herself out of it. She does not want to talk about the fact that she didn’t get a gift, and as a viewer you want to stay with her and see how she overcomes this.

The “I Want” song is plentiful in other musicals and movies as well. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Wizard of Oz, “My Shot” in Hamilton, “The Wizard and I” in Wicked, and “Goodnight My Someone” in The Music Man.

Now, you may be going, “I’m not going to be writing a musical, how does this apply to me?” However, we can still apply this to our own writing by looking at what these “I want” songs do for their stories. In most of these songs, the main character is alone with only the audience. It is a moment of introspection, where their true wants and needs are expressed. In The Hunger Games, we are shown Katniss loves Prim right away, that Prim is her priority, so when Prim’s name is called, we should feel the same moment of agony that Katniss does. She wants her sister safe, and we know that and everything spirals from knowing that. We are rooting for her to get back to Prim by the end of the book.

Another popular example is in the Harry Potter series. In the first book, we are aware that Harry is lonely and wants family, but just in case the reader needs it driven home, there is The Mirror of Erised. Or quite literally the Mirror of Desire. It shows Harry what he wants most desperately. It even goes as far as to tell us what Ron desires. Harry takes him to look in the mirror and Ron sees himself holding the Quidditch Cup and being Head Boy. The Mirror works in at least two ways by cementing what we could pick up with context clues from Harry and introducing Ron’s desires that will last the whole series.

You and the audience should know the character’s desires, and the character's actions should stem from them. We are all human with desires and wants. Seeing that want in characters increases their relatability. It makes a reader grow more attached to the character if they see something in a character that they see in themselves. A character who doesn’t want anything feels flat, with nothing driving them further. And if they don’t care, why should the reader? However, if the character wants something desperately, the audience comes along for the ride, falls in love with them and wants to root for them until the end.

So what is it that your character wants more than anything? Is it a relationship with their estranged family member? Do twins want to get their parents back together? Does he want a Red Ryder Ranger Model Air Rifle for Christmas? Does she want to be part of the human world? In my next post, I’ll have some tips and tricks for how to figure out what it is your character really wants, and if and how they should obtain it.

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