The opening scene of Encanto introduces -- by my count -- 14 characters in under five minutes. And they do so while mixing English names with Spanish titles (abuela, tia, primo, etc.). That's a lot to keep track of!
And yet, the writers pull it off. Let's take a look:
How do they do this? And what writing lessons can we pull for our own stories?
Well, buckle up. Time for a deep dive into a Disney song.
Use Your Surroundings
Who's the first character introduced?
Kind of a trick question, but it happens in the first two seconds. Mirabel rushes down the stairs, greets the portrait on the wall. Morning, Abuelo!
The framed photo (plus the greeting) quickly implies her abuelo (grandpa) has passed away. Because he looks young in the photo, this is a clue that he passed away a long time ago.
More on this later, but the introduction of Abuelo also communicates traits about the main character, Mirabel, who hasn't even been named yet.
Using your surroundings "shows" the audience/reader rather than "tells." For example, compare these two options. One where an author explains something about Mirabel to the reader:
Mirabel loves her family. She cares about her family's history and takes time to honor those who came before her.
Versus an option where the author uses their surroundings to show the same idea:
Mirabel rushes down the stairs in the morning. "Morning, Abuelo!" she shouts as she passes a framed photo of her grandpa. In the photo, Abuelo looks only about ten years older than Mirabel.
The second one keeps the story moving and reads with a sense of action vs. sharing information.
The House and the Town are Also Characters
The house is a living character in Encanto. This won't be the case in most stories, but it's a good way to think about your main character's house/apartment. These are questions to ask when writing:
What does each room look like?
What types of photos/items are hanging on the walls?
Does your main character have a favorite spot?
One of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever received came from Heather Sellers. She taught an entire creative writing class based on "Town," an idea of starting a story with your location before even having characters or a plot. Build the town first and then see what stories emerge.
Encanto does a great job of this. The Madrigals aren't isolated from their town. For those who've seen the movie, the townspeople show up in a big way at the end.
One Memorable Trait (or quirk)
Movies and shows have the advantage of showing what characters look like. Book authors don't have the same luxury.
Because of this, one thing that often happens for authors is we'll introduce characters with physical descriptions. He's tall. She has blonde hair. He has a crew cut and broad shoulders. She has blue eyes, a sharp nose, and a big smile.
The problem is, these details aren't that interesting or noteworthy about a character. The reader will have a hard time storing this information, especially once multiple characters are introduced. It's like if you're interviewing a ton of people and all the resumes look the same, and all the people dressed the same, it starts to blur together.
Now, just like most books won't have a living, active house in their story, they also probably won't have a character whose mood affects the weather... But again, we can pluck a concept away from this, even if we have more "regular" characters.
Back to the interview example, when someone says: I took off a year and lived in Japan. Or I'm a black belt in taekwondo. Or I was a varsity Quidditch player in college. Suddenly they stand out from the blurry resume pile. The brain's like, "Oh, that's cool." Now they've gone from, "Wait, who's that again?" to a memorable person.
Same thing applies to your characters. Height, weight, haircuts, those all become a blur for the reader. But things like:
Deathly afraid of riding escalators
Loves cherry tomatoes but hates any other tomato
For some reason cringes every time they hear the word "yeast"
These will solidify the character faster in a reader's mind. It will feel counterintuitive, it's like why would the reader care about these things? Shouldn't I be explaining what they look like and sound like? Why would I talk about tomatoes?
Trust us. Talk about the tomatoes. Talk about if they like waffles or pancakes. Talk about how many showers they take per week. These things will bring the character into focus.
You're Still Driving the Big Story while Introducing Characters
Here are Abuela's lines in the song:
We swear to always,
Help those around us
And earn the miracle
That somehow found us
The town keeps growing
The world keeps turning
But work and dedication
Will keep the miracle burning
No wasted lines here. Earning the miracle. Work and dedication are the keys to everything. The Madrigals helping the town vs. the town helping the Madrigals. All of these views/beliefs will be challenged over the next 90 minutes and play a significant role in the story.
And, of course, we gotta talk about Bruno.
Takes all of 4 or 5 seconds, but we get this little detail about an uncle who's an outcast. The family doesn't talk about him. The townspeople don't talk about him either. So, who is this guy? What's the story here? Yeah, about that Bruno. I really need to know about Bruno!
The writers don't have to explain it yet. But this little nugget creates intrigue for the rest of the movie, leading up to one of the best Disney songs of all time later in the movie.
Contrast with the Main Character / Build Conflict
Every secondary character is a chance to say something about your main character.
Here's what I mean. This whole song, especially toward the end, the kids want to know what's Mirabel's gift. And she keeps dodging this question until it's finally revealed, "Oh, Mirabel didn't get one."
There are over a dozen characters introduced, but I'd say the main purpose of this song is to set up the conflict of Mirabel as the only one in the family without a gift.
Knowing this, now the details about her sisters -- one strong, one perfect in every way -- these go from being about the sisters to details about how Mirabel views herself. She is neither the strong one nor the graceful one. And while that doesn't seem to create conflict with Louisa (the strong one), we see friction between her and Isabela.
And it's not spelled out, but we can also see there being some potential tension between her not having a gift vs. Abuela's worldview.
And yet, Mirabel's happy. She loves her family. Loves telling the kids about their gifts. She's not bitter or downcast. As an audience, five minutes in, we already like this main character and want to know what's going to happen in her story -- even though the whole song was about other characters.
Good news -- you'll have more than five minutes to introduce characters in your book.
So keep these concepts in mind:
Use your surroundings
The house and town are characters
One memorable trait
Still drive the story
Contrast / conflict with main character
And you'll be off to a great story with your story.
But remember, there's no pressure 😉