Karl Iglesias gets at Pixar’s Emotional Core

Karl Iglesias is an MFA Screenwriter and instructor; he teaches Writing for

Karl Iglesias

Karl Iglesias

Emotional Impact at the UCLA Writer’s Program.  His books have made the top 3 list on Amazon’s screenwriters books. His course can also be found on Writer’s University online. At the Screenwriter’s World Conference in Hollywood recently, he divulged how Pixar creates cartoon characters everybody loves (advocating character-driven stories):

According to Iglesias, there is only one rule in story-telling…

EmotionalCoreAt Pixar, John Lasseter talks about the emotional core. He’s coming from $7B at the box office, 13 movies, 26 Oscars, and 6 Best Animated Features. This is the power of storytelling. Pixar is obsessed: they spend years developing the story reel, honing it down to the emotional core.

The emotional core, according to Iglesias, comes from a mixture of character connection, emotional stakes, and worthy motivation. He has a webinar of it here.

On character connection, and building empathy, he quotes Frank Capra (America’s pre-eminent filmmaker during the Great Depression… think Turner Classic Movies): “The whole thing is you’ve got to make them care about something“.  If you care about them [a story’s characters], you’ll follow them through their emotional journey.

PixarPostersIglesias would take you through a range of movie posters from Pixar’s cartoons and ask you to notice that all Pixar cartoons have eyes. Human-like eyes. Eyes, the windows to one’s soul. Through these posters, relationships are telegraphed to audiences. You know there’ll be a satisfying emotional aspect to the story.

Reader engagement comes from caring for the characters and then conflict – this means we have to hope, and worry for the characters, and this is how tension gets built up. Iglesias chunks down how:

Caring + Conflict = Hope + Worry = Tension

  • Make us feel sorry for your characters
  • Give them humanistic traits (make us care: make them care for something other than themselves)
  • Give them qualities we admire

Sorry for:

  • Undeserved mistreatment, injustice (esp. if it’s a defenseless character) : Forest Gump, The Elephant Man
  • Undeserved misfortune (tragedy, bad luck)
  • Physical and/or mental handicap
  • Frustration or humiliation
  • Abandonment: Ratatouile
  • Betrayal
  • Loneliness and neglect

Humanistic traits:

  • Show humanity in private moments (esp. if privacy is invaded and there is humiliation)
  • Show them helping a friend or the less fortunate
  • Show them relating to children, and liking them
  • “Patting the dog” (saving the cat)
  • Risking their life for another
  • Self-sacrificing or dying for a just cause
  • Any nurturing act (display kindness, caring, generosity)

Qualities we admire:

  • Power and charisma (a leader)
  • Courage (physical, mental)
  • Passion
  • Skilled at what he/she does (this happens a lot in romantic comedies)
  • Wit and cleverness
  • Sense of humor
  • Active rather than passive
  • Surrounded by others who adore him/her (again, see romantic comedies)

Emotional Stakes: We care about somebody if they have a worthy motivation (we want them to succeed, so we worry when there is an obstacle in their way – if this obstacle insurmountable, you have high emotional stakes). What would happen if they failed to accomplish their main goal? Hint: It should always be “Death” (physical or emotional). Each sequence/scene should have emotional stakes. Most of the time, especially with Pixar, emotional stakes are so high that characters live a miserable, lonely, life.

Worthy Motivations: It’s not the act itself that is important, it’s why the character is doing it. Some examples:

  • survival and security
  • love
  • duty
  • justice
  • honor
  • patriotism
  • dignity
  • redempton
  • self-respect
  • doing something good for another character
  • Toy Story: save a friend
  • A Bug’s Life: save a village
  • Monsters, Inc. : save a city, girl
  • Wall-E: love, save the earth
  • Up: fulfil a promise to a dead wife

Iglesias urges us to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and use this as a guide for ways to increase emotional stakes. He points out that stakes are naturally higher with survival (physiological needs).


He would play the first five minutes of Finding Nemo, and compare and contrast it with the first five minutes of Shark Tale, to show you that nobody does it better than Pixar.

Iglesias argues that a good (character driven) story has three spires: the External Spire (Goal – Objectives), the Inner Spire (Need – Inner Conflict) and Relationship Spire (Central Argument).

He reminds us: Do not be boring.


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