"Hey! Grew to live in fear of Bruno stuttering or stumbling
I could always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling
I associate him with the sound of falling sand (ch-ch-ch)
It's a heavy lift, with a gift so humbling
Always left Abuela and the family fumbling
Grappling with prophecies they couldn't understand
Do you understand?"
- "We Don't Talk About Bruno"
I recently saw a meme that sums up the month of January, 2022 perfectly. It read, “Parents: You are not going to make it out of January without getting COVID or getting ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ stuck in your head.”
It’s true. Leave it to Encanto composer and lyrical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda to not only write one of the catchiest songs from a movie ever, but dethrone “Let It Go” as the biggest Disney hit since the animated renaissance of the mid-1990’s.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” totally bops. More than that, though, it is the centerpiece of Encanto’s story, a showcase of the Madrigal family’s chaos in general and the characters’ neuroses in specific.
And, as we are exploring in Creativity Matters this month, Encanto as a whole is a perfect tool for exploring how great writing works. In this case, we can learn from “Bruno” how to add depth to characters by considering how they see the reality of their circumstances and the people in their lives.
Where in the Story Are We?
As I mentioned last week, I highly recommend watching the entire film so you can get the most out of these blog posts and writing lessons. But just in case you haven’t caught up yet, here’s where we are, picking up from where our synopsis left off.
At this point in the film, our heroine, Mirabel, has discovered that the secret of what is causing the Madrigal family home to fall apart lies with Bruno, Abuela’s estranged son. Bruno’s gift is foretelling the future, which has had drastic implications, since his family as a whole is not ready or willing to accept his revelations.
After revealing a particularly disturbing prophecy regarding Mirabel herself, Bruno goes into exile. Mirabel discovers the prophecy and realizes that the only way to unlock its meaning is to find out what happened to him…and unfortunately, the best way to do that is to bring up the sore subject with her family.
Cue “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”
But it’s more than just a catchy song, or even one of the most hilarious montages in a Disney movie ever. It’s an instructive lesson about character development and dialogue. Let’s dig in and see what it can teach writers.
Dispensing Character Information
The drama of the “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” sequence is that Mirabel’s relatives (including some unnamed townsfolk who have a bone to pick with Bruno) are telling her—and the audience by extension—about their experiences with him.
That means everything we hear during this scene is shaping our view of a character we haven’t even met yet.
What we already know about Bruno before the Madrigals break into song is pretty sketchy. He used to live in a creepy tower with a dark cave, which has lain abandoned since his departure. There are broken pieces of his vision of Mirabel all over the floor. Plus, he can see into the future, which is just weird in general.
But after hearing key players in the family tell multiple Bruno stories (while simultaneously singing a song about how they don’t talk about Bruno), our perception of him completely explodes from information overload.
From the characters, we learn the following things:
· Bruno made it not just rain, but hurricane on emotionally distraught, weather-making Pepa’s wedding day
· Nobody in the family understood Bruno’s gift, which created a lot of anxiety for Abuela and the others. Also, according to Mirabel’s cousin Dolores, whose gift is super-hearing, he may or may not still be living in the house.
· Bruno is approximately seven feet tall, has rats climbing all over him, can read people’s minds, and takes pleasure in scaring people
· His prophecies tend to be detrimental to everyone he comes in contact with (except for oldest daughter Isabela, who has been told she’ll get everything she’s ever wanted and more).
All these details about Bruno have something in common: they are more of a reflection of the person describing him than a reflection of Bruno himself.
For instance, Pepa is a drama queen who is led by her emotions 99 percent of the time. This is a problem considering that her gift is that her emotions affect the weather—according to Mirabel, “When she’s unhappy, whoa, the temperature gets weird.” Her gift can be used for the benefit of others, but only if she exercises self-control, which she isn’t too great at doing.
It isn’t Bruno’s fault that the clear skies of her wedding day were transformed into a raging storm. Maybe he should have known better than to comment that it looked like rain was coming, but overall, this one’s on Pepa for letting it get to her.
Similarly, the description that Camilo, the oldest boy in the family, gives of Bruno as a rat-covered monster tells us more about him as a jokester and attention-seeker than about Bruno. There’s a hint of truth to this monologue—Bruno does indeed cavort with rats. But when we finally do meet him, the rest of the description doesn’t exactly add up.
As for Isabela…she just makes it all about her. Actually, they all do. They, in fact, do not talk about Bruno as much as they talk about themselves.
How can you employ this same technique in your work? When you write dialogue, don’t just think about what your characters are talking about on the surface.
Think about what their words reveal about them.
Think about what their attitudes toward other characters reveal about them.
Use dialogue as a way to not just advance the story, but tell readers who the characters really are, even if they aren’t directly talking about themselves.
Engage the Audience’s Judgment
One of my favorite writing teachers, Jonathan Rogers, talks a lot in his classes about what it means to engage the reader’s judgment—allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about what is going on in a story rather than explicitly stating it.
We get a LOT of information about Bruno in this song…but it’s up to us to use our best judgment to determine what is true and what isn’t.
And of course, when we finally do meet Bruno, it gives us a whole new look into the level of dysfunction this family operates with.
A lot of this is done through characterization, as we’ve already discussed. But it’s not directly spelled out. We still need to be smart viewers and determine whose perspective is reliable and whose is not.
Of course, by the end of the song, we can see that none of them gives a reliable perspective. They are all too concerned with serving their own desires. There may be a hint of truth in each of their descriptions, but as we’re listening to their various treatises on Bruno, we have to figure out what is accurate and what isn’t.
The point is that when you are writing conversations where characters discuss a polarizing person, or even an event that they have different perspectives of, you need to consider what their interpretation of reality is and how skewed it might be.
In real life, we each have our own relationship to the facts of a situation, and whether we realize it or not, we choose to see it a certain way based on preconceived ideas that rarely have a close relationship with reality.
Considering how each of your characters chooses to respond to their reality can add greater dimension to them as well as the overall story.
Don’t Forget About Minor Characters
It’s worth noting that even though she’s clearly the protagonist, Mirabel isn’t the character audiences are having the most visceral response to (even though she’s awesome).
More than any other Disney film, people are extremely invested in the supporting characters.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” isn’t a power ballad sung by a princess. It’s an ensemble piece that showcases all the key Madrigal players. Last week, we also mentioned that Luisa is an enormous fan favorite despite breaking every possible rule about what defines Disney heroines.
The emotional impact of Encanto is anchored in its supporting cast, not the arc of the central character. The story succeeds in making the characters’ desires, quirks, motivations, and flaws crystal clear even if their screen time is relatively limited.
I mean, I even feel kind of bad for that lady whose fish died.
It reminds me of going to see live theatre (which I’m so thrilled we get to do again). When I go to musicals, I spend most of the show watching not the lead performers, but the ensemble players.
While the main story is unfolding, true professionals in the ensemble are playing out stories of their own with characters they’ve created. I love seeing the creative stage business they come up with, the peripheral storylines that grab my attention.
The primary action of the story is great, but it’s the humanity of how the people around the principle characters respond that gives the show’s world depth and dimension.
Don’t get so caught up in fleshing out your main characters that you let other players in the story become cardboard cutouts. Perhaps readers will find them just as memorable—maybe even more.
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