During the winter season there was a fantastic exhibition at the Huntington that explored the connection between Disney animated movies and 19th Century French decorative arts, which included some really amazing panel discussions with the creators of Beauty and the Beast.
This in turn prompted me to revisit some of the classic Disney movies from the 80s and early 90s, including The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, which, some problematic elements aside, held up surprisingly well! (Okay maybe not The Black Cauldron).
Particularly because I now spend so much time editing novels, one thing that really struck me was an inescapable staple in the Disney formula: the early show-stopping song where the protagonist yearns for something more, also called the “I want” song.
You know the ones: “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, a tradition that has continued into the more recent movies, such as “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana.
And despite my post title, this isn’t limited to just the princesses. Aladdin has his with “One Jump Ahead,” and Simba’s got “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in The Lion King. Lin Manuel-Miranda also uses the form in “My Shot” in Hamilton.
So what’s going on here?
The yearning in “I want” songs
The “I want” song often literally includes the words “I want” or “I wish” and articulates a super-precise vision of the protagonist’s hopes and dreams.
“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid:
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty!
But who cares? No big deal, I want more…
I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancin’
Walking around on those – what do you call ’em? Oh – feet!
Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down a – what’s that word again? Street
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free – wish I could be
Part of that world
“Belle” and “Belle (Reprise)” from Beauty and the Beast:
There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Every morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town…
There must be more than this provincial life! …
No, sir! Not me!
I guarantee it
I want much more than this provincial life!
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
I want it more than I can tell
And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they’ve got planned…
“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from The Lion King:
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware!…
I’m gonna be the main event, like no king was before
I’m brushing up on looking down, I’m working on my roar!
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana:
I can lead with pride, I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?
See the light as it shines on the sea? It’s blinding
But no one knows, how deep it goes
And it seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me
And let me know, what’s beyond that line, will I cross that line?
See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, how far I’ll go
These songs all capture the gap between the protagonist’s present circumstances and their ultimate hopes and dreams. Ariel from The Little Mermaid complains about her father. Belle finds her town boring and Gaston boorish. Simba knows his roar isn’t there yet. Moana feels like she doesn’t fit in.
But they all have a burning desire for something more.
The power of hopes and dreams
There are two main benefits for establishing a protagonist’s hopes and dreams early in a story.
First and most importantly, we tend to want what the protagonist wants. The “I want” song puts down an early marker that gets us investing in whether the protagonist will achieve their vision and arrive somewhere new. Particularly when what the protagonist wants is noble and/or universal, we start rooting for them.
And as the protagonist puts skin in the game and starts overcoming obstacles, we get more invested too. We judge the climax against the dreams that were established at the outset.
Secondly, you learn a great deal about a character by seeing their very precise hopes and dreams. These lyrics don’t stop at someone just wanting to be a “great warrior” or a “noble queen,” which are generic desires and could mean many different things, they get very specific about the particular nuances in the vision.
Howard Ashman’s mesmerizing lyrics in The Little Mermaid give us an indelible portrait of Ariel, a stubborn, quirky, curious, guileless character who wants to experience the world beyond her own. The specificity of the song is much more precise than “I wish I were human.” We have specific images of walking, dancing, being warm on the sand, figuring out the deal with fire, escaping parental reprimands, which captures a very specific individual.
Similarly, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” gets specific about what kind of king Simba wants to be. He’s not dreaming of being a benevolent king setting tax policy for the animal kingdom, he has an adolescent yearning to make people look up to him and his mighty roar. Essentially, being big and tough. It captures his youthful ambition and naivety, which of course soon gets exploited by his uncle, but forms the basis of what’s deep within him that he must rediscover in time for the climax.
Precisely articulate the desires
So what does this mean for novels?
It’s really important to be in tune with your protagonist’s hopes and dreams and to make sure those desires and motivations are either readily apparent or, better yet, are articulated on the page.
And specificity is everything.
Paint a super clear picture of the desires so the reader can see and feel it, all the way down to the embroidery on the rug the character is going to place in their palace so their enemies can stare at it while they’re bowing down. That’s a very different type of royal than someone who is going to ride a white horse in a parade boasting their fearsome army or hold raucous festivals every weekend, and it captures different personality types.
Even if you don’t even like Disney movies particularly much, there’s still something to be learned here. Even a literary classic like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison articulates the protagonist’s motivations with clarity and specificity.
You’re not going to have an “I want” song at the start of the novel because you’re not writing a musical, but think a great deal about how you can craft the novelistic equivalent.
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Art: Joean Honoré Fragonard – The Swing
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