Iconic characters in animation

Animated characters can and do take on a life of their own. Why do some succeed in capturing our hearts and minds and others are largely forgettable? What attributes do these characters have in common that makes them so memorable and recognizable? Why do they have staying power?

Let’s start by looking at a few examples.

The Grinch – Dr. Seuss’s and his not so lovable green guy have replaced Charles Dickens and Scrooge for a whole new generation. He’s green, he’s bitter and full of revenge. In the end, due to an innocent and well-meaning child who reaches out to him, he has a change of heart and is redeemed.


Lightning McQueen and Tomater – These two become fast friends in the movie Cars. Lightning McQueen, a racecar, is the protagonist of the movie and he meets Mater, the towtruck, when he ends up in jail in a remote town. At first, he just wants to do whatever he has to to get back on the road. However, Mater is put in charge of him and shows Lightining the true nature of genuine friendship and that fun can be had even in a nowhere backwater of a town. Lightning is humbled and changed by his new relationships.


Woody and Buzz – Woody is the favorite toy until he’s place is usurped by Buzz Lightyear. Buzz quickly becomes his nemesis is every way. Woody causes Buzz to fall out of the upstairs bedroom window thus setting off a series of misadventures where the twosome find themselves getting into and out of one predicament after another. Finally, they are able to overcome their differences in their quest to get back to the little boy that owns them, and they become friends.


There are more we could look at, but there is enough pattern already establishing itself here for us to pause and look at the commonality. How are these characters alike?

  1. They encounter difficulty in their lives. Something comes about that causes them pain or discomfort.
  2. They are censored and/or judged by others.
  3. They are offered friendship and relationship.
  4. They change as a result of the new friendships.
  5. They find redemption.

An animator can do proficient, successful work in creating a character’s look and feel. Ultimately, the character’s staying power is dependent on much more than mere appearance. Only when the character faces hardship, encounters relationship and is changed for the better by all of it, will he or she endure.