With the upcoming live action remake of the 1989 Disney classic The Little Mermaid, we wanted to take a look at what makes a character like Ariel, the protagonist of the animated feature, someone who writers can observe when creating their own characters.
Even if you’re working on a story in a different genre, the character breakdown of Ariel can teach you about setting up the story, devising a backstory, building family dynamics and using familiar character traits to make a character relatable to your audience.
Here are some of the aspects that make Ariel such a beloved character that audiences have celebrated for over thirty years and who also started a major Disney run of successful animated features which included treasured princesses such as Belle, Jasmine and Pocahontas.
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Rebellious Young Female
If there’s one thing that Disney princesses are known for, it’s their rebellious nature.
Ariel dreams of life outside the water, up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun. Against her father’s wishes, she explores shipwrecks and goes above the surface to watch the humans on land or ships. She collects their items and wants to know all about people. King Triton, her father, is furious when he learns of her going to the surface, believing that humans are barbarians and dangerous. What appears to be an authoritarian rule is really just a concerned Dad, but Ariel can’t see that.
Ariel refuses to accept her father’s thinking, and she goes against his wishes because she wants something more than “life under the sea.”
Longing for more is something Disney princesses are known for. Moana wonders what is beyond the reef and ultimately travels where she’s forbidden to go. Jasmine frequently sabotages suitors because she believes it is her choice to whom she wants. And Rapunzel yearns for life outside her tower.
Ariel is no different. She’s the young woman who is eager to test her boundaries and explore what lies behind her walled off world.
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Too Naïve, Too Trusting
Everything from Ariel’s ribbing of her pal Flounder to her believing everything Scuttle the seagull tells her about the items she collects (like a fork being called a dinglehopper and its function being like a comb), indicates she’s naïve and inexperienced in the world.
This means the character will get in over their head and undergo a coming-of-age moment in which they need to correct the mistakes they’ve made. For Ariel, she is willing to fall for Ursula’s persuasive tactics to become human for three days – the catch being that Ursula will hold onto her voice. Should Ariel succeed by getting true love’s kiss from Eric, the man she knows nothing about but loves wholeheartedly, she will remain human and live happily ever after. If she fails, she becomes a soulless worm under Ursula’s control.
Being overly infatuated with Eric and a romantic at heart, Ariel accepts the nefarious deal.
Most writers don’t want their characters to be this naïve, but here it adds value to the story. It’s no different than a horror movie when everyone knows the character shouldn’t check out the noise in the basement with a barely functional flashlight. Being naïve or trusting opens the door to create scenarios that engage audiences because they wonder how this character will overcome the obstacles in front of them.
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A Fish Out of Water
When Ariel gets her legs, she literally becomes a fish (or mermaid) out of water. Everything that was set up at the beginning regarding how humans behave and the items they use start to play out. For instance, she uses the fork at the dinner table to comb her hair and she blows ash into a man’s face when she uses his pipe.
Fish out of water must learn about the world in which they find themselves. Ariel gets a tour of Eric’s kingdom and discovers amazing things she could never dream of from under the sea. This is common in lots of movies and TV shows including Black Panther: Wakanda Forever when Shuri explores the undersea world of the enemy or in Tangled when Rapunzel roams the world that her mother has kept hidden from her.
A fish out of water scenario plays on your character’s expectations and introduces the audience to a new world from a fresh pair of eyes.
Ariel’s story is a coming-of-age tale of a young teenager forced to grow up quickly and realize the world isn’t as innocent as it may seem. When we first meet Ariel, there is very little about her world that challenges her. She’s a teenager who falls in love with prince, only she can’t actually speak to this person.
As she struggles with the decision to become human, Ariel grasps with the reality of the situation should she sign Ursula’s contract and what growing up and moving away to the human world means.
“If I become a human, I’ll never see my father or sisters again,” Ariel says aloud to Ursula.
“Life’s full of tough decisions,” Ursula replies.
And this is where she starts coming of age.
This bad deal with a sea witch leads to Ariel to getting what she wants – a chance to be with Prince Eric. That is until Ursula returns and tries to snatch it all away. This is Ariel’s moment to rise to the occasion and prove she isn’t a naïve sixteen-year-old but someone willing to fight for what’s important: both her father and the love of her life.
Coming-of-age is about characters who start out young and innocent, but then they have to face the reality of their world and make a big decision. It was Ariel’s decisions that led her down the road to disaster, but in the end, it’s up to her to save King Triton, Eric and the sea kingdom from a powerful villain.
There are other factors that help create a compelling lead character.
The hero of the story must have real stakes, a great antagonist who challenges them and supporting characters helping to drive their story. In The Little Mermaid, the story grows beyond a young girl trying to get the attention of a young boy. It’s about an overly protective father, a witch trying to claim the throne by any means necessary and a group of friends who will do anything to watch their friend succeed.
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Author: Steven Hartman