I just finished watching the Pixar movie Soul (2020) and a question popped into my head: “what is a focal character?” and “who is the focal character in this movie?”. So I started doing some research and found the answers in the book “Techniques of the selling writer” by Dwight V. Swain.
What is a focal character?
“The person on whom the spotlight focuses; the center of attention; the man whose actions dominate the screen”– Techniques of the selling writer
The focal character is that one person (or in this case being) that the audience is most invested in. It could be a protagonist, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the focal character is an ally, a neutral member of the cast, or even the antagonist.
What we mean when we say that the audience is invested in this character isn’t really that they love it, but rather that they are curious to see what happens to it in the course of the story. Will he be defeated by the villain? Will she be defeated by the hero? Will they finally get to eat the taco they ordered?
Who do we focus on? Joe or 22?
Our protagonist is Joe, an American music teacher who dreams of becoming a famous jazz musician. 22 is the second most important character in the story, a soul that has spent centuries in the great before and doesn’t intend to leave it.
In the first act of the movie, our focal character is Joe. We follow him in his day to day life, meet the people he loves, learn about his passions, and root for him to be able to come back to life.
Then 32 comes around. We transition from one focal character to another in the mentoring sequence; Joe shows his life to 22 and then they try together to “find her spark”.
22, and also the audience, have the chance to see Joe’s life from the perspective of an outsider who sees his longing for success as sad and desperate. When they leave, we get to see 22’s detachment and apathy from the point of view of someone who strives to achieve a dream but can’t.
This type of back and forth with the audience’s focus allows the writers to present both characters as equals. They’re not protagonist and sidekick, they’re two lost people who need each other’s help to move on.
The same type of back and forth is used all throughout the second act of the movie, while they’re both on Earth.
We see 22 experiencing the simple joys of life through Joe’s eyes, and we see Joe finding new meaning in his old life through 22’s curiosity.
By making both of them the focal character and dividing their time equally, the writers of Soul (2020) manage to two points of view on the same individual. Joe can be seen as driven and passionate, but also stubborn and obsessed. While 22 can be considered both curious and attentive, but also insecure and selfish.
Why do we need a focal character?
“The focal character has 3 main functions: provide continuity, give meaning, create feeling”Techniques of the selling writer
Picture 3 rooms: in the first one a meek accountant finishes a crossword puzzle, in the second one a middle-aged woman holds the same yoga pose for 2 minutes, in the third one a kid plays Tetris on his phone.
What’s special about this story? Think about it, what makes this story so incredibly amazing, entertaining, and significant? Nothing. Those are 3 boring people doing 3 boring activities.
Let’s add another character: a door-to-door seller. As our guy rings the bell, the accountant listens to his sales pitch with interest but tells him that he has no intention to buy his product.
The middle-aged woman opens the door and then slams it in his face yelling that he interrupted her yoga session.
And finally, the third door doesn’t open at all because the kid is not allowed to talk to strangers when the parents aren’t home.
The salesman goes to a park, sits on a bench, and sighs. He takes out of his pocket a pamphlet for a beautiful house on sale and tears it apart, sobbing.
What’s the difference between the first story and the second one? The second one has continuity, meaning, and feeling. All provided by the focal character.
Soul (2020): focal characters in harmony
So, now we know two things: the focal character is the heart of the story, and both our lost souls are the focal characters of the movie.
In the first act and the third act, Joe is our focal character, while in the second act he shares the spotlight with 22.
Switching from one to the other gives us a great opportunity to “shake things up” and make sure that the audience is still engaged in the “new” story that’s been presented to them.
Joe’s goal is simple: coming back to life so that he can fulfill his dream of performing with the greatest jazz musicians. Its simplicity makes it easier to relate to and to root for, however, it also makes the script predictable.
We already know that there’s going to be a happy ending with a moral lesson. This is a Pixar movie after all, what did you expect? A story where the main character dies when he is merely hours away from his dream and simply goes “Well, I guess I’ll give up and go say hi to my great great great great grandfather”.
22 arrives at the perfect time, before Joe’s story gets stale, but after we have spent some time getting to know him. She has her own goal: not living.
In the sequence inside the Great Before, where Joe and 22 get to know each other, we realize something very important: both their goals are misguided. They’re illusions that they have decided to believe in order to shield themselves from the truth.
Joe has dedicated his life to something that doesn’t really make him happy, even though he enjoys it. And 22 is living (or not living) in a place where she is unhappy but still is convinced that this is better than Earth.
Now the question that keeps the audience watching is not “Will Joe manage to perform with sassy saxophone lady?” but rather “How will Joe and 22 help each other live better?”.
Joe’s story is the overarching plot that provides continuity and creates feeling.
22’s story carries the message of the movie (gives meaning) while also allowing us to feel new things.
Why the focal character is important
“The lack of strong central figures to cheer for or throw rocks at takes the steam out of the story”
In summary, a central figure allows the audience to invest their feelings in the story that’s being told, see themselves in the characters, and understand the message that the writer wants to send through his work.