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The Toy Story Dilemma

Does Woody really have a change of heart...or does he strengthen his resolve?

In the search for a grand unified theory of narrative, many land short. Whether myopic in their understanding or limited in their perspective, these paradigms of the past left many a writer shaking their head no. If it works it should work, without exception.

One of the nice things about the Dramatica theory of story is the complete lack of caveats. Every other paradigm or structural model comes chock full of exceptions and sidebars and excuses why this film doesn’t fit or why that one is the exception to the rule. My initial attraction to the Dramatica was based on the fact that it made no excuses for its interpretation of narrative: this was how story worked and you didn’t have to look at it sideways in order to make some films or novels fit.

However, one thing about it has always given me grief. Toy Story.

Six Years Strong

After six years of teaching story development at the California Institute of the Arts and hundreds of articles written for Narrative First, I continue to pride myself on delivering an understanding of story without equivocation. Bold statements and revelations of narrative must exist without exception lest they be seen as false and unworthy of attention.

Pixar’s first film has always been a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to teaching the concept of Main Character Resolve. The original analysis for Toy Story—the one that comes shipped with the application—sees Woody as the Change character and Buzz as the Steadfast character. Both characters can’t change their resolve—the entire theory rests on this concept.1 Yet Buzz clearly adopts a brand new way of solving problems.

How can this be?

One Changes While the Other Remains Steadfast

Every complete and meaningful story ever written works this way: Two characters meet, each with their own unique way of seeing the world and their own unique way of solving problems. They butt heads. One thinks he knows the best way, the other knows she has the right approach. They continue to duke it out until the very end of the story when one of them adopts the other’s approach. This change of heart finalizes the story, bringing everything to either a successful conclusion or a miserable failure.

This is how an Author provides meaning to their story’s events. In essence, the writer is saying, “Look, here are two equally valid approaches to solving this particular problem. When one gives to the other, it will always lead to this outcome.” Some refer to this as the message of the story. Some say this is what gives a story meaning. Message sounds preachy and meaning sounds esoteric. They both see the same thing within the structure of a story: an argument for how to solve a problem.

A Better Understanding

With this in mind, it is clear that Woody is the Steafast Character and Buzz is the Change Character. In the beginning Buzz thinks he is a Space Ranger. The impact he has on Woody stems from this dysfunctional psychology. If he were to Reamin Steadfast—as the original analysis calls for—then he would still belabor under these delusions.

He doesn’t.

Contrast this with Woody who matures into his point-of-view. At the beginning of the story Woody tells Buzz, “It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with—what matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us.” Now, he only sort of believes this at the start. One gets the sense that Woody is slightly patronizing the other toys. Nevertheless this is what he believes. This is his point-of-view.

This perspective grows over the course of the story until it becomes so strong that Woody is willing to risk everything to make it happen. It feels like a “change” because he has accepted how much of a selfish jerk he has been to everyone, but it’s really more an acceptance of his original point-of-view. In order to change his resolve—or “flip” his perspective the way Dramatica inteprets a character’s Change of Resolve—he would have to disavow Andy and claim his own identity. He would have had to adopt Buzz’s dysfunctional point-of-view. This is how a story works and this is not what happened.

Caveats of Disservice

In animation there is nothing worse than an animator prefacing the shot they are showing with all the things they know are wrong. In an effort to save face, they downgrade the value of their work and set the viewer up with lowered expectations.

Same thing here.

Having to sidestep and backtrack and make excuses or reasons why an analysis is the way it is does a disservice to the theory. If a writer sees exceptions to Dramatica’s “rules” or in any official analysis, they begin to question the accuracy of entire thing. Once doubt and trepidation sets in, the relative value and usefulness of such a tool plummets.

The original analysis of Toy Story states:

The Change/Steadfast storyform dynamic was a difficult one to determine for this story. It is obviously the authors’ intent that both of the principal characters, Woody and Buzz, appear to change—to in effect “meet halfway” in their respective stances—in order to communicate a message of cooperation and friendship to children.

But Woody doesn’t meet halfway when it comes to his belief in the importance of toys. If anything his resolve grows stronger. Woody’s “digging in of his heels” on this issue leads Buzz to finally see the light and accept his own plastic value for Andy.

For the sake of the storyform, however, one of the two needs to be seen as the Change character and the other Steadfast.

Yikes. This verges on confirmation bias and sets Dramatica up as a paradigm of story structure, rather than the understanding of human psychology that it is.

Buzz’s “change” seems to occur when he embraces the fact that he’s really Andy’s toy, and puts his energies into reuniting with Andy rather than leaving for outer space. In terms of his IMPACT, however (the Influence Character should always be seen in terms of his impact), Buzz is the same person at the end of the story as when he first arrives—charismatic, full of bravado, and the coolest toy in town. Woody’s “change” is more significant to the meaning of the story, in that he ceases to view Buzz as a rival to be defeated, and comes to embrace the value of friendship.

Again, Woody’s embracing the “value of friendship” reaffirms his initial stance that a toy’s main purpose was to be there for Andy. Buzz’s arrival and the insuing separation challenged that resolve, but in the end Woody finally realizes the importance of his own words. He sets aside his own selfishness in order to actualize his own point-of-view.

That’s a Steadfast character.

Six Years Wrong

I’ve always cringed when it came to discussing Toy Story in class. Inevitably some student would raise their hand and smugly ask, “How can Buzz be a Steadfast character? He totally Changes.” I would stumble over some half-ass answer about “substories” or how “Buzz’s IMPACT on Woody doesn’t Change” (also from the original analysis), but inside I would be struggling with the duplicitness of my answer.

I don’t have to anymore.

Dramatica’s concepts of Resolve and Growth are so closely intwined and so prejudiced with inidividual interpretations of change that one must be careful to accurately define the points-of-view present in the two principal characters. Yes, Woody has issues of being played with, but they aren’t selfish issues. He struggles more with the wisdom of his own words and his mental mastery over the other toys. He’s wiser then the other guys. So why then must he deal with this new toy who obviously knows nothing about the real world?! This is what truly hits home with Woody and what he must ultimately deal with.

The question of Change/Steafast in Toy Story was once addressed with this:

The Change in Resolve that Dramatica looks for happens very near the end of the story, or if you like, at the end of the argument. Remember, a storyform acts as an elaborate understanding of the argument—or message—the Author wants to convey. One can’t end an argument before all points have been considered. Thus, the Change in Resolve that happens closest to the end of a story carries the primary argument of the story.

You can’t get much closer to the climax of the story then Buzz famously declaring, “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” That classic line clearly shows Buzz adopting Woody’s point-of-view (Woody said it the day he met Buzz). The once Space Ranger has now accepted the accuracy of Woody’s perspective and that acceptance leads directly to them landing safely in Andy’s car. Resolve tied to Outcome and Judgment in a process known as making an argument.

This is the power and strength of Dramatica.

Without caveat.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The new storyform for Toy Story, based on the analysis above would look something like this: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, How Things are Changing, FactNon-accurate.

While it shares some of the same thematic material from the original, particularly in the case of the Dynamic Appreciations, there are some key differences that seem to ring truer. Buzz’s switch from Non-Accurate to Accurate speaks more of his growth then Unending and Ending. Buzz had no real drive to keep things going.

While the toys are under constant Threat, the real issue at stake here is the Fact that they’re living breathing entities, not just toys. The fact that they can be discarded and thrown away at any moment creates havoc within their group.

And finally the issue of Value works much better in regards to the relationship between Woody and Buzz than Worry. Their value to Andy, the value of friendship—these are key issues in their relationship. Diving down further we see Cause as the Problem between them. The moment they stop blaming each other and start focusing on the effects their actions have on others and the effect they can have on Andy—that’s when their friendship finally comes to fruition.


  1. In regards to the two principal characters in a story, one will Change while the other one will Remain Steadfast. There is a reason for this↩︎

Concepts covered: Main Character Resolve & Influence Character Resolve.

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