I hope you admire me for trying to help the storytellers of the world by getting in-depth into ”Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling” (which aren’t really Pixar’s), whether or not you feel I succeed.
(1) You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
In the main, the statement rings true. It’s good foundational advice, especially since many storytellers “go too easy on” their characters because they like them. Drama comes from struggle, and empathy and admiration come from seeing someone trying in the face of difficult odds.
A film in which the protagonist never fails at anything is rather devoid of conflict and is unlikely to hold anyone’s interest, but the statement is ultimately about how the balance between seeing a character fail versus success impacts audience appreciation of the character — not plot dynamics.
Furthermore, most people consider themselves average, mundane even. When they try to do things, they focus on what they get wrong, and how far short of their own goals they’ve fallen. Characters who do the same thing will evoke empathy in the audience more readily, and thus they are more sympathetic.
A classic, easily understood example is the true underdog story, like Rudy. The everyman trying to do something only special men are supposed to be able to do. And Indiana Jones and John McClaine are beloved,”relatable” action adventure characters in their first films because they are vulnerable, both physically and emotionally.
But there an assumption in the premise of the statement that can also lead storytellers into trouble if they’re not careful: that characters need to be admired.
Sometimes you want a character to be more interesting more than admired, or even sympathetic — perhaps even going so far as interesting and questionable, unlikable, or even reviled.
And a character who succeeds more than she fails can be interesting.
Superhero stories often rely on this to establish that the hero is accustomed to easy success, and so is the world she protects — to underscore how powerful the bad guy really must be to upset this status quo.
Antihero stories can flip the trope to show you someone who is good at being bad, so when they’re trying to be good you know they’re giving up something that worked for them in order to change. (In fact, you can play it this way to underwrite any major character change, even in a character that’s not an antihero.)
And another “clever” use of flipping the trope comes in stories where the fact that the protagonist has no conflict in their life is their main source of conflict.
So, while the statement is true when your goal is to have your character fit the “admirable, sympathetic character that audiences easily empathize with” — that isn’t the only kind of character people will find engaging, so if that’s not what you’re doing, look at how you can change that success vs. failure balance to serve the character you’re creating.