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Script Classics: Everything I Needed to Know About Character Development I Learned From a Fish

Author, playwright and screenwriter Wendy Whitbeck delves into the unique underwater characters of the box-office hit Finding Nemo to explore how combining this particular mix of characters melded to create a totally memorable movie with strong character development.

Author, playwright and screenwriter Wendy Whitbeck delves into the unique underwater characters of the box-office hit Finding Nemo to explore how combining this particular mix of characters melded to create a totally memorable movie with strong character development.

At the time of this writing, the Disney/Pixar smash hit Finding Nemo has crushed box-offices worldwide bringing in well over $300 million. The reasons behind this enormous success can be chalked up to more than just the sheer muscle power of the powerhouses that created the heartwarming, feel-good flick.

Author, playwright and screenwriter Wendy Whitbeck delves into the unique underwater characters of the box-office hit Finding Nemo to explore how combining this particular mix of characters melded to create a totally memorable movie with strong character development.

What is it that propels Finding Nemo fins and tails above other movies? Characters. Rich, colorful characters that react and interact with the story’s dual protagonists. Characters that audiences around the world care about.

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By far, the biggest challenge that screenwriters face is to create characters that viewers can relate to, cheer for and cry with. Finding Nemo gives viewers not just one memorable character but a movie full of them. Each and every character encountered by our protagonists possesses original personality traits; a good side, a bad side, a paradox and of course, a unique voice.

In this article, we are going to explore the elements that writers Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds have combined to develop an ocean full of wonderfully rounded characters. Using these elements in your own tale might just see your movie become the next blockbuster!

The Protagonists

Finding Nemo provides a unique scenario in that it features not one but two protagonists. Using more than one protagonist can be tricky business if writers aren’t careful to ensure that each individual protagonist is treated as just that: an individual. Just because there is more than one protagonist doesn’t mean that the writers get off the hook any easier. Each and every protagonist must grow and change throughout the course of the story just as a single protagonist would. Let’s take a closer look at Finding Nemo’s protagonists:


Our first impression of Marlin sets up the entire movie. Here we have a fish that is very much in love and full of wonder at the ocean in which he lives. When tragedy strikes in the form of a barracuda, we feel Marlin’s pain. But the loss of his wife and children does more for the story than provide a bone-chilling cinematic moment. Marlin’s loss helps viewers overlook the character faults that he develops as a result of the devastation that he has just endured.

After the barracuda attack we see what Marlin has become—the epitome of over-protective parenting. Every action Marlin takes runs the risk of smothering his son, all the while he’s trying to ensure that “nothing ever happens to him." The new, and not so improved, Marlin is now a clown fish that doesn’t know a single joke—a great paradox. While this provides a fair amount of comic relief, it also tells us a lot about the new Marlin: He takes life very seriously, he has forgotten how to have fun and there is no longer room in his life for laughter as it is now controlled by fear.

Now, what’s the one thing that we
have to remember about the ocean?

That it’s not safe.

That’s my boy.

Had the writers not set up Marlin’s loss early on in the story we might have found these qualities to be annoying, whiny, perhaps overbearing. Instead, we understand his pain. We can relate. After all, he is what he is out of a combination of love and fear for his son’s safety.


Our second protagonist is equally as well-developed. Nemo has spent his life to date trying to compensate for the “small fin” that he was born with. But Nemo is also content to let his father fight life’s battles for him. This is demonstrated when Nemo gets sucked into a plant; he is complacent in knowing that his father will come along and pluck him out, hence he really doesn’t have to try to get out of the predicament himself.

Again, the initial set-up helps to demonstrate the significance of the resulting father-son relationship, as well as creating sympathies for the small fish that never knew his mother.

When Nemo finally ventures out of his anemone to go to school, he is initially embarrassed of his fin. This doesn’t last long as Finding Nemo’s writers skillfully crafted the other students which Nemo encounters to also have slight imperfections. The imperfections range from the short tentacle to:

I’m H20 intolerant.

I’m obnoxious.

Nemo now knows that he’s not all that different and that no one is, in fact, perfect.

The first real test of Nemo’s character then occurs at the drop off. Why does Nemo swim out to the boat? To prove to his father that he isn’t afraid. Up until this point in his life he was happy to stay in his father’s “safe zone," but not anymore. This is the beginning of the change that takes place in Nemo’s character arc.

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An Ocean Full of Supporting Characters

The crux of any great character development plan is the interaction with the supporting characters in your story. Characters should grow and change as a result of the interaction with these supporting characters. If your supporting characters fall flat, no matter how great your protagonists are, your movie will also fall flat.

Some of the less than ordinary supporting characters that round out Finding Nemo’s stellar cast are:


At first glance this steely, razor sharp-toothed shark meets everyone’s preconceived notion of what a shark should be. The writers didn’t let us down though, as they added another dimension to the stereotypical, making Bruce a treasure trove of contradictions with proclamations such as:

I am a nice shark, not a mindless
eating machine.If I am to change this
image, I must first change myself.
Fish are friends and not food.

We also happened to have learned early on that Marlin has a particular phobia of sharks, so that when he and Dory meet up with the trio of sharks, Marlin’s (and the audience’s) fear is palatable.

To stand a chance of ever seeing Nemo again, Marlin has to dig deep inside to come up with the strength and determination to get away from Bruce and friends. When word of his father’s quest to save him reaches Nemo it gives him the pride in his father that was sorely missing, as well as supplying him with the courage and resolve not to give up.


This ultra-cool duo is intentionally crafted as the polar opposites of Marlin and Nemo. Crush encourages Squirt go into the world just to see what he will do on his own. When Squirt returns, jubilant at his adventures, Crush is fully able to share in his joy. For Marlin, the message is clear: Let your son go if you want him to return to you.

How do you know if they’re ready?

Well, you never really know,
but when they know, you know, y’know?

The Aquarium

When Nemo finds himself in the dentist’s office, he discovers an aquarium filled with deeply original characters. By taking a closer look at the myriad of characters, from Jacques the clean freak to Bubbles the obsessive-compulsive, we can easily see that adding dimensions and unique traits to our supporting characters can really make our own movies shine with originality and depth. How interesting would Deb be without Flo? Bloat without the proclamations of:

Here I go!

Bubbles would fall flat without the endless staring at the treasure chest.

No, we haven’t overlooked Dory and Gill. We’ve saved the most memorable characters for last for a reason.

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Growing Your Protagonists

Dory, the ever-forgetful child-like companion to Marlin did more than act as a Nemo surrogate. She taught Marlin patience and how to interact with a child. But it was no coincidence that the writers crafted Dory as a character for which there is no past or future, a character firmly in the now. Not only did this play superbly against Marlin’s extreme world phobia and obsession on past events but it served to teach Marlin a valuable lesson: Sometimes you just have to let go and trust that good things will happen.

Gill, the tough-around-the-edges Marlin replacement was purposely constructed to be the picture-perfect opposite of Marlin. Gill pushes Nemo to take chances and do things that aren’t completely safe. But Gill also teaches Nemo that having a small fin isn’t an excuse to do less. In fact, it is an excuse to do more. With Gill’s proclamations that having a small fin hasn’t stopped him from doing anything, Nemo realizes that he is using it as an excuse, and that he has to stop.

Marlin’s Growth

Initially, Marlin is determined to dedicate his life solely to the care of Nemo; hence he keeps his distance from everyone that may care about him. When he loses Nemo and pairs up with Dory he gets a glimpse of just how Nemo might view him as a father. He also learns that sometimes being a father means letting go. Trusting others and letting them into your heart.

Nemo’s Growth

When Gill persuades Nemo to swim into the filter, risking a certain messy death, Nemo is forced to take charge of his own life. No longer content or able to rely on having his dad to do everything for him, Nemo has to look within himself for a solution. Gill’s selfish prodding shows Nemo that while his father may be over-protective, Marlin always has Nemo’s best interests at heart. With that realization comes the willingness to see Marlin for what he truly is, a wonderful father.

What it All Means to the Screenwriter

In the end, this epic struggle between father and son is artfully crafted and told through the use of precise, multi-dimensional characters. Each of which filling a specific plot purpose as well as providing outstanding entertainment. By using this same precision crafting of characters, screenwriters can add that missing element to their own stories, and perhaps see them as the next box-office smash.

Wendy Whitbeck is a writer, produced playwright and aspiring screenwriter living in Alberta, Canada.

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