Spoilers for Encanto incoming!
Encanto was fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, the basic plot is that there is a family with magical powers called Gifts that watch over a village. The magic behind their gifts and their sentient house starts to fade, and it’s up to the protagonist Mirabel (the only non-Gifted member of the family) to keep it from dying.
A lot of the story revolves around a vision received by Bruno, a family member whose Gift was prophecy. Shortly after he received this vision, he vanished. In order to learn more, Mirabel starts asking people what they know about Bruno. Unfortunately, no one likes to talk about Bruno—hence the song name. Everyone believes he was a vindictive, dangerous individual, as suggested by this flashback:
Once we actually meet Bruno, we learn that essentially all of this is false. Bruno is a gentle soul who has been hiding in the walls of the house for ten years. He left because he didn’t want his visions to hurt the family, not because he didn’t care about them.
The song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” isn’t just a fantastic piece of music (Lin-Manuel Miranda strikes again). I think it’s a great exploration of unreliable narration. As worldbuilders, we’re often tempted to present our worlds accurately to our audiences. However, obscuring elements or keeping them vague can add a lot of depth.
One example is religion. In many settings, it’s obvious whether the gods are there or not. In Middle Earth, for example, the story of the world’s creation and deities (term loosely applied) is simple fact. There are living people sent by the gods (e.g. Gandalf) and who have visited the equivalent of heaven (Galadriel was born in Valinor). All these things are simply fact. Contrast this with a setting like Westeros, where we never see any direct evidence that there is a god. It’s possible, but never directly addressed.
This same approach can be used for other aspects of your world. I’m using the trope “unreliable narrator” to describe this, but worldbuilding can be presented in many ways besides narration (dialogue, for example). For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll divide the ways that you can display your worlds i
Let’s look at some of the various ways that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” uses unreliable narrators to mislead the audience.
Dolores – Truth
Let’s start with the only account that is 100% accurate. Dolores is unique in the family in that her Gift, super-hearing, means that she actually already knows Bruno is living in the walls. While everyone else relied on steadily-ageing memories, Dolores could hear everything Bruno did—from pretending to eat at the family dinner table to feel connected to talking with his pet rats. Her verse is the closest thing we’ll get to objective fact.
Grew to live in fear of Bruno stuttering or stumbling,
I can always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling,
I associate him with the sound of falling sand.
It’s a heavy lift with a gift so humbling,
Always left Abuela and the family fumbling,
Grappling with prophecies they couldn’t understand.
Do you understand?
A few things stand out. She says that she “can always hear him,” which is literally accurate. She admits that she was afraid of him growing up, but sympathizes with his situation in the second verse. The final line, “Do you understand?” seems to be Dolores hoping that Mirabel understands the message: Bruno is still here, and he isn’t as bad as people think.
This is the simplest way to present information to your audience: telling it like it is. You can put a slight spin on the facts, like Dolores does, but if your dialogue or narration follows this pattern, then the audience can essentially accept them as truth.
Camilo – Falsehood
Now we go to the exact opposite side of the spectrum. Dolores’ brother, Camilo, is only a little older than Mirabel, and barely knew Bruno. In addition, his personality matches with his Gift—shapeshifting—and he’s a prankster who enjoys messing with people. When Mirabel comes asking, he takes the opportunity to essentially tell a ghost story.
Seven foot frame, rats along his back
When he calls your name, it all fades to black
He sees your dreams, he feasts on your screams
We don’t talk about Bruno!
There is only one thing here that’s accurate: Bruno does indeed have a thing for rats. That’s it. Nothing else is true, either literally or metaphorically. Bruno is short, his Gift doesn’t allow him to knock people unconscious or view their dreams, and he doesn’t “feast on screams.” Camilo is just having a laugh by trying to spook his younger cousin.
While rarely done, it’s possible to directly lie to your audience. It’s better to do this with dialogue or other character-produced sources, as the audience is supposed to be able to trust the narrator at least a little bit.
Villagers – Selectiveness
Let’s move on to singers who present us with specific events, rather than general descriptions.the villagers, who relate stories about a few of Bruno’s prophecies:
He told me my fish would die, the next day – dead!
He told me I’d grow a gut, and just as he said!
He said all my hair would disappear, now look at my head!
Your fate is sealed when your prophecy is read!
We don’t have any grounds to doubt any of these stories. However, taken together, they’re used as evidence for an incorrect conclusion. The villagers seem to believe that Bruno is the one to blame for these events: that they only happened because he prophesied them. At the very least, they believe that the misfortune became unavoidable once he made his prophecy.
I suspect that one of the reasons the villagers think this is because they’re only remembering Bruno’s bad visions. It seems unlikely that Bruno would have only had bad prophecies for the villagers—no good ones. The villagers have—probably unintentionally—ignored the times Bruno had good things to say to them. This is called “confirmation bias,” where people focus on evidence that supports their existing beliefs and ignore contradictions.
This is a route you can take when presenting evidence for your audience. By carefully choosing which things you show them, you can encourage them to draw incorrect conclusions. Worldbuilders should be careful when using this, since hiding things and then springing them for a plot twist can turn your clever story into the classic “I was there the whole time!!” gag.
Pepa, Dolores, and Isabella – Misinterpretation
Let’s move on to Pepa, Bruno’s sister whose Gift is weather manipulation. She has this to say about her wedding (skipping some of Pepa’s lines and all of Felix’s):
It was my wedding day
And there wasn’t a cloud in the sky
Bruno walks in with a mischievous grin…
Bruno says it looks like rain
In doing so, he floods my brain
Married in a hurricane
We don’t talk about Bruno!
According to Pepa, Bruno played a cruel prank on her. Knowing that her Gift was sensitive to her emotional state, he made a self-fulfilling prophecy—telling her that it was going to rain made her nervous, so it rained (and then some).
Bruno apologizes to Pepa later, telling his side of the story:
Pepa, I’m sorry ’bout your wedding
Didn’t mean to be upsetting
That wasn’t a prophecy, I could just see you were sweating
And I wanted you to know
That your bro loves you so
Let it in, let it out, let it rain, let it snow, let it go!
If Bruno did actually use the words “It looks like rain,” he apparently meant them to be code for “You look worried.” Pepa misunderstood, and the event has been festering ever since.
The last set of evidence is two prophecies that are as-yet unfulfilled. There’s one for Isabella (Mirabel’s sister) and one for Dolores:
He told me that the life of my dreams
Would be promised, and someday be mine
He told me that my power would grow
Like the grapes that thrive on the vine
He told me that the man of my dreams
Would be just out of reach, betrothed to another
Both of these fall into the classic trope of “misunderstood prophecies.” Isabella hasn’t gotten the life of her dreams or reached the peak of her power yet, but does over the course of the film. Dolores’ love is betrothed to Isabella for now, but ends up with Dolores by the end of the movie.
This is another way to lead your audience. Instead of hiding evidence from them, you give them evidence that can be easily misinterpreted. This has the benefit of not leaving your audience completely in the dark, and can give clever consumers the chance to figure things out ahead of schedule—in some ways more satisfying than having the twist be revealed by the worldbuilder.
And there you go! “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” obviously doesn’t cover every way to reveal your world, but it does cover a lot of the bases. I’d love feedback or suggestions!