Here’s a photo manip I did of live-action versions of Drakken and Shego from Kim Possible. Features my dream casting of Jeffrey Donovan and Morena Baccarin.
Here’s a photo manip I did of live-action versions of Drakken and Shego from Kim Possible. Features my dream casting of Jeffrey Donovan and Morena Baccarin.
I’m rewatching Kim Possible at the moment, after being away from it for several years, and I’m delighted to find it’s even better than I remember it. It’s not quite in the same league as Phineas and Ferb or My Little Pony, but it is a very solid, very entertaining show anchored by two particularly great leads.
It’s also instructive on how to write an absurdly capable character without her turning into a Mary Sue.
First some definitions: a Mary Sue is a character who is unrealistically perfect, whom all the good characters like, who never has to seriously struggle, and whom the audience is really, really supposed to admire. A textbook example would be Rey from The Force Awakens: the girl who can fly the Millennium Falcon, shoot a blaster, and wield a lightsaber better than anyone even with zero training or experience and who has no flaws to speak of, never seriously fails at anything, and who has everyone from Han Solo to the villain gushing with admiration over her.
Now, Kim Possible, the girl who “can do anything” seems like she would be a classic case of a Mary Sue. She’s a beautiful, popular cheerleader who saves the world as a hobby, has climbed Mt. Everest, swam the English Channel, and maintains a perfect GPA. She frequently saves her loser male sidekick, Ron Stoppable, and has a long rolodex of incredible feats.
But the thing is, Kim isn’t a Mary Sue. On the contrary, despite her exaggerated abilities, she’s a very likable, very believable character. One of the ways they do this is that Kim’s feats, impressive though they are, are limited. She can perform fantastic acrobatics and kung-fu fighting moves, but she still has to put up with things like detention, unpleasant fellow students, and getting butterflies while talking to cute boys. She faces instances of temptation and doesn’t always do the right thing, e.g. when she lies to both Ron and her parents in order to go a party where her crush is attending.
Basically, Kim’s ability to excel doesn’t mean that her life is perfect, or that she herself is perfect. It’s simply a fact about her, like the color of her hair. She still has to make the right choices and still has to deal with day-to-day problems. For instance, Kim’s school rival is the smug Bonnie, who never misses a chance to insult or belittle her. But since they’re both on the cheer-squad, Kim still has to try to get along with her as well as she can.
Likewise, Kim is shown to have clear flaws: she’s very competitive, kind of vain, and a bit of a snob. There’s an episode where she takes over coaching a ten-year olds’ soccer team and drives them so hard that they start crying when she shows up. Not only are these real flaws, ones that cause problems for her and others, but they’re very believable ones for someone of her personality type to have. And, despite her assertions, Kim can’t do anything: she’s a terrible cook, gets very irritated over mundane tasks, and becomes a mess when she gets nervous.
In short, Kim’s not always right, not always on top, and doesn’t always excel. She experiences failure, disappointment, and frustration. She makes mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.
Perhaps most surprising of all, given the evident feminist bent of the show, is how much she needs Ron’s help. It’s true she often has to save him, but that doesn’t mean that Ron is simply useless. On the contrary, he’s often the key to saving the day, and occasionally gets to go on his own adventures. Not only that, but the show repeatedly makes the point that Ron is a major factor in Kim’s success, and that her crime fighting is severely handicapped without him. Best of all, he periodically has to rescue her. Basically, for all that Kim is the star, Ron is really just as important to the story as she is (in some ways more so: his character arc is much more pronounced than hers, so that the show could almost be thought of as more Ron’s story than Kim’s).
Beyond that, they balance each other’s characters very well: she’s an overachiever, he’s an underachiever. She prods him to get serious and work hard, he prods her to relax and have a little perspective. The result is that they have a very charming, very believable relationship: a close friendship that grows into romance over the course of the series, and which culminates in Ron coming into his own as a hero in order to save Kim (it’s honestly a very cool progression and my favorite aspect of the show).
Does any of this make Kim less admirable or less of a role model? On the contrary, it makes her much, much more so. If she simply excelled at everything and was always on top of things, she’d be insufferable. The fact that she does have to struggle, does have to face up to her own flaws, and does sometimes need help makes more human and consequently more likable. Her relationship with Ron, and with it the fact that she isn’t completely self-sufficient, puts her incredible abilities in a human context and gives both her and Ron room to grow as characters.
Kim is really a textbook example of how to avoid making a character a Mary Sue: she can be as absurdly capable as you like, but let her have flaws, let her make mistakes, and above all, have her need someone. In short, let her be a little vulnerable and a little human.
Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.
I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”
Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.
So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.
Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.
In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).
But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.
You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).
Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).
In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.
A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.
Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.
Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.
So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.
Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).
This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.
Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.
That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.
Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.
You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).
Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).
So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.
For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.
You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.
Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.
Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.
Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.
That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.
The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.
I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.
Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.
Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?
Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.
Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.
The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.
So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.
There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).
Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?
The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.
Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.
However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?
The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.
This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.
Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.
In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.
There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.
For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.
Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.
I’m a little amazed that no one seems to remember that the most popular and influential television show of the 1950s centered around an interracial couple: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Or does that not count? If so, are Cubans considered ‘white’ now? Then I guess Hispanics don’t count for ‘diversity’ purposes, right?
You know, if we’re going to base our society on dividing people into categories, we should at least settle those categories ahead of time.
In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.
Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.
For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?
The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.
This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.
Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.
The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.
The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.
The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.
The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.
Today I want to talk about a characterization trick I’m going to call multilevel motivation. This is where a character’s actions are driven by several different and often conflicting motives at the same time, creating a more psychologically complex and realistic storyline.
Let me explain with an easily understood, but very well done example: the episode What About Discord from My Little Pony.
Brief summary: Twilight emerges from a weekend alone to find that her friends have apparently had a fabulous time with the local trickster god, Discord, and are bubbling over with shared jokes and stories of their escapades. Twilight’s confused by this, since, except for Fluttershy and maybe Pinkie, none of her friends have ever gotten along well with Discord, as he’s kind of a jerk. She naturally suspects that something is up and sets about trying to figure out what’s really going on.
Now, let’s take this apart: Twilight tells her friends that her motive is to better understand their bonding experiences so that she can use that knowledge in her friendship studies. To that end, she has them go through the whole thing again with her watching so that she can figure out what they found so enjoyable. At the same time, she’s suspicious of Discord, since he seems to be acting slightly out of character and she knows he likes to cause trouble. So she wants to find out what he’s up to.
But there’s a third thing going on, which is simply that she regrets having missed the good times and is jealous that her friends now have these experiences and jokes that she can’t share in. This is the motive that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, even to herself, as it conflicts with her values and role as a princess, but which is the real driving force behind what she does in the story.
So, in summary, there is the motive she claims to have, the motive she thinks she has, and the motive she actually has. That creates an engaging internal conflict, as she wrestles with feelings she thinks she ought not to have, and instead of putting them aside she claims an alternative motivation that she feels could satisfy her actual needs without having to acknowledge the feelings she’s ashamed of. Since it’s still not one that would go down well with her friends, she works up a plausible alternative, which perhaps she wishes was the actual motive.
All this works in to make Twilight an interesting, three-dimensional character. It shows her struggling with natural, human feelings that conflict with her morals and role in society and trying to find a way to deal with it. She does so by telling herself that her real feelings are something different and more altruistic.
But that’s not all: there is a similar and parallel characterization going on with Discord, who also has a multilevel motivation. The end of the episode reveals that he specifically arranged for the others to not let Twilight know about their upcoming fun weekend, purposefully cutting her out of it.
He claims his motive was simply to let Twilight alone and not bother her. It’s not very convincing, and almost no one believes him. He then all-but says that his real motive was to teach Twilight a lesson about the need to face and acknowledge her less savory emotions (with the added nuance that this is a lesson Twilight legitimately needs to learn). That’s the motive he thinks he has, and perhaps actually does make up part of his actions. But, at the same time, the actual motive is simply that he likes making trouble and jerking Twilight around. Like with Twilight, this showcases Discord’s three-dimensional characterization: though now a good guy, he still has the habits and instincts he had as a villain, which keep bubbling out subconsciously. Thus, he still wants to torment and trick Twilight, but she’s supposed to be his friend and he is honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. This is his way of trying to have his cake and eat it: to still indulge in his favorite vices while telling himself that he’s actually trying to help her.
So, the episode sees Discord and Twilight wrestling with their respective flaws and dealing with them by trying to tell themselves that their real motives are something more honorable. Only their actual motives can’t help but shine through and their fake motives can’t bring the satisfaction they want, forcing them to confront the reality of their behavior (and just to make it more nuanced, Discord never actually acknowledges his true motives, leaving us the audience to discern them from his behavior and our knowledge of him). It’s a psychologically complex set up centered around two very interesting and engaging characters.
You see how it works? The character have selfish, but understandable motives, ones that conflict with their own values, so they try to convince themselves their real motives are something quite different, while maintaining yet a third motive to the people around them in order to try to make the other two motives work out to the same conclusion. It brings their interior conflict into focus, further fills out their characterization, and creates some interesting character based drama.
Phineas and Ferb is one of those shows that, though simple on the surface, lends itself to endless fascinating interpretations. Like so many great works of fiction, it tells the truth merely by trying to tell a good story.
One of the chief themes of the show is the balance between childhood and maturity: Phineas and Ferb are trying to make the most of their childhood – symbolized by the summer vacation – by learning as much as possible, making as many friends as possible, and having as much fun as possible. By contrast, the ‘evil’ Doctor Doofenshmirtz had a miserable childhood, which seems to have left him emotionally stunted and for which he is constantly trying to get revenge or recompense. Balancing the two extremes is Candace, who is caught between adolescence and adulthood and is unsure how she fits in either, which manifests by trying to ‘bust’ her brothers: a childish and immature attempt to assume adult responsibilities.
So, to sum up, Phineas and Ferb revel in their childhood, Candace makes a clumsy effort to grab at adult responsibility without understanding it, while Doofenshmirtz tries to avoid responsibility until he’s settled with his lost childhood. The final main cast member, Perry the Platypus, is more or less the only adult in the room, seeking to balance his responsibilities both to his family and to his job.
For today, I want to focus on Doofenshmirtz and his arc. This will involve spoilers, by the way.
The thing about Doofenshmirtz is that he’s a man who is completely obsessed with his own backstory. He has an endless series of gripes from his miserable childhood, each of which he considers enough to justify a complicated and often enormous and dangerous machine. He once made a giant, spacefaring robot just so that he could show-up the kid who beat him at shadow-puppets. Another time he decided that if he had one more bad date, he’d use a ray to eliminate romantic feelings from the entire Tri-State Area (in the end, the only one it hit was his own date).
The interesting thing is that Doof truly did have a terrible childhood, and was treated completely unfairly by his parents. Many of his gripes are perfectly legitimate. This is a guy whose father forced him to work as a lawn gnome and then disowned him after he choked on the high-dive, and whose brother was given presents he didn’t even like just so that Doof wouldn’t have them. Basically, his parents took an inexplicable disliking to him at birth and made sure he knew it every day of his life (it actually would be pretty grim if it weren’t so hilariously over-the-top).
However, the show is clear that none of this justifies Doof’s behavior. Yes, he was treated inexcusably by his parents and peers, but that doesn’t mean he can take it out on the world in general, or even on the people who were involved after all this time. There’s one episode where he decides to get back at the girl who was always dumping water on him as a child by dropping a huge bucket of water on her party in the park. He discovers too late that, one, the girl’s grown up to be very attractive, and two, the dumping water had been her way of saying she liked him. When Doof awkwardly has to confess to what he was planning, she’s understandably infuriated, pointing out that she was eight years old and that it’s insane that he still holds a grudge at the age of forty.
But not only does Doofenshmirtz feel the need to seek revenge for past wrongs, he also feels entitled to getting his own way in the present. If he wants something, his first instinct is to cheat. If he’s going to run a telethon to trying to gin up more cash, he makes a machine to preempt every other show and force people to watch. Even when he has a real chance of winning legitimately, he still tries to stack the deck just to be sure (as seen when he entered his scrumptious family meatloaf recipe in the annual meatloaf contest and invented a “Rotten-inator” to ruin everyone else’s entries). His main overarching goal is to take over the entire Tri-State Area, mostly in order to show up his younger brother, Roger, who is the mayor and was far his parents’ favorite. Basically, he thinks he’s entitled to everything Roger has simply because Roger was treated well by their parents and he wasn’t. But the thing is, that wasn’t Roger’s fault, and even if he’s a bit of a pompous jerk that still doesn’t mean Doof has a right to anything. What Doof can justly lay claim to has nothing to do with how he or anyone else has been treated by life.
There’s an interesting bit where Doofenshmirtz invents a ‘Luck-inator’ to give himself unnaturally good luck, intending to use the reverse setting on Roger to give him bad luck. Roger, however, is unconcerned, basically saying that luck is a matter of attitude and forethought. Doof answers that he prefers to “Inator my way to success.”
In short, Doofenshmirtz feels that the injustices he suffered in childhood entitle him both to recompense for past wrongs and to success in the present, and that he can cheat his way to getting them regardless of how it affects other people (“Sure it’ll be hard for brain surgeons, and people driving…”). But the truth is that, though he has indeed suffered injustice, his actions are also unjust. He is either taking his anger out on people who had nothing to do with his problems, grasping at things he has no real right to, or trying to get back at people decades late for things they probably don’t even remember and which really weren’t all that important to begin with.
In the end, though, Doof’s heart isn’t really in his bad behavior. He’s not really evil; he just thinks he is because he believes that being evil is the proper response to a past like his. As his daughter Vanessa tells him in the finale, he’s “basically a nice guy who’s pretending to be evil.” He pushes away the idea of taking responsibility for his own life, of letting go of the past and focusing on the present, because he somehow feels that this would be betraying his backstory. The fact that his heart isn’t in doing evil is shown by the fact that he seems to expect and even rely on Perry the Platypus foiling his schemes (he specifically designs his traps so that Perry can get out of them with a little effort), and that whenever he teams up with genuinely evil villains, he very quickly turns against them. Unlike his rival, Rodney, who is truly evil and tries to cause real harm, Doofenshmirtz’s schemes mostly amount to the nature of childish pranks. It’s all just his confused attempt to find satisfaction for the wrongs he suffered in the past.
Now, I think you might see where I’m going with this: Doof is, in his own way, in much the same position as just about any ‘marginalized group:’ smarting over past injustices and expecting some kind of recompense as well as smooth sailing in the future to make up for it. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Past injustices suffered do not ‘cancel out’ present injustices committed. Nor does having suffered entitle you to, well, anything except sympathy. Recompense can be demanded of an individual who has wronged you – you take my money, I can demand it back. You insult me I can demand an apology – but not of whole societies. This isn’t to belittle what has been suffered, only to say that creating even more injustice is not the path to healing.
Doof’s healing doesn’t come from seeking revenge or finally beating his brother: when he does take over the Tri-State Area in the finale, he finds it unsatisfactory. Healing comes when he finally decides to let go of his past and focus on what he has: his beloved daughter, his friends, and satisfying work. When we look in on him ten years hence, he’s so happy that he has to make an inator when he wants to experience a midlife crisis.
Identity politics, you see, aren’t evil just because they divide people: they also take people’s eyes off of the things that can actually improve their lives and fix them on things that will never bring satisfaction and which probably can’t even be cured. The endless and ridiculous expansion of things to feel aggrieved by only serves to demonstrate how futile such efforts are. And, of course, since you can’t solve a problem that depends on personal interpretation, there will always be a justifying excuse; you can always say “ah, but if only we eliminate x, y, and z, everything will be fine. They don’t want us to because they hate you. It’s only one more proof…”
Interestingly, the genuine evils Doofenshmirtz has suffered in the past lead him to take everything unpleasant that happens to him as just one more injustice. Having honestly been treated horribly and unfairly, he takes any and every setback, offense, or even just annoyance as a personal attack. Again, similar to how sources of ‘racism’ grow ever more ridiculous and petty (though even Doofenshmirtz never saw coded insults in his dinner) . People who have suffered genuine injustice tend to expect injustice and see it everywhere, which ironically leads them to commit injustices in their turn.
This is one of the biggest problems with Identity Politics: it simply ignores and excuses this phenomenon. Identity Politics, or critical theory essentially would argue that Doof is perfectly justified in, say, shooting a giant tire at the guy who ran over his foot. Because he was wronged, that means he cannot do wrong, or that any wrong he does is really the fault of his parents or brother. But not only does this excuse and encourage Doof’s harmful behavior, but it actually denies him the possibility of improving his own lot. And since what his parents did is in the past, they can’t undo it, even if they wanted to, meaning that it’s not a means to achieve anything, only to prop up an ultimately intolerable situation.
Doofenshmirtz spends almost the whole series trying to force the world to conform to his wishes, whether it wants to or not. His triumph comes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to; he has to change his own perspective and actions. He overcomes his past suffering by ceasing to allow it to control him.
It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.
So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?
First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.
The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.
Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.
The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.
Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.
It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.
Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.
Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.
Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.
Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).
So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.
Why We Play Determines Who We Are
Writing for Joy
The home of freelance SF&F editor Matthew Bowman.
The Price is Right
Prove All Things; Hold Fast That Which is Good.