I’d like to write down my thoughts on something I brought up in my last post. I rhetorically questioned the writers as to why the characters had become so one-dimensional; I realized later this was a bit of an accusation I hadn’t fully explained – though I had addressed it somewhat in my response posts to the season 6 premier and The Gift of the Maud Pie – so I’d like to go into depth about it now.
To say a character is flat or one-dimensional means they only have a few meaningful characteristics, such as “has a bad attitude” or “acts hyper” or “lies a lot”. Characteristics like these may not always be directly stated to or even consciously recognized by the audience, but they somehow affect the behavior of the character. Generally when we DO recognize a characteristic, we relate more to the character, so naturally having more characteristics tends to make it easier to relate to and invest in a character… and of course vice versa. Now, I’m going to assert that the human experience is inherently incredibly complex, to the point where you could say each individual has a very large and sophisticated set of characteristics regardless of what you may consciously acknowledge; as such, we have the capacity to recognize a very broad swath of characteristics in the stories we listen to. In my opinion, the writers for MLP:FiM have done a pretty excellent job not only in creating characters with an appreciable amount of relatable characteristics but also in presenting them subtly enough to make them more realistic – for in real life, most personality traits are communicated indirectly and usually inadvertently.
As a case study of why I’m even bringing this up, let’s look at Garble and compare how his character is portrayed between Dragon Quest and Gauntlet of Fire. As I understand Dragon Quest is generally not favorably looked upon by the community, but I consider it a 3 in my rating scale, so a decent episode. Garble’s initial interactions with Spike demonstrate a few easily recognizable traits:
-cares about being “cool”
-insensitive to others’ feelings
-enjoys coarse behavior
This is pretty much the foundation for his actions until Spike finally proves himself by belly-flopping. Garble hasn’t displayed any level of congeniality toward the other dragons up to this point, but after this event he shows some sort of willingness to help Spike fit in with the group. So:
-willing to help his social group
or something along those lines can be added to the list. In the course of this episode this is about all the characterization Garble gets, but it’s effective because it’s very relatable; those behaviors fulfil basic human needs, making him seem more vulnerable, more human. To me, that sort of relatability lets me get more invested in the story and lends stronger punctuation to the jokes. I can sympathize with the characters more and understand their motivations, so the decisions they make actually deserve attention. I mean, I wouldn’t say this particular story is terribly compelling, but at the end of the day its believability contributes a lot to my overall enjoyment of the episode.
Analyzing Gauntlet of Fire in the same way, we should remember that since he’s an existing character, the audience has expectations for how he’ll behave. The writers start off nailing the most obvious bits:
-insensitive to others’ feelings
-has vendetta against Spike
As the story progresses it becomes clear that this is all the characterization he’s going to get… which could potentially work; having a character bent on revenge against another for some past offense is a perfectly valid justification for them showing nothing but antagonism. The thing is, Garble’s actions against Spike shift drastically between wacky and violent in different scenes: aggressive when they first meet at the beginning to the point of threatening to attack Equestria; fairly nonchalant when Spike saves him from the rock; physically violent when they meet in the final room; almost indifferent when Spike wins the challenge. That sort of behavior indicates less a believable thirst for revenge and more a desperation in the writers to shoehorn the latest grade-school humor into the generic badguy character – which is incidentally how I felt about the ‘scoundrel’ near the end of The Gift of the Maud Pie. Now here’s another thing: I actually do recognize the humor they’re attempting with Garble. The episode’s last joke with the awkward hugging, for example, is something I can appreciate, something I can relate to… in the right context. And that’s the real issue with this episode – the serious context does not call for that sort of whimsical behavior, and as such Garble’s actions seem contrived and unrealistic, making his one-note personality completely unrelatable and a barrier to my investment in the story.
Incidentally, I recently noticed that Tree Hugger in Make New Friends but Keep Discord is often accused of a similar problem: being a bit too obvious and one-dimensional as a “hippie” character. I largely agree, and in fact I really didn’t like the episode at first because of that. I’ve since come to consider the episode as one of my favorites – a 5 on my personal scale – because of how they use that quality of her character as a sort of hard counterpoint to pull off some pretty compelling characterization with Discord. His reactions to some of her comments (“My… vibe?”, “Do you even know what you just said?”) demonstrate a cynicism I myself tend to use in conversations with people who I suspect are heavily conceited in some sort of artificial personal identity… so I readily relate to him in several scenes.
I could go for a long time analyzing the other season 6 episodes and comparing their approach to characterization with previous seasons, but I think I would only end up depressing myself and losing readers. Mostly I just wanted to articulate my thoughts about characterization and how it seems to be shifting in the series.