Inconsistency, development, and the difference between the two: A response to PastAnalysis

PastAnalysis has posted some concerns to the MLPAnalysis subreddit.  His main point: the analysis community is too opposed to inconsistency.

[H]eres a point I’d like to add, which I know is going to be very controversial; inconsistencies are not inherently bad. There’s this running notion within the Brony Analysis Community, that they are bad and the writers must be blamed for it if we ever hope for the show to improve.

If there was a proper balance of these people and people who see inconsistencies positively then there wouldn’t be a problem. But that isn’t at all the case. We have like 80-90% of the entire group who despise inconsistencies. I don’t care if someone holds this belief. I rather care how many hold it and the amount is bothersome. It means that the writers get blamed for change, because change is bad and nothing that contradicts previous established information can be accepted. This means that the show can’t develop, its growth is stifled and whenever it takes a path that adds new information against the old, analysts are up in arms.

It’s difficult to discuss these claims, since PA doesn’t provide any specific examples of the kind of criticism he’s discussing.  But I’m assuming the post was (at least partially) a response to the complaints about Pinkie Pie’s depiction in “Filli Vanilli”.

I think PA is making an error — he seems to be using a single word (“inconsistency”) to refer to two similar but distinct phenomena.  And understanding the difference between these two can show us something important about storytelling.

The first phenomenon is what most people (in my experience) mean when they say “inconsistency” in the context of fiction — some part of the world acts in ways that are, well, inconsistent with their previous behavior.  Someone breaks character, a piece of worldbuilding is contradicted, etc.  It just doesn’t make sense, and it pulls the reader out of the story as they’re going “wait a minute…”.  As I argued before, Twilight’s use of her teleportation ability is inconsistent in this sense (though to be fair, it usually isn’t too blatant).  Despite what PA says, inconsistency in this sense is just bad.

However, this sort of inconsistency isn’t necessary for the show to grow.  What’s needed for the kind of growth that PA discusses in the second paragraph is not inconsistency, but (what I’ll call) development.  Development, like inconsistency, involves a piece of the world changing or behaving differently.  But unlike inconsistency, development is not necessarily bad, and can be done very well.  In fact, it’s vital for an interesting story.

What’s the difference, then?  Well, here’s a major one; If you want to know whether a change constitutes inconsistency or development, ask yourself this:

Do the characters and world react to this change in a way that we could reasonably expect?

If the answer is “yes”, then it’s development.  If “no”, then it’s inconsistency.

Let’s illustrate this with an episode where the show handled this well: “Magic Duel”.

Most of Trixie’s behavior in “Magic Duel” is out-of-sync with her behavior in “Boat Busters”.  Rather than being an annoying showboat, she’s now a budding evil overlord, doing things that are downright cruel.  But while this might be “inconsistent” in the strict sense of the word (Trixie isn’t acting like she usually does), it’s not a flaw with the narrative.  Because the other characters notice this change and react to it:

Snails: [gasping] I’m telling ya, Snips, she’s getting weirder and weirder!..Gah, why is she so mean to us?
Snips: Yeah! I miss the days when she was just a fraud!

So rather than hurting the narrative, this change enhances it (in fact, it’s the entire basis for it).  It makes us more connected to the characters and storyline, rather than less.

As a side note, it also helps that we have an explanation for her behavior — the Alicorn Amulet is affecting her mind.  But even knowing that, it would still be a flaw if the other characters didn’t notice Trixie’s behavior as unusual.

On the other hand, Twilight’s (non-)use of her teleportation ability is inconsistency, rather than development.  It doesn’t generally elicit the response we’d expect from the other characters — no one suggests that she could teleport the dresses to Rarity in “Rarity Takes Manehattan”, for instance.  And no one is surprised in “Dragon Quest” when she teleports everyone a similarly long distance, despite her rarely doing so.

By contrast, let’s look at the scene where Twilight briefly reverses gravity in “The Crystal Empire”:

Do not adjust your set.

Do not adjust your set.

I know a lot of people thought this scene was stupid, but I really liked it, and I’m kind of disappointed that they didn’t do more with Twilight’s antigravity ability.  But more importantly for this discussion, it constitutes development, rather than inconsistency.  This is because the characters react in a way we might expect — Twilight explains her ability to the newly-inverted Spike, who presumably is even more confused than we in the audience are:

Twilight Sparkle: I actually studied gravity spells, thinking it might be on my test! Turns out I was prepared for this! Wooo-hooo! [laughs]

I suppose after all this, I should say what I think of Pinkie Pie in “Filli Vanilli”.  The first thing we need to answer is if she’s behaving in a way that is markedly different from her normal character.  Her behavior is certainly extreme, but it’s an extreme version of what we’ve seen from her before (excitement coupled with social obliviousness).  Her behavior isn’t out-of-character, so much as an exaggerated version of her normal character.  I don’t think it was so exaggerated as to be character-breaking — but it came pretty close.  YMMV on that one, of course.

The others certainly react to her in a way that makes sense — they call her out on her treatment of Fluttershy, and make clear that they’re not pleased with it.  So from a narrative standpoint, it isn’t really a flaw.

You could argue that the others should be wondering why Pinkie’s being so weird, but, well…Pinkie.  Pinkie has always been nonsensical to a degree, so (for me, anyway) she can display a more extreme range of behavior than other characters before it starts hurting the narrative.  I think this is why it wasn’t character-breaking for me, and why I can accept that the other characters wouldn’t be shocked at it.  I suppose, in a weird way, you can say that a certain degree of inconsistency is consistent with Pinkie’s character.

There are limits to this, of course.
(Art by Locolimo — click for source)

But regardless of what you thought of “Filli Vanilli”, a good response to PA’s concerns is this: change is good — change is necessary, or we can’t have any sort of narrative.  But the world and the characters need to react to that change in a way the audience can understand.  Otherwise, all it does is pull the audience out of the story.

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One Response to Inconsistency, development, and the difference between the two: A response to PastAnalysis

  1. Pingback: “Somepony to Watch Over Me”, “Party of One”, characterization, and the active Fourth Wall | The Pony's Litterbox

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