Spike and the challenge of adolescent characters

Of all the main characters, Spike’s depiction has drawn the most criticism (with the possible exceptions of Rarity and Applejack).  Complaints about the little guy tend to assert that he’s either a) inconsistent, b) inept, c) a jerk, or d) some combination of the three.  For this post, I’ll focus on the charge of inconsistency.

Tommy Oliver criticizes Spike’s characterization in a follow-up vid to his Equestria Games review:

The big issue with Spike I’ve had throughout the entire series is that he has no concrete characterization…He is whatever the narrative needs him to be for the context of the episode he’s in. And this is a problem. Because when you take Spike and put him into situations where he’s the focal point, you have no real idea how he’s going to act or react to situations, because he has no real character.

Is he supposed to be an innocent little child who doesn’t understand what he’s doing and messes things up all the time? Is he a responsible assistant that plays the stright-man to Twilight’s eccentricities and is able to handle that sort of thing? Is he more mature than Twilight, or is he less mature than Twilight? The show constantly portrays him as both sides of that extreme. He can be very childish, but he can also be very mature. Is he talented…or is he a bumbling idiot?”

As a result of this, Spike’s reaction to the Crystal Ponies’ idolatry doesn’t really work for Tom:

If this happened to Rarity, we know how Rarity would react. If this happened to Applejack, we know how she would react…It would be two completely different ways.

With Spike? With Spike we have no idea. Would he be child-like and revel in the attention? Or would he be more responsible and just kind of back away from it? Or would it be something else altogether? He has no concrete character. And when putting him in this situation, everything that happens to him, I just find unbelievable. It doesn’t come off as natural, because I have no frame of reference for this character…I can’t get a good grip on Spike as a character, so when he reacts to things, I just don’t understand.

If these complaints are accurate, then it’s an illustration of yet another of Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling:

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

This rule focuses specifically on opinions, but can be expanded to character traits in general. As Tom says, inconsistent or malleable characters provide “no frame of reference”, so it’s difficult for the audience to understand them or empathize with them.

So, is Tom right? Is Spike a rare example of a character in FiM who’s just badly-written and inconsistent?

Ehhh…maybe. Hold that thought, because I want to discuss another aspect of Spike that I think is relevant here; his age.

The ambiguity of Spike’s age doesn’t help matters. He’s referred to as a baby dragon, but “baby” clearly means something very different for a dragon than a human (or a pony). Like Tom says, Spike’s maturity, foresight, and intellect seem to vary greatly. It often isn’t clear whether we should think of him as a child or an adult, which further hinders us when trying to form expectations of the character.

But as I’ve considered it, I’ve realized there is a human age that Spike seems to fit: Spike is a teenager.

And when I say “teenager”, I don’t really mean 16 or above. I mean the ages of 13-15 — that awkward time when we’re no longer exactly children, but we can’t even pretend to be adults. Maybe “adolescent” would be a more precise description.

If you think of Spike as an adolescent, then a lot of his more bizarre actions start to make sense. “Owl’s Well That Ends Well” is a good example. His immediate assumption that Twilight doesn’t love him seems like a pretty ham-handed attempt to escalate the conflict. We’ve seen 2 seasons of affection and respect between them — the idea that she would just stop loving him is absurd, and he’s smart enough to know it.

Spike_crying_S1E24

Really, Spike? I mean, really?

But ask yourself this: did you ever do something similar as an adolescent? Did you ever, in response to a parent’s outburst of anger or frustration, convince yourself that they no longer loved you?

If you say “no”, I submit that you are lying. The fear of parental rejection (and Twilight’s relationship to Spike is partially maternal) is a very potent one. At that age, when faced with the anger and disappointment of a parent (and perhaps struggling with our own anger and guilt), it can be very easy to believe that they no longer love us. We might even know, at some level, that we’re being ridiculous and that it’s not true — but it sure-as-hell feels like it is.

For that matter, if it’s unclear whether Spike regards Twilight as a parent or a peer, that also reflects the complexity of adolescence. This is a time when a parent’s flaws, previously invisible to us, can become painfully obvious. And we become uncertain whether we should defer to them (as we did as children), or stand up to them and assert our own views. We may also find ourselves — for the first time — providing emotional support or advice to our parents, rather than the other way around (“Lesson Zero”). This experience is both remarkably empowering and thoroughly disturbing.

"[Mom/Big Sis], I'm really worried about you."

“[Mom/Big Sis], I’m really worried about you.”

If Spike seems at intervals competent or inept (“Spike at Your Service”), that’s also indicative of our early teenage years. At that age, many of us can outdo our parents when it comes to the latest technology, but are thoroughly incapable of even driving a car.

Even Spike’s unprecedented and ridiculous insistence on his Dragon Code in “Spike at Your Service” makes more sense in this light. Adolescents often struggle to establish their identity, sometimes clinging to seemingly-irrational behaviors in an attempt to distinguish themselves. When I was a teenager, I went through a phase where I refused to wear short-sleeve shirts. It could be ninety degrees out, but I’d still be wearing long sleeves. It made no sense whatsoever — but god damn it, it was my thing, so I was going to do it.

(Seriously — fuck short-sleeve shirts. You do your thing, fifteen-year-old-me.)

So, if we think of Spike as an adolescent, his behavior makes much more sense.

But is he a well-written character?

That’s a more difficult question. Realistic characters (in the sense of “characters who psychologically resemble actual people”) are necessary for good storytelling, but they aren’t sufficient. If a character is inconsistent enough that their actions can’t be coherently anticipated, it will be difficult for the audience to empathize with them — regardless of whether or not their inconsistency can be explained.

Come to think of it, this may explain why adults are often frustrated when dealing with teenagers. For that matter, it may explain why teenagers are often frustrated when dealing with teenagers. When your expectations of someone’s behavior are so frequently wrong, it becomes tempting to throw up your hands and say “I don’t know how to deal with you”. In many ways, adolescence is like actually being a poorly-written, inconsistent character — which might explain the awkwardness and angst that plague many of us as teens.

This may also explain why many fictional teenagers don’t really feel like adolescents, but rather like adults or children with some weirdness sprinkled in — though I realize that’s an extremely subjective statement, so YMMV. If they actually reflected the variability of adolescent personalities, they wouldn’t work well as characters.

Furthermore, those works that do depict adolescents faithfully tend to be about adolescence. I’m thinking particularly of Daria and Zits (yes I am that old, shut up), but even more recent successes like Frozen arguably fall into this category.

Daria

Hsere’s Life Goal #8: Be the kind of adult Daria Morgendorffer would mock, but secretly respect .

Taking that approach actually works quite well — the inner conflict of (for example) establishing one’s identity can create a great story. But to give that sort of conflict the attention it needs, it has to be a major focus of the narrative.

Indeed, Spike’s best episodes do tend to involve his struggle to establish his identity or clarify his relationship to others — “Dragon Quest” and “Owl’s Well That Ends Well” come to mind. But when he isn’t central to the episode, his lack of definition becomes a hindrance, rather than an asset. “Spike at Your Service” is a great example. The Dragon Code seems to come out of nowhere, and it yanked a lot of people out of the episode.

But imagine if the “Spike at Your Service” focused more on Spike’s attempts to define himself, as he devised and latched onto his Dragon Code in an attempt to establish who he is. Imagine that at the climax of the story, he abandoned the code, realizing that his dedication to Twilight is far more central to his identity. I suspect the episode would be far more effective.

Ultimately, maybe adolescents just don’t work that well as secondary characters. Maybe to be believable and effective, they need to be a major focus of the story — or at least, their thoughts and emotions need to be directly accessible to the audience.  It’s probably not a coincidence that books aimed at adolescents (AKA Young Adult Fiction) tend to also appeal to adults moreso than similarly-aimed TV or movies; written fiction is the medium that gives the most direct access to the thoughts and emotions of its characters.

Finally, I realize that I’ve been talking about adolescence and adolescents in broad strokes during this essay. That necessarily involves making several generalizations, and I hope I haven’t upset anyone by doing so. But if I have, I apologize, and I’d like to share my favorite quote on the subject of adults and adolescents:

When we talk about teenagers, we adults often talk with an air of scorn, of expectation for disappointment. And this can make people who are presently teenagers feel very defensive. But what everyone should understand is that none of us are talking to the teenagers that exist now, but talking back to the teenager we ourselves once were — all stupid mistakes and lack of fear, and bodies that hadn’t yet begun to slump into a lasting nothing. Any teenager who exists now is incidental to the potent mix of nostalgia and shame with which we speak to our younger selves.
Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 36: Cassette

Now if you’ll pardon me, my cane broke last night, and I need to get it replaced before my shuffleboard game this afternoon. Fuckin’ kids these days.


Want to know when I’ve thought of something new and interesting about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Yeah, neither would I, probably.  But just in case, you can suscribe via email at the top of the page (right side), follow The Pony’s Litterbox on Tumblr, or follow me on Twitter.

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2 Responses to Spike and the challenge of adolescent characters

  1. spaceypony says:

    Great work as always!
    I love how you put everything in a good light. It makes it bright!
    I think that is the best way I can put it. It is great to see. Keep it up Bro! 😀
    You don’t complain, you explain!

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