Archive for October 18th, 2012

A Writer Reviews: Adventure Time

Adventure Time continually surprises me. If you’re not aware of the show, it’s hiding over on Cartoon Network, typically airing new episodes on Monday nights at 7:30 and rerunning older episodes throughout the week. Each episode is a fifteen minute chunk of pure surrealism. One recent episode featured the lead character, Finn the human, traveling to Mars to save his best friend, a magical stretching dog named Jake. To do so, he must plead his case to the king of Mars, Abraham Lincoln, who surrenders his immortality to the coyote-skull faced avatar of Death to save Jake.

Yeah. It’s often a seriously trippy show. It’s probably one of the hardest shows to determine the exact age range for, and that I’m uncertain when I think my daughter will be the right age for. Sure, several of the characters are sentient pieces of candy…but then there’s the Lich, and the denizens of the Nightosphere straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

So why am I talking Adventure Time?

Clearly there’s going to be a difference between a seven minute short and a series of 15 minute episodes. Characters need to be fleshed out. The penguins, or at least the lead penguin, now has occasional desires to take over the world and break glass bottles. Lady Rainicorn now speaks Korean, in which she delivers the occasional double entendre, and is pregnant with Jake’s puppies. Finn has to deal with puberty and crushes. Princess Bubblegum is turning more and more into a mad scientist, and perhaps even tyrant. But I’m not really interested in talking about any of them. I want to talk about the Ice King.

Somewhere along the line the cartoonishly evil antagonist of that seven minute short has become one of the most complex long-running antagonists I’ve seen of any show. For any age group. He has a real name now (Simon) and a back story that becomes increasingly heart breaking with every new turn, all while never not being evil in some way.

He had an opportunity to have a son (“What is Life?”), albeit a son who is a sentient pie-flinging microwave. Through the episode he talks about training this son to help him abduct princesses, but in the end his wistful daydream is about just sitting and watching the sunset. And hearing the toaster say he loves him.

He spends an episode (“The Eyes”) spying on Finn and Jake, trying to learn how to be happy.

He creates a wife for himself (“Princess Monster Wife”). He does it through stealing individual body parts from the princesses throughout the land of Ooo and assembling them into a horrible monster, incapable of even eating…but that he shows legitimate affection for.

These are wonderful humanizing moments on their own, and I appreciate any show that can generate such sympathy for an antagonist. He never stops being the antagonist, he and Finn are working almost constantly at cross purposes and the Ice King is a serial kidnapper, but there’s also an odd caring there. In one episode (“Hitman”) it’s made very clear that the Ice King could kill Finn and Jake whenever he chooses to do so. But he doesn’t.

And then there’s Simon.

He was human at one point. He was in love. Then he bought a crown, wore it as a joke, and it simultaneously extended his life and destroyed his mind. Turned him crazy. It’s sucked so much of his brain, made him so diabolically single-focused, that he cannot remember forming a bond with the only other apparent survivor of the thermonuclear “Mushroom War.” There is so much tragedy built into this character, made more so by not being his fault. An accident created the Ice King.

Whenever they deepen his character another notch, I get tempted to write this blog post, to track the path by which a kids’ show born of a silly seven minute animated short has crafted one of the most nuanced characters I’ve come across in any television show. I’ve wanted to talk about the Ice King as the antagonist, and what lessons he can teach us, as writers, about how to create antagonists who are rich, interesting, and may even tug at the reader’s heart strings. I’ve always stopped myself because then I would be That Guy talking about a kids show on his blog. However, the last step they took, showing us those few moments of kindness that he has now forgotten in a form of magically induced Alzheimer’s… Now the problem isn’t the worry of being That Guy, instead it’s that the Ice King is no longer about how to create a compelling antagonist. He’s about how to create a compelling character period. And how even characters with a single apparent motivation, in this case kidnapping a princess and forcing her to marry him, can have a stunning depth of character.

In the end, it’ll create characters that people love. Perhaps in spite of themselves. Force them to sit back, as I’ve done on occasion, and say “damn, Adventure Time, why do you keep making me feel sympathetic for the Ice King?” Why? Because it’s good story telling.

Now, a television show will always have that advantage of time. Dozens, even hundreds of hours to develop characters. We’re writers, we don’t have that time? I say that’s a piss poor excuse. No, you’re not going to be able to give every single character in your short story, or even your novel, as rich and nuanced of a back story as the Ice King. But everyone still has that story. Everyone still is nuanced. It’s likely no one in your story is purely good, or purely evil, certainly not to themselves. And if you know what that nugget is deep inside the character, even if the character himself can’t remember, it can still shine through in their thoughts, words, and actions.

Mathematical!

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