Text version and youtube description:
TheoryBrony drew a pic just for this video, so go show him some love: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheoryBrony/videos?view=0&flow=grid
Ending theme is The Standard Model by SoGreatAndPowerful: http://youtu.be/fdhWa5NSoD8
That Nicole Oliver drawing was by Frist44: http://frist44.deviantart.com/
My OC is drawn by MizuTakishima: http://mizutakishima.deviantart.com/
In this video I’ll be talking about four different aspects of what makes characters engaging, starting with “depth” and “development,” and then moving into the more interesting “aesthetic persona,” and “chemistry.”
When people talk about what makes a great character in fiction, the words that get thrown around a lot are “depth” and “development.”
A deep character means one with complex emotions and motivations. Deep characters appear to exist as actual persons, whereas shallow characters exist more as concepts. King Sombra, for instance, is a shallow character, because we don’t really know anything about him other than that he’s a bad guy. His motivation seems to be nothing more than, “be evil.”
On the other hand, Rarity is an exceptionally deep character. Her motivations stem from a childhood desire to dazzle people with her work, and a deep interest in fashion that developed out of embarrassment over her unfashionable parents. Her passion is to have others appreciate her work, and this sometimes gets in the way of her desire to please her friends, whom she loves because of their densely established connections over the course of the series. Her emotions and motivations are complex.
But more importantly than that, we also have context to appreciate those complexities. This is where I bring in a term that you’ve probably heard me use on other videos: “well-realized.” A well-realized character is one that the audience understands and resonates with because of the context given to their complexity.
For instance, a character that is deep, but not really realized, is Princess Luna. The story of Nightmare Moon and the story of Nightmare Night, both suggest complex emotions and deep motivations, but we don’t really get to SEE these things. Luna feels like a kind of weird character because we don’t completely get how she is the way she is. We can rationalize with her, that yeah, being stuck on the moon for a thousand years makes you socially awkward, but it feels weird because we don’t really get to see what Luna was like before she was on the moon, or how much the world has changed, or what she’s been doing since she’s been back, and things like that. She’s a deep and interesting character, but not terribly well-realized.
Meanwhile, let’s look at Rarity again. We totally get her and what she’s all about. In most episodes, her actions seem congruent with her established character, and we just sort of get it. In Sweet and Elite, we never have to sit around and wonder how Rarity is having this conundrum. We know that she is, on the one hand, the element of generosity and an excellent friend, but on the other hand, we know what Canterlot and popularity mean to her. Because she’s a well-realized character, the conflict resonates with us, whether we come out of it loving Rarity or hating her as a result.
Now, let’s talk about “character development.” This is the process by which a character evolves over the course of a series. If depth represents the complexity of a character’s emotions and motivations, development follows how those things change over the course of a work.
Rainbow Dash exhibits strong character development over the course of the series. A lot of her episodes mark definitive changes in her life, which are felt continually over the course of future episodes. After May the Best Pet Win and Read It and Weep, she learns to accept things which she’d previously considered lame, and becomes a more honest individual because of it. In Wonderbolts Academy, she shows a perfect crossection of depth and development when she resigns from Wonderbolts training due to personal moral obligation which may have extended from lessons that she learned in previous episodes.
For a character who never really shows any development, let’s look at Princess Celestia. Over the course of the series, what little we see of Celestia suggests her to be a dignified, magnanimous, seemingly all-knowing, and extremely manipulative leader. Her character is well-realized and certainly has some depth to it, but doesn’t really undergo any development.
Depth and development are both excellent literary tools, but I feel that both of them are extremely overrated when it comes to exploring what makes a character or a series great. After all, many people would argue that Celestia, Luna, and even King Sombra are great characters, in spite of their lack of development, realization, and depth, respectively. “Well, those people are just biased.” Of course they’re biased! Everyone is biased! But why are they biased? Why do they like those characters, if it has nothing to do with depth or development?
This is where we come to the topic of “Aesthetic Persona,” which is a phrase that I made up because I don’t know of an existing phrase to describe it. If you know one, or at least a similar one, let me know in the comments.
A character’s aesthetic persona is the raw appeal of being who they are. It’s a combination of how they look, how they sound, and what they do.
Let’s look at Celestia’s aesthetic persona. Starting on the technical level, she’s designed by Lauren Faust and exhibits the characteristics of Faust’s design sense, and the general design sense of Friendship Is Magic as a whole. Compared to other ponies, she’s very tall and regal looking. She has a white coat and a flowing, multicolored, pastel mane, which definitely sets her apart from most characters. This is her visual aesthetic, which could be enough to attract fans all on its own.
Her voice is that of Nicole Oliver, who plays her with a very smooth, calming, and motherly tone. Her clarity of speech gives it an air of officiality. Her dialog is usually restrained and dignified, yet approachable, so much so that we often feel the other ponies are overreacting when they’re bashful around her, yet we also have no doubts about the fact that she is the princess and that she is deserving of respect. This sense of understanding her character, just through her look, her speech, and the way her character is written, comprises her aesthetic persona.
Depth and development can play a role in a character’s aesthetic persona, but they don’t have to exist for the viewer to connect with a character. Plenty of people adore Celestia just for what she is, regardless of how few appearances she actually has and how little she actually does in the story.
While I’m on the subject of characterization, there’s one last thing I’d like to talk about, which isn’t so much about how a character works as an individual, but how they work in the context of the story—and that thing is “chemistry.” Chemistry between characters can best be described with an analogy to chemistry itself. Mind you this example will be extremely simple and my chemistry knowledge is on a middle-school level at best, but for the sake of example, think of carbon and oxygen. When you combine them, you get Carbon Monoxide. You no longer have just carbon and just oxygen, but something entirely new which has come out of combining them. When characters have chemistry together, it means that something new has been created which you couldn’t have with just one character or the other.
For instance, Rainbow Dash on her own is a pretty fun character, but she really becomes interesting when paired up with one of the other ponies. When paired up with Pinkie Pie, we get to see how frustrated Rainbow gets when trying to deal with Pinkie’s eccentricities, as well as how she acts with a good friend doing some of her favorite activities. When paired with AJ, the two of them have a strong sense of understanding and camaraderie that comes from sharing a very physical lifestyle, as well as a strong competitiveness. When paired with Fluttershy, we see just how much of a bulldozer Rainbow can be when paired with an introverted character, and Fluttershy gets dragged into social situations which she wouldn’t be interested in ordinarily.
The chemical bonds between each of the mane six, as well as the chemical that you get when you put them all together, plays a huge role in what makes their group dynamic work so well, and why it’s so easy to feel connected to the whole mane six. The characters don’t exist as islands, but at part of a greater and more interesting whole.
To see a great example of how much aesthetic persona and chemistry can do, just take a look at Octavia and Vinyl Scratch. In the context of the show, aesthetic persona is literally all these ponies have. In both cases, the character design, facial expression, and action being performed by these characters is the whole of their existence. Yet, based on these aesthetic personas alone, the fandom determined that these characters would have great chemistry together, and as a result they’ve become one of, if not THE most popular fan pairing in the entire series. While each character is appealing on their own, their chemistry together is what makes them so fun to write about.
I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on these aspects of characterization. Do you like deep and developed characters the most, or does aesthetic persona resonate strongly with you regardless of whether a character is well-realized? Are there any characters that you wouldn’t have cared about if they didn’t have such great chemistry with other characters? Remember there’s a link in the description to a text version of this video, where you can leave comments with no character limits, if you want to go in-depth.