What the New Ninja Turtles can Teach Writers About Good Characters

I’ve brought up the Nickelodeon re-imagining of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a couple of times, not only because my daughter loves them, but also because I’m pretty enamored myself. When we first saw it my husband and I were a little bit wary – this was our childhood Nick was messing around with after all – but we soon found ourselves watching the show just as intently as our daughter was. Later we discussed among ourselves exactly what it was about the show that made it so appealing, and we established that it’s the characters. Specifically, it’s all the things about the characters that were lacking from the original cartoon.

So with that in mind, here are a few key concepts that I think Nick’s version of the Ninja Turtles can teach writers about creating good characters:

Your characters should BE who you SAY they are.

It sounds obvious, but not as obvious as you might think. A lot of people make the mistake of putting a label on their character, but then doing everything possible to make their character act like the exact opposite of that.

This is the first thing that my husband brought up when we were talking about what makes the new Ninja Turtles a great show: “They actually, you know…act like teenagers.” I realized right away that he was right. If you go back to the original cartoon, later iterations, and even the live-action movies, the Turtles consistently act very un-teenager-like. It’s a key descriptor in their very existence – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but they’ve never acted as such. The closest they ever resembled actual teens was in the original cartoon, but I challenge you to go back and watch an episode right now. You’ll notice that they act less like teenagers and more like surfer frat-bros.

In the new version of the show, the Turtles embody everything we think of when we remember what it was like to be a teenager. They’re goofy and playful, quick to anger, and constantly getting in trouble. They defy their “father” on a regular basis, get crushes on girls, are cocky and overconfident, and have to take a major beating to learn any lesson. They’re also brothers who actually treat each other like brothers, constantly fighting and bickering, tormenting each other and picking on each other, while also taking care of each other and having each others’ back.

So think about this the next time you’re creating a character. If your character is a religious older woman she’s not likely to be hanging out at night clubs all the time. A jock character isn’t going to seem authentic if you never write him playing any sports. And a teenage character should act like a teenager.

Your characters shouldn’t be clones.

Quick, anyone who grew up with the original Ninja Turtles cartoon, what are each of the Turtles known for?

“Leonardo leads; Donatello does machines; Raphael is cool, but rude; Michelangelo is a party dude!”

Everyone who grew up with the show knows these distinctions. Leo is the stalwart leader, Donnie is the techno-genius, Raph is the feisty grouch, and Mikey is the lovable party guy. Right?

Again, I challenge you to go back and watch the old cartoon. We all know that these are the different personality types of the four Turtles, but if you watch the old episodes you’ll notice that aside from when Donnie plays with a computer’s keyboard or Mikey says, “Cowabunga!” all the Turtles act exactly the same. Raph is in no way any more “rude” than his three brothers, and Leo doesn’t lead so much as he lifts his swords in the air and says, “Get ’em!”

Hell, they even look identical except for the color of their headbands.

Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.
Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.

In Nick’s version, each of the Turtles have very distinct personalities. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a huge geek who loves a Star Trek-like cartoon so much that he has the episodes memorized. Donnie is the techy, who he’s also gawky, and socially awkward. Raph has anger management issues and is extremely sarcastic pretty much all the time. Mikey is dumb as a brick, but in an incredibly cute and innocent way. And there are lots of little details that differentiate them all, like how Raph’s shell is chipped to show that he’s the rough one, and how Mikey is shorter than the rest to give the impression that he’s the innocent, youngest brother. Hell, just look at them…you can practically see their personalities in the way the new creators designed them:

2012-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-nickelodeon-33749841-800-871
The gap between Donnie’s teeth cracks me up for some reason.

Remember, even if your characters have a few key similarities, you want them to stand out from each other. They should have their own specific likes and dislikes, personality traits and hobbies. When a reader thinks of a particular character from your book, you want them to be able to picture that character apart from the other ones, to immediately know exactly who they’re reading about.

Antagonists should bring drama and tension to the story.

It goes without saying that The Shredder is, and forever will be, the main villain in the Ninja Turtles universe. He’s their arch-rival, the enemy that relentlessly strives for their extermination.

Also, in the original cartoon, he’s a bumbling idiot who can do nothing right.

I’ll admit that the late 80’s/early 90’s era was one during which most cartoons were a little weak in the drama center. They wanted to be light and fun, without exhibiting too much violence or anything that grumpy parents might find distasteful. But even taking that into consideration, The Shredder brought very little in the way of antagonistic tension to the original cartoon. He was such a pathetic fool that even as kids we knew there was no cause for concern because his plans always failed miserable. And he was a laughing stock, for sure. No kid who watched the original cartoon thought that The Shredder was anything other than hysterically inept.

The new Ninja Turtles, while still designed for kids and careful not to be too violent or mature, has fixed this issue with their villains. The Shredder is angry and powerful, and while his cronies may be a little pathetic, he is absolutely not. In the first episode in which the Turtles face Shredder, they get absolutely pulverized…and that’s the end of the episode. They are able to escape certain death by complete chance, and we’re left with the knowledge that our heroes are currently not powerful enough to defeat their enemy.

Even in a kid’s show, tension makes for good storytelling, plain and simple. Your antagonist needs to bring that tension. You want your readers to genuinely wonder if something horrifying is going to happen to your main characters at any given moment. Without that tension, the story serves no purpose and the antagonist is flat and pointless.

All characters should have flaws.

No one is perfect; not protagonists, not antagonists, not anyone. The original Ninja Turtles cartoon (along with most cartoons of that age) really glossed over this concept. The Turtles were always able to save the day easily because they always knew exactly what to do. They never made anything other than the smallest of mistakes, and lessons were learned with minimal effort. While this can be acceptable for small children (since they think their heroes are infallible anyway), it doesn’t fly most of the time. Characters without flaws are impossible to relate to.

The new Turtles have lots of flaws, and it makes them more relatable and likable because you can put yourself in their position. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a teenager with all the angst and frustrations that the age group is famous for, so he makes mistakes and doesn’t always¬†act like a leader. As previously mentioned, Mikey is dumb as a brick, and he’s constantly screwing up and getting himself and his brothers in trouble. Donnie is a tech genius, but sometimes his gear breaks down or blows up in his face. Raph lets his anger get the best of him and it lands him in lots of trouble.

Even the co-characters have their flaws focused upon. Splinter lets his fear for his “sons” cloud his judgement. April does whatever it takes to look for her father even when her ideas are dumb and dangerous. Shredder has a vendetta against Splinter that takes precedence over everything else and causes him to make poor decisions.

Readers want to be able to relate in some way to the character’s their reading about. If a character is clumsy or shy or a terrible drunk or has a gambling problem or an awful body image, it lets us put ourselves in the place of that character because we feel empathy with them. When a character (mostly likely an antagonist) has really awful flaws, like being a psychopath, it makes us root for their downfall that much more. If a character has absolutely no flaws it makes us wonder “where the hell this perfect person came from and why should I give a rat’s ass about them?”

In conclusion…

The characters make the story. Without good characters even the best of plot lines can wither and die. You want your readers to love your characters (whether they’re good guys or bad guys), to care for them, to root for (or against) them. There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows, and video games out there that are sub-par because the creators made characters who are hard, if not impossible, to like. And sometimes we, as writers, have a hard time seeing that our characters are unlikable, because they’re like children to us and our children are always perfect in our eyes. So I beg you to read articles like this one, examine the characters you love from all kinds of different mediums, and ask beta-readers about your characters’ likability. A little bit of extra effort can make a world of difference in creating characters that feel¬†real.

Your Children Know What You Did Last Summer

Children are remarkably perceptive little creatures, and they are ever watching, ever listening, ever learning. Did you know that it is believed that children learn 90% of all the words they’re ever going to learn between the ages of 6 months and 18 months old? The theory is that they spend these months observing, often watching the mouths of others while they speak rather than focusing on their eyes. They learn the sound of the words, along with the motion the mouth makes while saying them, and gather up all this information for later. Only after gathering enough information about the way speech works do they actually attempt it themselves.

Many parents will tell you that you have to start watching what you say when you have kids, and this is definitely true. How often to you catch small children swearing, after all, because they recognize words that their parents say often? I don’t want to speak specifically about speech, however, because most people already realize that kids hear everything. What I want to point out is that kids see and feel everything as well.

I’ll give you an example. My daughter loves to do puzzles, which is awesome because it’s great for her brain, but she always wants myself or my husband to sit with her while she does her puzzles. She doesn’t necessarily want us to join in or anything, she just wants us to be there. So okay, that’s fine; I’ll usually sit with her and have my iPhone or my laptop with me and I’ll pluck away at something while she’s doing her puzzle. I’ll smile and nod and praise her at the appropriate intervals, while also multitasking on something else I have (or want) to do. This is what we were doing a few weeks ago, up in her bedroom. She was plucking away at her Tinkerbell puzzle, and I was praising her while browsing Twitter on my iPhone. What I failed to realize as this was occurring, was that I wasn’t really so much paying attention to her as I was smiling and nodding while focused intently on my phone’s screen. I didn’t notice what I was doing…but she sure did. Even though I was doing basically the same thing that I would have been doing had I not had the phone with me (smile, nod, say “Good job!”), she was fully aware that I wasn’t paying attention, and she didn’t like it. Before I knew what was happening, she stood up, took the phone right out of my hand, placed it on her bookshelf, and said, “There, that’s better!” before returning to her puzzle. I was shocked for a moment, but it didn’t take me long to burst into laughter. She really told me! She knew that I was only paying her lip service while I was glued to the Twittersphere, so she resolved the issue herself.

Kids notice these things. They are a lot more in tune to what is going on around them than adults give them credit for. They know when you’re patronizing them, they can tell when you’re flat-out lying to them, they notice when you’re genuinely upset, they see things that you don’t even realize you’re doing. Think of all the times a child has spouted off a surprising phrase that you didn’t notice you said all the time, or the times a child has followed you around, copying mannerisms you never noticed you even had. If you don’t have kids of your own, think back to when you were a kid. Couldn’t you tell if your mother was sad about something, or your dad had suffered a bad day at work? Didn’t you try to copy the way your mother applied lipstick, or the way your father shaved? And don’t even try to tell me that you can’t think of at least one instance of a parent or a loved one bursting into laughter or getting embarrassed because of something you said, and you didn’t understand what the big deal was because you were just repeating something they had said.

"Don't worry, ma, I've been paying attention and I've totally got this."
“Don’t worry, ma, I’ve been paying attention and I’ve totally got this.”

It’s an important thing to remember when dealing with children, although we tend to forget it more often than not. Remember that this little creature is watching you, seeing everything you do, hearing everything you say, picking up on your emotions and moods, and learning. Most of all, learning. Everything you do or say, everything you present to them in everyday life, is a lesson. What are you going to teach your children today?

Things I Know About Kids – Learning

First, I feel I should point out that I have done no real research on the topic of learning capabilities in small children, nor have I read any research done by others. What I know I’ve learned from my own daughter, and to a lesser extent my niece and the children we see at playgroup.

With that aside, what I know is that we as a society have a bad habit of underestimating small children. We follow guidelines that tell us what skills our kids should know and by when, we buy age-specific toys based on assessments made by the companies who designed them, and we get upset if our kids haven’t learned a specific skill by a specific time, even if they’ve become quite advanced in a different skill in the meantime.

In other words, we group all children together, expecting them to learn and grow at the same rate, and limiting them by focusing on only the skills we’re told they should have by now. I personally think this is very silly because, while you shouldn’t push your children to “learn learn learn learn learn!!!” you should always encourage them to go further and further.

I’ll give you an example. My daughter has a wooden alphabet puzzle. The back of the puzzle board states that the puzzle is for ages 3 and up. At the time we purchased the puzzle I thought that “ages 3 and up” couldn’t possibly refer to any kind of safety issue because the puzzle pieces are quite large, and a quick examination showed that there is no way the pegs could possibly become disconnected. When the safety check was all clear we gave our daughter the puzzle to play with…at the time she was just under a year old. Yes, we gave our one year old a toy that someone, somewhere, decided was meant for three year olds and up. We weren’t pushing the learning toy on her, and we certainly didn’t expect giving it to her to make her a genius or anything; we just figured it was a good, educational toy that she’d enjoy playing with. But here’s the thing…she caught on pretty fast. It only took her a few weeks to be able to locate where the pieces went, and by the time she was just under a year and a half old we had her telling us what all the letters were as she was doing the puzzle. It didn’t take long after that for her to understand that letters naturally went in a particular order, and if I wrote down letters she’d tell me which ones came next.

There were other factors that contributed to her success, of course… For one thing we took the time to sit with her and tell her what all the letters were. For another she also regularly watched a Sesame Street special that teaches kids the alphabet. But the point of the story is that if we had set the puzzle aside, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to understand it until she was at least three years old, she might not have caught on to the alphabet so soon. If we took it upon ourselves to assume that the Sesame Street special was too advanced for her, she wouldn’t be THIS close to being able to sing the whole alphabet song at less than two and a half years old (imagine me holding my fingers a few millimeters apart).

Again, I’m not saying my kid is a genius, but I can absolutely say with certainty that she has advanced faster than expected because we don’t hold back teaching her new things just because she’s still young. We make sure her toys are safe, and if we buy her something meant for older kids (Ninja Turtles action figures and My Little Pony sets come to mind) we make sure to remove any small pieces she might decide to swallow for fun. Once those two things have been accomplished, we let her play with what she’s interested in, and we encourage her to learn new things. In fact, she and her soon-to-be-four-year-old cousin can work my Samsung Galaxy Tab2 better than some adults I know.

Kids are sponges, they really are. We regularly take this into consideration when taking care not to transfer bad habits, but we rarely think about it when considering teaching and learning practices. Encourage your kid to learn, and (as long as safety permits) let them decide what toys and programs are appropriate for their age group. They’ll thank you for it later.