Saturday, January 5, 2008

Here's a question for you

How many characters is too many characters in a story?

Nerd backstory: I was reading Green Lantern 26 yesterday, which was an epilogue to "The Sinestro Corps War" (I know, I know) but... here's what got me going.

The Corps has 7200 members.
Their enemies had the same amount.

Obviously, they didn't focus on that.

But in the book they have four green lanterns, nine guardians, and they introduce "The Alpha Lanterns," which are 12 new characters. It made my head hurt.

And then it made me think of writing for animation. I'll use my current show as a question.

Yin, Yang, Yo has three leads, but honestly, you usually see two of them, with the Panda being a running gag, and one villain. There may be the occasional angry mob, or marching army... but it's a buddy comedy with fighting. The ones that lean toward action tend to have more characters.

The same with Fairly Odd - When the three are acting on their own, and complications arise, the tighter dynamic seems to lend itself to better comedy. But when we needed to blow it out - make it bigger with action (like the TV movies or the Jimmy/Timmy crossovers) I think the comedy ratio changed.

So to me - Comedy=smaller cast, Action=Larger cast.

But there's too large, I think, even for action. For example, I really enjoyed the first few seasons of Justice League and Teen Titans but when it became a gigantic cast - "Titans around the world" and "Justice League Unlimited," I felt like I lost a lot of characterization.

Not to say it wasn't good, not to say I didn't watch and enjoy. But to me, there was a difference.

They had a hell of a lot more action figures to sell, but to the detriment, at points, of story.

Just a non-strike related, non-ASIFA archive related thought on this Saturday morning.


Alex Weitzman said...

I would be loath to apply a clear-cut formula like such. For instance, "The Simpsons" has succeeded for years upon years with a cast for comedy that is so massive that it makes it being animated a necessity. This cast, of course, was developed over so many smaller-focused stories or gags over the course of time that now the show can drag out any character (Squeaky-Voiced Teen, Crazy Cat Lady, Uter) for one nanosecond-long gag and get a laugh.

To me, that's a sign that comedy can handle a large cast as long as it's justified for the audience in where each member of that cast comes from. Many of those one-off Simpsons characters fulfill or represent standard societal stereotypes. That way, you don't have to have seen Helen Lovejoy before to get within a few seconds that she's the uberexample of a gossipy, catty bitch. But if an episode , or any standalone gag within an episode, fails to make that use of her clear, then that joke might not work - either by not establishing her for a new audience member or by failing to live up to how an old audience member recalls her.

So, I say it's all in the individual handlings of each character. In defense of JLU, for instance (a show of which I am a long-time and extremely overknowledgable nerd), I'd say that even though the League expanded from 7 to 57 in membership, the stories remained (mostly) tightly focused on a core of about three or four heroes - and oftentimes, really only about one or two of them with the rest serving as supporting characters. "Clash" was an episode that came right in the middle of the Cadmus arc and was rife with cameo characters: Elongated Man, Emil Hamilton, Lois Lane, Parasite, Atom, and so forth. But in the watching, it boiled down mostly to Superman and Captain Marvel's conflict with each other. Large cast, narrowed focus.

The few episodes that did have massive cast counts ("The Return", "Dark Heart", "Panic in the Sky", etc.) still went by the same principles, using the multitudes of heroes in the background as window dressing for the story while a few crucial characters really grabbed our attention. Hell, "The Return" uses the many League members as a JOKE - just cannon fodder for the two real players of the drama, Amazo and Luthor.

The one thing I will say for JLU is that some of its episodes had blink-and-you'll-miss-'em character nods for characters and ongoing stories that required you to be pretty durned knowledgeable about (or to have at least watched all of) the previous episodes. The continuity did get a little heavy here and there, and I can see where that might muck up one's ability to make heads or tails out of things. But go back and look at those episodes, Steve. I think you'll see that even when many different characters are used, there's a key simple story right there in the core.

Anonymous said...

Wow, a necessary defense of the JLU by an uber-nerd defines exactly what's wrong with it in my opinion. Make all the justifications you want, but my 10 year old son was lost, "Who is that cowboy? Is that knight a good guy or a bad guy? Where's the Flash?" Face it, working so hard to figure out what or who the characters are is a lot of story-distracting work for the DC uninitiated. Those episodes seemed so inside, they must have been written by 30-something uber nerd fans for 30-something uber nerd fans, "Just wait til' comic con!" I think a show like that is long as it is not trying to claim it is anything more.

Alex Weitzman said...

As little as I can argue with the reaction of your ten-year-old son, the fact that I personally know more than a couple kids the same age or younger who've enjoyed it (and have heard about many more of the same) makes the complaint unimportant to me at best. Anybody's individual reactions are exactly what they are, at any age, and it can usually be guaranteed that there'll be plenty of examples for any side of a debate to draw from.

And hey, who says that the question/reaction of "Who's that cowboy?" is a bad thing? Maybe the right answer for you the parent should be "I don't know. Let's find out." That is, as opposed to, "Hell if I know! Damn this nosepicker geekfest!"

BTW, for what it's worth, "Where's the Flash?" was a question probably asked with five times more frequency and fifty times more intensity by the crazed fanboys themselves than the younger audience members during the third season.

Matt Wayne said...

I was actually going to post that too many characters is my problem with Heroes... then I found the same criticism leveled at JLU, which I wrote a lot of.

Lemme see... in general, I agree that a cast of thousands is a problem and just as Strunk and White tells prose writers to omit unnecessary words, fiction writers should omit unnecessary characters. But then you have superhero teams.

When I was working for Dwayne McDuffie (the first time, in 1992), I ended up writing both team books at Milestone. The Maestro (back then we called him Dwayne) told me that four or five is the most number of characters you can fit into stories told in monthly bites of 22 pages. But you can sure have others around (Just as Timmy has Cosmo and Wanda, but an episode can have his parents, his babysitter, his school buddies, etc... )

I think JLU worked, because the answer to "who's that cowboy?' is, he's another costumed hero. A redshirt, a spear carrier, until we do a story that focuses on Vigilante ("Hunter's Moon") AND the ones we know (Shayera and Vixen) and he's formally introduced as a more rounded character, with cool bits and friction with the others. Then he's Yeoman Rand. We really only did that with maybe six characters through all of JLU, and I think some of our best characters came out of that... the Question, Vixen and Huntress come to mind.

To me, the difference between JLU and Heroes is, we told action stories with fairly well-rounded characters in a half-hour, and Heroes won't stop introducing characters long enough to tell one story in an hour. Or ten.

As for comedy, it's probably even more important to have a short cast list. I don't know why. But when they speak of the great comedy teams, you never hear about Marx Brothers East, a different team of 57 comedians led by Zeppo. This may be because comedy will dwell on a topic until the gags run out, and should. Rocky and Bullwinkle can be in the same predicament until it isn't funny anymore, or ideally, till just before, the gags building along the way. But if an action show like Heroes has to cut back to, say, Hiro cheating at the casino more than once, it feels like we've been standing in a checkout line and it's awful. (Not the best example, but my God! They went back SEVEN times by my count.) Anyway, having fewer characters could help make room for humor.

McDuffie and I have written a comedy, The Road to Hell, which once again might finally get published this year. So whether I'm talking out of my hat about what the French call "ze funny" remains to be seen. But for the record, it has three main characters.

Alex Weitzman said...

"To me, the difference between JLU and Heroes is, we told action stories with fairly well-rounded characters in a half-hour, and Heroes won't stop introducing characters long enough to tell one story in an hour. Or ten."

Exactly. I had a similar kind of argument with a fellow fan who lamented that JLU didn't have enough of the fun supporting cast characters that the single-hero-focus shows (B:TAS, S:TAS, BB) had, but then changed his mind when I pointed out that JL/JLU had made the superheroes themselves into the supporting cast, switching roles depending on the story. The cast is extremely flexible in this way: Superman can be the star, the witness, or just the additional muscle. Whatever the story needs.

However, I do appreciate some of the concerns. Like I said, JLU was a continuity-rewarding experience. It was entirely understandable to neophytes who paid attention, without a doubt. But greater meaning was held for those who could hold all these guys' names and stories in their head.

Take a script you wrote, Matt: "Flash and Substance". (One of my definite favorites, BTW.) In it, Orion has a key supporting role, and he's way less known than Batman or Flash. Those who've seen more than their fair share of S:TAS and JL/JLU will be perfectly familiar with him, but anybody else will be confused by the buff weirdo in the helmet. The episode is written well enough to make his involvement in the story clear - he's a violent hothead who's so very not like the Flash, and that's all you really NEED to know. But in the end, the average viewer will only have so much understanding of who Orion is and why he says and thinks the things he does. They'll chalk him up to simply being a very different person. But those with geektastic powers of retention (I don't know who I could possibly be referring to) will be far more able to understand how Orion's Fourth World upbringing is coming into conflict with his understanding of Central City. Because some less-geeky viewers will be aware that there's a certain distance between them and full comprehension of these things, they'll rightfully lash out at the program for being too esoteric. I'd chide them for not taking the information the episode itself provides them in stride and simply going by that, but my perspective is obviously biased.

Matt Wayne said...

And of course, somebody complaining doesn't necessarily mean they're not entertained.

One of the most amazing posts on ToonZone about Justice League was a guy saying he'd hated an episode, watched it four times, THEN decided it was pretty good. You have to wonder why he kept rewinding.

My guess is he wanted the cartoon to reward him for knowing comics continuity by heart, which was explicitly NOT what the show was about. At that time a few years back, comic books were all about shaking up and re-arranging the continuity, which to me is the realm of fan-fiction and not at all interesting. (As opposed to now, right?)

Steve said...

Weighing in.

1) I liked JLU, but I always thought it was more for me than kids. That being said, I thought it was for kids too. But I'm the one that bought the HeroClix, for God's sake. (I wanted to make sure I said that... I have friends that work on both shows I used as example of "character overload" but it was more to make the action vs comedy point)

2) There is no 2.

Matt Wayne said...

Yeah, none taken, I was going off on tangent.

I think it's always smart to boil a show down to as few characters as possible, but certain kinds of action stuff (superhero teams, Battlestar Galactica, Sinestro Corps) also have to provide spectacle, and that pulls in the other direction.

Just to keep this going, let me suggest that Camp Lazlo has its good points, but wayyyy too many characters.

Alex Weitzman said...

"One of the most amazing posts on ToonZone about Justice League was a guy saying he'd hated an episode, watched it four times, THEN decided it was pretty good. You have to wonder why he kept rewinding."

When we can answer the mystery of how a single shadowy Nightwing cameo in "Grudge Match" can spawn twenty-five pages of talkback in lieu of smokin' hot superheroines fighting each other, then I think we'll be able to figure that one out as well.

Back on topic: One thing to keep in mind - be it comedy, action, drama, whatever - is the flow of a narrative. Characters that are quickly glimpsed or referenced only become a problem when they derail the storyline. You could have upwards of forty characters appear in a story and not really notice it as long as the story is focused on what it's doing. Conversely, a three-person story could feel crowded if we've been seduced by the story to really only be interested in just one character.

Anonymous said...

action equals larger cast? comedy equals smaller? howabout formulas equal stupid. teen titans and justice league suck compared to the superman and batman animated shows. why? because titans and league always have too many characters running around. crowds dont animate well on a tv budget. crowds are what writers use when they want to make everything seem big and epic to cover up the fact that they cant come up with good simple stories.

Steve said...

I'm not pitching a formula, I'm discussing a theory.

It's not like I'm planning on issuing an edict on productions that says "We're an action show! I need MORE characters!"

But thanks for taking a simple discussion and using it to bitch about writers. That's super constructive.

Anonymous said...

if its a discussion you shouldnt be so sensitive to opinions that dont match yours. you brought up the topic of crowds and cast sizes in cartoons and i said that crowds are a device that hack writers use. so i wasnt bitching about all writers. i was bitching about hacks. but as usual you took that personally so you must be defensive about your own work. if someone bitches about hacks only hacks should be offended. if your not a hack you dont have anything to worry about. i think lots of writers do use crowds and angry mobs when they cant think of anything better to do. a good writer finds a way to tell compelling stories without resorting to stuff like that.

Alex Weitzman said...

You know, Anonymous Hack Disliker, it is entirely possible to create a story that actually REQUIRES a great deal of characters.

And I challenge you to watch the JLU finale "Destroyer" and tell me that it's not well-animated.

Anonymous said...

its also possible to create a story that "requires" the depiction of hardcore sex and drugs but must writers accept the fact that they cant do that on kids cartoons. so if you have a story that "requires" a ton of characters and your budget and manpower are limited then you need to create a story that doesnt "require" a bunch of characters.

Alex Weitzman said...

Well, given the fact that shows like JLU and Avatar have done fine work with large amounts of characters, I find your analogy fairly stretched. You're comparing a censorship/rating-related limitation to a scale-related one. Unlike rating issues, which cannot be solved via conventional means, scale issues merely require resources and talent.

Obviously not every show has such resources, and writers should consider that. But neither should they constantly wimp out just because they'll never have Disney feature-film money. The shows I mentioned earlier have achieved fantastic scale results on television budgets, also they certainly seem to be on the high end of budgetary concerns in TV.

But then, YOU still seem to say that you thought JLU and Titans and such failed on the topic of large casts. Which, of course, is a failure that you haven't really explained. Therefore, I remain skeptical of your point until you can explain why your description of "too many characters running around" is inherently a bad one. JLU had lots of characters, yes - and it did it damn well.

Steve said...

Oddly enough, I don't think Titans or JLU "Failed," but I definitely liked the smaller casts better.

Alex Weitzman said...

"Oddly enough, I don't think Titans or JLU "Failed," but I definitely liked the smaller casts better."

Which is preference. Opinion. And not only is that just fine, but I completely respect it. JLU, in particular, broke the door wide open for DCAU continuity and was therefore a much wider-reaching and wider-focused series. Many folks prefer the single-hero-focused B:TAS and S:TAS. No problem with that.

Obviously, the difference is whether you're expressing simple preference, or if you're applying a specific uncomparative judgement like "failure" on something.

Anonymous said...

lots of board artists suffered to make JLU and all of those other ensable shows work. and what did they get for it? lots of unpaid overtime and eventually laid off. so if your a producer who doesnt mind making people suffer because you cant think of a way to make a great show without huge crowds then i guess thats your right. but it makes you a dick. it keeps the cycle of abuse going. it also makes you a hack for not knowing how to make a show that works within your shows time and budget restrictions.

Alex Weitzman said...


Firstly, I'm not a boarder from JLU, but all general evidence (including comments from those who have worked on the shows and worked their ways up from boarders to directors, like Butch Lukic and Joaquim Dos Santos) would indicate that there is slim to nil ill will against Timm and the other producers for upping the cast.

Secondly, just because there's a lot more heroes doesn't mean necessarily that every single episode is packed to the gills. And the converse of that is also true: episodes with just one hero can still have massive amounts of characters to deal with. Crowd scenes are kinda typical in superhero fare, usually because threatening a mass amount of people is a rather effective tool for a villain.

Thirdly, there's no reason to lay the blame of lost jobs on Timm, Tucker, et al's doorstep. I don't necessarily want to speak for Timm or such, but I have no doubt that he'd love to keep his crew employed forever. He's still employing quite a few on his DTV movies. Others are over at other WBA superhero shows, and some are elsewhere altogether. But it's certainly not Timm's fault that JLU's no longer around, especially after its five-year run. If WBA was willing to keep paying him to do what he does, I have no doubt he'd keep doing it and keep his guys all employed.

And lastly, this sounds more and more like an extended and thinly-veiled version of the old standby whine, "But it's hard!" Toughen up. I'm guessing most job contracts don't come with Ease of Duty clauses.