After I saw the Madagascar movies, I fell in love with the Penguins. I was thrilled when I saw that they had their own show on Nickelodeon, THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR. Silly fellows. But then I found others who were just as enamored with the flightless birds and I began to think, why? Why do so many adults and kids love this one cartoon? It is just a cartoon, right? Or maybe it’s more then just a Saturday morning kids’ show, maybe it’s brilliant writing that creates interesting characters.
Take Skipper, my favorite character. He seems crazy and his stories are crazier as if he’s blowing smoke into peoples’ faces. He’s in love with himself, even bragging about his past adventures. He is over the top, jumping to conclusions, very unorthodox, never analyzing a problem, but always thinking the worse. Every small coincidence is Defcon 5. He is suspicious of any stranger, thinking they are the enemy. Paranoid? Or perhaps the back stories will shed more light on the situation. Manfredi and Johnson, two fallen soldiers and friends, buried with spoons in Ecuador. They never saw the flying piranhas, there was little left to bury. Maybe the Skipper is paranoid because his comrades in arms are now gone. Stopping and thinking can get a man killed, so why do it? Were the two male penguins real or part of his self-delusions?
His actions never match up to his insanity. He takes flying punches in order to protect the innocent, looks after the frail and helpless animals in the zoo, even the annoying King Julian sits securely under the Skipper’s wing. He loves his men and they love him. They are lost without him. The young boy Private is like the Skipper’s son to the point of offering himself in place of the boy when the zoo keeper, Alice, takes the boy away. An insane person would never risk his life for the annoying neighbors, his actions would never stand up to his words, yet another writing gem. His actions DO match his insane words. But again, I have to ask, is the Skipper really insane and blowing smoke or is he part of an Elite fighting force, a military experiment that suddenly went wrong?
His name is Skipper, yet a skipper is a captain of a ship. The group is an Elite Ground Fighting Force like the Green Berets. So why Skipper? Was he in charge of a ship at one time and lost it? Or did he just like the name and ran with it? Or is this a way the writer draws in the reader like a fishing line? Skipper. It doesn’t match his military position. So why not Gunny? Or the Old Man? Sergeant, General, Colonel? Again we have the million dollar question, why? It needs to be answered by someone and people will watch the show in order to follow their questions.
Then there’s Marlene, the otter. The voice of reason in the sea of insanity. She loves the penguins but she is like me, questioning their reasoning. Their actions seem insane, always jumping to weird conclusions and thinking everyone is an enemy. “Thank you for your bits of Paranoia,” she once said. Yet sometimes that same paranoia has saved the zoo, other times they were completely wrong. Since she agrees with me, I have to think, another being thinks the same, so maybe we are right, the penguins are insane. But again, the actions stand up and defend the crazy stories of fallen soldiers in Ecuador and Skipper’s arch enemy, Dr. Blowhole. I’ve met those who speak loud, yet their actions never follow their words. When the chips fall, so do they. They crack in the face of dilemmas, blaming others for their mistakes. They cower at the sight of danger and run for cover. Yet again, Skipper’s actions match his words. It’s off kilter, something is wrong and I can’t make sense of it, I must keep watching to understand.
Look at his environment. He deals with a world he doesn’t understand. Neither he nor his men can read English. Yet he understands the fundamentals of weaponry, flying a plane and military tactics, things a normal person could never know. He can pull a plan together in minutes and expects his men to follow them to the last letter, which they do. But he can’t read the zoo map, doesn’t understand how a copier works and seems to make things up as he goes along. At times he is like a con man hiding the pea under the cups and switching them around, and other times he is the recreation of General Patton.
So what did I, the writer, learn from all of this?
Be in love with back story and use it wisely. Sprinkle a little here and a little there, enough to give it a salty taste.
Be in love with secrets. Secrets are wonderful and Skipper has plenty.
How does he deal with problems? Orthodox, rationally, quick to action, paranoid? Why? What back story can you use to back up his problem solving?
What about his name? Does it match his personality? Why? Is there a story behind the nickname?
How do others perceive him and why?
How does he perceive himself and why?
Does he care that others do/don't see him the way he sees himself? Why?
What are his fighting skills and why? Ever notice each penguin has a different fighting skill and they fight differently?
How do his actions negate his words or justify them? Why?
Manfredi and Johnson were two characters from the movie STALAG 17 and were prisoners in a German prison camp. They crawled out of a tunnel that lead out of the camp and were shot to death by German guards. They never saw the bullets coming. Interesting. Now we have more depth to the characters. Did Skipper see the movie and decided to incorporate the two people into his fraud? Did he make them up? Or did the writers do this on purpose, taking two characters from a 1960’s movie and add them into their story, giving us clues into Skipper’s past?
Create questions, a bread crumb trail leading the reader more and more into the story. Keep your cards close to your chest, never give the reader a break or a breath, keep them guessing. Never answer those questions until the end of the book/story.
Make every word deliberate, nothing is an accident or coincidence. As one writer had once said, Every word should advance the plot, support the theme and develop the character.
But most of all, know the character, his thoughts, past, reactions, emotions, loves, lusts, weaknesses, strengths, his friends, his pains, his angers, his happiness, his mental capacity, his secrets. Most writing books teach us to know the character’s favorite color, song, animal, sport, food but the writers of PoM teach us to dig deeper into unknown waters. Understand the character’s name, his back stories, his fears, his longings, the deep crevices of his very soul and be like a miner who brings gold to the surface, one nugget at a time. That’s what makes a great character like Skipper or Kowalski, Private or Rico. All rich and juicy characters with lives prior to the filming. Beings who somehow came together to form a strange military group that may or may not be legit. But that’s the question that must be answered, who are these guys? And we’ll all keep watching because we have to know!!
Yeah, I know, I have problems. I am seeking medical help. :)