Everything I needed to know about characterization, I learned from Sesame Street. I just didn’t know it at the time. Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but watching the show as an adult—and as a writer—I am consistently amazed by how well the muppets are characterized.
Sesame Street celebrated its 50th birthday last week, and with that milestone, this seems as good of a time as any for me to write about what authors can learn from the show. While there are, of course, many aspects of writing in which the show excels, the one stands out most is the characterization of the beloved muppets, which is orders of magnitude better than any other children’s program on tv today.
Most other kids’ shows (and as a stay at home dad on childcare leave, I watch a lot of children’s’ television) feature flat, one-dimensional characters who are known for a single character trait: the smart one, the leader, the clumsy one, the shy one, etc., and a catch phrase. The simplicity of the characterization and the repetition of the catch phrase drives home the characterization for young viewers, and informs the way the character interacts with the both the plot and the message of each episode. The shy one has to speak up in order to save the day; the leader has to learn to accept help from his team; the clumsy one learns gymnastics or karate, etc. The young viewer recognizes these traits in themselves and understands the lesson each episode teaches. That characterization is driven home by the catch phrase, which repeats throughout the episode and provides a shorthand for children to identify – and identify with—the character. Ultimately, though, these characters are flat, and adult viewers and older children find these over-simplified characters –and especially their loud, repetitive catch phrases annoying (just ask any parent forced to sit through multiple episodes of Paw Patrol).
Sesame Street, on the other hand, provides much rounder, more realistic characterization. While it is true that many of the characters, especially in recent years, are associated with specific traits (Grover and Abby are prone to mistakes, Bert is fastidious, Telly is a worrier), and while there are characters with catch phrases (Oscar the Grouch, “Scram” and The Count, “They call me the count because I love to count things, ah, ah, ah.”), the characterization does not end there. Generally, the muppets have fully-formed personalities that fit E. M. Forsters’ definition of round characters, they seem like they could walk out of the screen and exist in our world.
There are many factors that contribute to this complex characterization, and, of course, a large portion of the credit goes to the muppeteers, from Jim Henson and Carol Spinney on down to the contemporary artists whose performance gives the characters life, but there are also techniques inherent in writing that contribute to each character’s unique personality. I would like to focus on just one for this post: the way language gives each character his or her own unique voice.
Let’s examine Cookie Monster, who is one of the most beloved recognizable of the muppets. While Cookie Monster does have a strong primary trait (he loves to eat cookies, duh!) and some catch phrases (Cowabunga! And Cooookies om nom nom), he feels more round than characters on other kids programs. He has a sense of humor; he is impulsive; he is emotional; and he has an active imagination. He also has a very unique way of talking.
If you have not seen the show in a while, watch this brilliant spoof of Jurassic Park to remind yourself about the way Cookie Monster Talks:
In the first minute or so of the video, all of Cookie Monster’s major speech quirks manifest:
–He consistently uses the objective pronoun, “me” in place of the subjective case “I” ex: 0:22—“me take little piece of cookie found in zillion year old rock”
–He uses “no” or “not” in the place of contracted negatives, like “don’t or “won’t” ex: 0:48—“Me not know; me no see it yet.”
— He often, though not always drops (doesn’t use) “to be” verbs (is, are, etc.) ex: 053 “Ok, that one big cookie.
–He drops the article (a, the) from his sentences most of the time, except when clarity would be sacrificed, ex: 1:01 “Is giant prehistoric cookie chasing us?”
Cookie monster repeats these speech quirks many times throughout the video. Notice how these speech patterns appear consistently throughout the five minute sketch. Notice as well, that the famous Cookie Monster catch phrases don’t appear until the final minute. The scene runs 4:50 before the first “cowabunga”, yet, throughout, it feels and sounds exactly like Cookie Monster should.
Here is another, older, sketch which features Cookie Monster. Watch it to see how remarkably consistent these speech quirks have been over the program’s 50 year run.
Cookie Monster is not the only character on Sesame Street who features syntactical quirks as a major part of his or her characterization. Elmo never uses personal pronouns to describe himself. Grover never uses contractions. Less obviously, Big Bird, at least when he was played by Spinney, punctuated his speech with “Oh” (Oh boy, Oh dear). The common, maybe even the official explanation of these speech patterns, is that these characters mimic children’s speech patterns at various ages and in various stages of development, but these syntactical signatures also mimic the way real people speak.
In Neil Gaiman’s Master Class, he suggests that an author’s voice is what happens when they don’t do things perfectly. These quirks of style, he says, make the writing unique and identifiable. They comprise a key element of the author’s voice. Narrative voice, however, is only one kind of voice. Individual characters also should have their own voices, distinct from that of the narrator. Unfortunately, many authors struggle with this aspect of writing. Giving your characters unique syntactical quirks in a great way to address this issue. Going back to E. M. Forster’s definition of round characters—one that can come off the page and exist in real life—real people have their own specific syntactical quirks. No one speaks perfectly all of the time (and if they did, that, in and of itself, is a differentiating quirk), and, as Gaiman said about author voices, these mistakes make us who we are.
The writers of Sesame Street are not the only ones who use this technique. No less of a writer than William Shakespeare used it brilliantly in his most famous play, Hamlet. In that play, Polonius’ speech is marked by the literary technique, Hendiadys, the expression of a single idea using two words, connected by “and”. Hamlet, himself is prone to apostrophe (address to an inanimate object or concept as if it is a real person), and comparisons using Greek mythology in which he comes up short next to the person or god with whom he compares himself.
The modern paradigm for this technique is Yoda, from the Star Wars universe, who, famously, inverts his sentences (though there is way more to his syntax than most people realize—Look out for a future blog post analyzing his speech patterns).
There are many examples from which to choose. If you want to practice this technique choose a character from a book, movie, or show who has a distinctive manner of speaking and try to write a speech for that character. Read the speech out loud, and analyze the extent to which your speech sounds like the person whom you are trying to emulate. Repeat the exercise with a different character whose speech pattern is more subtle, or with someone whom you know in real life.
Another way that you can work on this in your own writing is to add a character’s syntactical signatures and speech quirks into your character profiles. Instead of just describing the character’s physical appearance and background information, sketch out their speech patterns as well. You learn a lot more about a person by listening to them speak than by knowing how tall they are or what color eyes they have.
Using syntactical quirks as a method of characterization is a technique that I’ve encountered throughout my reading, writing, and teaching life. It is, like many things, however, something that I first learned from Sesame Street.
Happy 50th Birthday, Sesame Street!