Mad, bad and dangerous to know

A friend recently got me into Rick and Morty. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it as it’s not usually my style of comedy. Massive amounts of toilet humour, pointedly politically incorrect and incredibly near the knuckle themes – this is not a cartoon for children. Nothing’s held sacred and everything’s a target of ridicule. But it also explores complex philosophical and scientific ideas in an intelligent, though clearly jaded way. And it’s dead funny.

Though none of it would have been enough to hold my attention were it not for Rick. And here lies my weakness for books, movies and TV series which I would otherwise put down in the first five minutes. If I find a character I love, I’m hooked.

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Rick Sanchez is a not too subtle knock-off of the Doctor Emmitt Brown from Back to the Future. This mad-scientist, however, is a self-serving, arrogant drunk who’s complete disregard for his grandson Morty’s well-being puts the boy’s life in constant danger. He’s rude and callous. In short, an entirely unsympathetic individual. His extreme intelligence separates him from everyone around him. As the addictive website TV Tropes points out, he barely has enough humanity to qualify as an Anti-Hero and edges nearer the Villain Protagonist archetype.

Let’s be brutally honest, we’re talking about a grandfather who postpones resolving an apocalyptic, life-threatening crisis in order to mathematically prove to both his grandchildren they’re worthless. [EXPLICIT video below]

So why on earth, by the third or fourth episode, had Rick grown on me (as my friend so adeptly puts it) like a fungus? Because he’s a surprisingly complex character.

Rick is the living embodiment of an existential crisis and swings violently between active and passive nihilism. Despite his frequent assertions about not caring for anyone or anything (except perhaps McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce) this isn’t always evident. He sometimes acts in a way which suggests he cares for his hapless family. He sacrifices his life to save Morty in A Rickle in Time. In the season two finale, he protects his family by handing himself over the Galatic Federation. His quirky catchphrase ‘Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!’ translates ‘I am in great pain. Please help me.’

This archetype is nothing new. Once upon a time, Lord Byron, the romantic poet, politician and all-round trouble-marker, was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. How someone can be witty and intelligent, yet equally deficient in positive qualities, like empathy or even basic humanity? Stephen Moffett’s Sherlock and The Doctor are also embodiments of this (though I would argue that both are far better people than Rick!). And Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, even if you examine him within the era he was written, was hardly a sympathetic character.

Of course, many people may like Rick because we all carry around a little Rick inside of us. The part that sticks a middle finger up at the world and says f*** it. He embodied our jaded view of a cruel world which, at times like these, I think we all need. But there’s more to it than that.

Humans are natural puzzle solvers. We like everything filed away in a neat little category. We even have stereotypical labels for one another (nerds, geeks, emos, class clowns, etc). So a character who doesn’t immediately conform to our expectations is intriguing. We want to understand how this person ticks.

The writer should understand a character’s true motive, but it doesn’t have to be spelt out for the audience. Characters should be a mystery worth discovering. Hints at a ghost in their past shows they’re deeper than what you see on the surface. Or consistency in their goal (if not in their method of achieving it).

For example, Fredrick’s goal is to win the war against the giants. He’s spiteful and vicious, puts everyone in danger and who’s only joy life is brutal killing. But there’s a ghost in his past. His daughter was killed by the giants and he’s saddled with guilt. But the audience don’t know that, only seeing his action and reactions. While he may seem erratic and illogical, he’s driven by one secret motive: redemption.

All this helps to create a fully rounded character, rather than a vehicle for plot-driven events or simply being mysterious for mysteries sake. That’s cheating and we instinctively know when we’re being strung along.

For me, the creators of Rick and Morty have reassured me that you can create a character who is vile, unsympathetic and almost entirely unlikeable and yet audiences will love him. It puts the lie to all the frequent posts and workbooks I read about creating ‘likable’ characters. There’s nothing in Rick to like, except for how little I like him while adoring him.

Are you a Rick and Morty fan? What other characters can you name who do everything to make you hate them, but you love regardless? Let me know! 

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