‘Rick and Morty’ is a much-beloved animated TV show that follows a nihilistic super-genius scientist (Rick) and his hapless grandson (Morty) on madcap adventures involving time-travel, dimension-hopping and interstellar travel.
If you haven’t seen the show, its popularity might seem strange when you learn that Rick Sanchez is one of the most unpleasant characters on television. He’s the hero of the show, but he’s also a high-functioning alcoholic who constantly wears a splash of discoloured saliva on his chin, belches obnoxiously mid-sentence, and generally does whatever takes his fancy or whatever will further his quest for scientific discovery – including theft, cold-blooded murder and brutally insulting his family members, which whom he lives.
To Rick, young Morty is a “walking burlap sack of turds”. He calls his grandchildren “pieces of shit” and claims he can prove it mathematically. He said of Jerry, his daughter Beth’s cowardly self-victimising husband, “You survive because people think ‘Oh, this poor piece of shit, he never gets a break, I can’t stand the deafening silent wails of his wilting soul, I’ll hire him or marry him’.”
Rick asserts that he is “surrounded by inferior pieces of shit” and savagely insults the intelligence of his mostly-likeable grandkids and just about anyone else around him. Granted, he is a proven genius of significant resource and guile, so his arrogance may not be misplaced. But he is undoubtedly mean, selfish and disgusting.
So why is Rick one of the most likeable characters on the show?
Could it lie in the show’s great writing?
Most of the characters on ‘Rick and Morty’ are three-dimensional and endearing, despite possessed of some pretty serious emotional problems. The success of the show could come down to the balancing of its fine comedy (at the same time blindingly intelligent and scatological) against its ability to make us care about the characters, their flaws, and the promise of their redemption. Even Jerry’s doomed marriage to Beth (they are described as co-dependent and hateful of both themselves and each other) is a point of remorse for the characters’ many fans.
Viewers were unexpectedly moved in an early episode, when Morty is forced to replace a dead version of himself in a parallel reality and carry on with his life as though nothing happened. Morty sits on the sofa with the doppelgangers of his family, staring at an identical version of his home in bewilderment.
On the surface, Rick is vicious, egotistical and self-centred. But the show gradually reveals his nihilistic world-view (or universes-view), which might explain his often-dour expression. Nothing matters in an uncaring reality, he would say. Rick abandoned his daughter as a child to pursue his scientific endeavours and never showed any sign of regret, even though Beth’s abandonment issues are the reason she is trapped in a depressing marriage and is too afraid to confront her dad about the dungeon he built under their garage where he imprisons aliens.
And yet, in the Season 2 finale, Rick sacrifices his freedom for the sake of his family, a moment meaningfully underscored by “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails. Rick’s nonsensical catchphrase, always said with verve and a smile, is revealed to secretly translate as “I am in great pain, please help me”.
But it isn’t Rick’s unforced depth of character, unusual for an animated TV series, that makes a largely hateful man likable.
It’s because no matter his methods, Rick is good at what he does.
It would be pointless to list Rick’s fictional scientific achievements (like the microscopic universe containing a civilization he created to power his car battery), but they are beside the point. It’s Rick’s surety and expertise that frequently save the day.
This essay on writing from writer Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) explains the need to have your protagonist be good at what they do – He calls it establishing your authority. By showing your reader that your protagonist really knows what they’re talking about, you are creating a character that not only feels real, but is endearing. No matter how flawed or even evil your character may be, if they are an expert at something then there is something for the reader to admire. At the same time, the reader will trust you to tell a story that is convincing:
“Prove to your reader that you’ve done your research. That your narrator is the best, most-qualified person to tell this story. This method won’t engage the reader emotionally […] but it can be impressive and compelling.”
Palahniuk calls this the “Head Method”. It counterbalances the more common “Heart Method”, appealing to your character’s feelings and making them emotionally believable.
“You could also argue that Tom Clancy uses the Head Method. The way military and government procedures and technology are used to assure a reader that the protagonist is smart and trained – and therefore worth spending time with. This includes wonderful insider, jargon-y language.”
Palahniuk refers to The Contortionist’s Handbook, a novel by Craig Clevenger, who uses “a wealth of information to establish the narrator’s authority as a forger – a criminal so adept at his job that we can forgive his crimes because we’re so impressed by his obsessive, methodical work habits and skill.”
Palahnium knows what he’s talking about: One of the best things about Fight Club (book or film) is that every other line is a bit of information you didn’t know – what goes into a homemade bomb, or how a cinema project reel works. Learning as you go, you begin to intimiately trust the narrator as well as the writer. You realise you’re reading “something good”, not to mention informative and fun.
Rick is an arsehole, but he can always explain a complicated situation and how he is going to resolve it. Whether it’s more basic expositional dialogue, like explaining the characteristics of a particular alien race to the clueless Morty, or filling the viewer in on the plot so far, the result is that Rick is shown to be knowledgeable and capable.
How capable is Rick? In one episode he finds himself transformed into a sentient pickle, unable to move, and washed into a sewer. When anyone else would shrivel up and rot, Rick bites the head off a cockroach, uses his tongue to stimulate the nerves in its exposed brain, and uses its corpse to build an exoskeleton out of rat bones and sinew. Soon enough he’s on his way home to get himself de-picklised. The episode is a celebration of his unbridled genius, even though meanwhile his family is in a therapy session discussing Rick’s unrelenting selfishness.
But the ‘Head Method’ is as dicey a writing approach as any other. Take it too far and you run the risk of realising the ‘unique protagonist asset‘ trope, basically making your hero a superhero and suspending disbelief (Think MacGyver making a functional defibrillator out of some candlesticks and a live wire). A moderate example would be Jason Bourne, whose excellent combat skills set him apart from his foes even though he doesn’t remember how he got them.
‘Rick and Morty’ has come highly recommended by me for some time, but it’s only the most recent two seasons that have shown Rick at his worst, and at his best. For writers looking for tips on characterisation, pay close attention to the twisted psychology of Beth and Jerry and the co-dependent conflict evident in their marriage, and the scientific brilliance of an otherwise hateful Rick.
Imagine a Rick who was bad at science, who had no expertise at all … Would he still be likeable?